To some academics 'networking' is a dirty word. It's the sort of term spat out with disdain over a glass of sherry, generating images of sleazy salesmen-like academics with shiny teeth and sweaty palms bringing a dark end to the academy, like a smooth-talking anti-Christ.
Of course, this is very far from the case. What we might now call 'networking' has been an essential part of academia since the beginning. Erasmus was a master at it - using his networks to connect humanists across Europe, and what else is the 'republic of letters' except an academic network? This is precisely why network technologies are being put to such good use tracking such groups across time and space (for my particular favourite, see the Six Degrees of Francis Bacon Project).
In fact, the argument can be made that, in the present, it is such connections that (albeit sometimes bordering on all-out nepotism) protect the essentially personal nature of academia against encroaching managerialism and corporatisation. At the very least, it is the source of essential interdisciplinary discussions and the seeds of countless projects. It is the means to sharing research and making unique discoveries. And, being honest, it is usually the key to getting a job - whether directly or indirectly.
So, it's something worth being good at. I thought I'd share a few tips below. I'll be speaking to some grad students on this topic shortly, so please share any thoughts in the comments below!
8 Simple Rules for Academic Networking
1. Be fearless.
It can be rather intimidating to show up to a conference populated by your bibliography. Academic royalty are walking around everywhere, and with a court in tow. But it's important to remember, there's no such thing. Sure, they're smart, and highly respected, and probably highly paid, but they're people - often awkward, flawed, and generally very nice people. So there is generally almost nothing to lose to walk up, hand ready for a shake, and introduce yourself. And if it goes badly, there's a good chance it's not you - academics are awkward and there's often a good chance that they're more afraid of you than you are of them. So don't worry. You're just doing what you're meant to be doing - making connections.
2. Know how to talk about your research.
The first question people will inevitably ask is 'so what are you working on?'. Figure out how best to say this in a way that's interesting, intelligent and pithy. Know how to frame it depending on the expertise of the audience. Before long, the back-and-forth will become so predictable, you will practically have a script in your head. Work on it. Be interesting when talking about your work. And, more important than this, be interested when talking about your research. Be passionate about what you're doing. Be excited to talk about it (even if you've given the speech 50 times that day, and at the moment research seems like a black pit of despair). It's the top way to guarantee that others will be interested in it too, and know that you're passionate about what you do.
3. Listen and make connections.
When others are describing their research, listen up! And not just because it's polite (although this is super important too!), but because the key to networking is making connections. How can you make an interesting connection here? Is there something in common with your research? Sources? Methods? And, not to sound mercenary, but can you use them? Can they help with a project? A conference? Job opportunities? Or, can you be of help to them? This is almost better - it's lovely if you can be indispensable to someone. So perk up, pay attention, and see what connections you can make.
4. Get your name/details out there.
So you've made some great connections at a conference or event. People are eager to look you up. But, all they have is a name. If you were blessed with a rather unique and truly memorable name, then good for you, you might be able to skip this step. But for the rest of us, this requires a bit more effort. So make sure they have more than a name. If you're presenting a paper - always make sure your name and contact details are on the handout - they can take it home - and the powerpoint. Seems silly, but there is nothing wrong with having a powerpoint slide with just your title and contact details while you speak. If you do have more content, make sure your first slide has these details clearly, and then include it again at the end, so that when you conclude/take questions they are left once again with your details. And whether or not you're presenting a paper, have business cards. It's a tad cheesy, but you can joke about that when you hand them out, and trust me people will be grateful for the ease of it all. If you're not provided with business cards, companies like vistaprint provide free ones - sure they say 'vistaprint' on the back, but at the graduate stage no body will judge you for that.
5. Have an online presence.
Again, you've done the hard work of making connections, getting some people's attention, and now they want to know more about you. So they google you. And can't find a darn thing. That's the end of that story unless they're really keen and want to email you (seldom the case). Develop an online presence. This can be as simple as making sure your department has a graduate profile page (and has an updated profile from you), but it's better to try to also utilise resources like Academia.edu, LinkedIn, Twitter and so on, so that people can follow your research. A graduate project is the perfect thing for a blog - or at least for some regular tweeting.
6. Don't be a basher.
It's classic. You're nervous. You want to impress. And you do that by making a joke or a jibe at someone else's expense. It can work, but it is not worth the risk. You have no idea who's friends with who, and who might be standing nearby. At this stage in the game, it's too early to start making enemies. So just don't bash. Besides, the people you really want to make connections with are the friendly positive types - they'll be the ones to help you out - so bashing won't work with that crowd anyway.
7. Make notes.
Ideally, the conference or event you're at will have a list of attendees with names and institutions (and please conference organisers, do have one!). USE IT. After a coffee or lunch, make some notes about the people you've met, and what connections you made, if you've said you'd get in touch, or if you'd like to look them up. And when you get home, use the list to search people on academia, twitter, and so on. If there was a particularly useful conversation, shoot them an email or message. Of course, if there is no attendees list, just make notes however you can, and make sure to hang on to business cards. No point in making connections if they're just going to go unutilised.
8. Don't assume.
I mean it. Don't assume ANYTHING. Don't assume the oldest, stodgiest male is the 'big deal' academic. Don't assume the young woman you're talking to is a graduate student (or... as happened to me one time... working for the publisher). Ask rather than assume. And talk to everyone, regardless of what their 'standing' might be.
9. Get out.
All of this advice is predicated on the idea that you're actually attending events. So, um, do. Keep an eye on listserves, Hnet, facebook groups (like the Republic of Letters!) and so on. And know that attending conferences, lectures, book launches, seminars and so on is an essential part of your research - probably the most productive part. And may contribute to keeping you sane (OMG REAL PEOPLE). Give a couple papers a year (at least), and be strategic about it. For a three-year PhD, it's a good idea to give a TON of papers and attend LOTS of events in your second year, and cut back in your third. This means you've established your presence, workshopped your ideas, and potentially got a publication or two in the works as you head into applications. But however you do it, just make sure that you do. Sure it may seem that the 'classic' idea of an academic involves building an impenetrable fortress of books and brilliant ideas. But this is not the case, and will not in the end get you anywhere. So get out. Smile. Shake hands. And make connections.