Reframing networking as a valuable development opportunity

Dr Rhoda Stefanatos, Researcher Development Specialist for Research Staff

Artwork on a whitewall reading, 'come together'

I remember it well, as I am sure we all do. That awkwardness and unease when you find yourself at the post event or conference social where you are supposed to be ‘networking’. This discomfort could be coming from several places. Maybe you don’t know anyone else in the room, maybe those in the room are from a different lab, building, research area or discipline? Or maybe you think you could be using this precious time on one of the many open tasks on your to do list? It could also be coming from misconceptions of what the purpose of networking is, and what it can be. 

From our first steps into academia, we are surrounded by people who are having the same experiences, and facing the same challenges, our community of peers. With each progression in our career and our life, the available population of peers at our level lessens, and so do our opportunities to access the potential of shared experiences and connection.

Initiatives that combat this, by creating environments which foster connections and belonging, have been implemented successfully across research environments and have increased in popularity. An example of this the cohort-based doctoral programme. These vary in design and length, but all centre around a cohort model of learning and development – bringing together people to share the experience and to learn from each other. Due to the increased opportunities for cohort-based participants, and associated retention and success, such models have become the gold standard, often providing additional resources for members of the cohort to design and deliver events that strengthen their cohort community and drive their own development.

This is not limited to PhD programmes though, funders and institutions are increasingly treating their academic awardees as a cohorts, providing them with opportunities to come together to meet and discuss the challenges that they might be facing. For example the UK’s UKRI Future Leaders Fellows enjoy a comprehensive package of support through the Future Leaders Fellows Development Network, a bespoke offer, designed for them as a cohort.

‘Networking’ mobilises the power of your communities

We know from the vast research into the power and impact of networks in many sectors, that active membership of a network correlates with increased success. A 2020 paper even declared ‘There’s no career in academia without networks’. Success, be that career stability, satisfaction or career progression, from your point of view as well as that of your sector, is personal. So, what might that mean in practice, for you, today?

We are all consciously or unconsciously part of many networks. These networks will play different roles at different times. They can connect us, support us, give us ideas, and drive us forward. We all have come across the idea of ‘paying it forward’, where after benefiting from an opportunity given to you, you offer the opportunity to another. Networks provide the structure and connections to support this – sometimes you benefit, sometimes you give. Small pieces of support given and taken, flow through the network to the advantage of all its members. To contextualise this for academia, maybe through your network, someone has previously shared their draft funding application with you, or has given you feedback on a draft? Perhaps you met someone who took five minutes to write an email that put you in contact with just the right person or expertise, or shared some advice on dealing with a challenging situation? Maybe, more indirectly, you had the opportunity to witness a conversation or exchange of ideas that provided useful insight to you.

And more, the pursuit of a research career like many other careers can sometimes mean moving cities, countries or even continents to work with the people and in the environments that are crucial to the development of you and your research. The ability to build and maintain relationships and stay in the know about job opportunities and collaboration opportunities is a valuable skill, and one that is highly valued in academia as well as other sectors.

Thus, the often maligned or dreaded social or networking mixer, is actually a huge development opportunity. Not because everyone you meet and interact with is going to be a key part of your network, but because the action of engaging with people, opens doors to opportunities and insider knowledge, and builds and sharpens effective communication and collaboration skills.

Emphasising the value of networks

Since joining the Research Culture & Researcher Development team in January 2023, I have been thinking a lot about how to communicate the value of various types of development opportunity – not least the brand new UofG Fellows Network. I am asking myself the question – how do we reframe development opportunities, moving away from the idea that development is something you ‘take time out’ for, or ‘add on’ at the end of your research planning, and instead moving to a place of viewing career development as purposefully intertwined with our research environments, and with career success?

I am acutely aware, as someone who has only recently hung up my own lab coat, of the barriers that the recent pandemic caused not only in terms of access to opportunities, but also to engaging with others. There are many researchers that due to the pandemic and its after effects, have had very little opportunity to meet and connect with their peers. The recent launch of the UofG Fellows Network is a continuation of the work of this team to build strong and self staining communities led by members of those communities.  The enthusiasm and energy of the network’s new members, is exciting to see!

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