3 keys to success in student networking

sobr dinner 2016

Students of Brain Research 2016 Professional Development Dinner on 25 May at the State Library of Victoria, Australia. Photo: Dr Marguerite Galea ‏@MVEG001

This week saw the culmination of months of dedicated work by the Students of Brain Research  (SOBR) 2016 Committee, of which I am a part. A professional development and networking dinner is held annually for (as you might guess) students of brain research in the state of Victoria, Australia. This year it was held at the State Library of Victoria on 25 May, where 170 guests attended what was the largest and most diverse event in SOBR’s history.

Here is my à la Buzzfeed listicle, odd in number (per the suggestion from consumer psychologist Adam Ferrier, one of the event’s speakers), which will likely be a rare format for this blog, but which might hopefully give some insight into what I consider to be the three keys to success in student networking:

  1. Be prepared. If you’re attending a function where you know other students and senior people in your field are going to be, such as at a conference or event like SOBR’s, prepare. Prepare answers to the undoubted questions which will be asked, like what your research topic is, and what your plans are in the immediate and longer terms for your career. Prepare to ask questions of others, too! This means doing your homework about the people who are likely to be there, especially the big-wigs. Knowing who they are and a bit about their research will help guide you on who might be most appropriate to approach for conversation and what questions to ask of any who start conversation with you. Oh, and prepare some business cards. Yes, I hear your complaints about how this isn’t business and an exchange of ideas shouldn’t begin with such tokenism – well, it’s not tokenism and this is business: business cards are practical tools for quickly making an initial connection with someone for later follow-up in time-sensitive scenarios; and research is business these days, I’m afraid, none of it gets done without money.
  2. Be confident. This comes with time but only if you let it. Sitting or standing in the same place in the room, even throughout the breaks, is a big no-no. While it might feel less intimidating, don’t fall into the trap of very literally limiting your interactions with others. There could very well be few if any people you think you want to speak with, but how can you be completely, totally sure that there’s not someone in the crowd who isn’t someone you wouldn’t want to meet? There might be someone in that crowd who are starting a project that suits your skills perfectly and are looking for collaborators, or perhaps someone else has a friend who is running a course that you could benefit from, or perhaps someone else has a rich aunt who wants to invest in people’s research. The possibilities are endless, so brave up and approach people – you will never know what you might have missed otherwise.
  3. Be savvy but open-minded. At a large event like SOBR’s this week or at a major conference, you might not have time to meet everyone you want to. You therefore need to prioritize your conversations; don’t be afraid to tell someone you’re engaged with that you’re glad to have met them but that you have to move on. Slip them a business card (see step 1) and practice your confidence (step 2) by approaching the people you really want or need to talk to. That said, try to be open-minded. A large part of the value of networking opportunities is to meet people you mightn’t otherwise (and mightn’t have planned to otherwise), be it due to distance of discipline, of geography, of institution, or of anything else – so you should be willing to get a bit out of your comfort zone, I think; be prepared to learn something new, something that’s perhaps just left of your field. Because, who knows? Perhaps that conversation or connection will, in 10 or 20 years, help propel your field forward with innovative research.

Now go and put it into practice! The success of our collective endeavour to progress knowledge depends on collaboration, and to that extent the formation of those collaborations through networking.

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