Young researchers need help with academic networking

Networking has been increasingly recognised as a vital component of a successful career in higher education. Yet, developing good networking skills is hardly an easy task, especially for early career researchers, who are starting to navigate the vast boundaries of academia and might feel like little fish in a big ocean.

In the era of internationalisation, universities across the world recognise the value of networking in international contexts as a way of fostering research collaboration, mobility exchange and curriculum improvement from a global perspective. But, while established scholars already seem to be part of that successful net of connections, young researchers often struggle to find their own way to build professional relationships that will lead to effective collaboration.

This applies especially, but not exclusively, to those who are at the beginning of their academic careers or do not have enough experience in approaching the ‘big fish’ and end up feeling like they slip through the net and get lost in the water. While their names are still unknown in their respective fields and they do not have tenured positions, networking becomes even more important, particularly insofar as securing academic positions is concerned.

Networking DIY

Initiatives to support early career researchers in building and developing their careers are provided by higher education institutions, as well as local and international research societies. Most international research associations host specific networks for young researchers, including postdoctoral fellows and doctoral students, to promote capacity building, collaboration and networking.

Among the wide range of initiatives, there are dedicated spaces at conferences, seasonal schools, workshops, social networks groups and so on. Those activities are all intended to support early career researchers in building relationships both with peers and with more experienced scholars.

Such spaces are great opportunities to meet new people in one’s own field or from other disciplines, yet effective networking is something more complex than ‘meeting people’ and it rarely happens without a plan.

Although the intention of bringing young researchers together is admirable, often the results are not very satisfying and many people find themselves with lots of contacts (if they are lucky) but very few possibilities of developing future professional collaboration.

Sometimes this is due to a lack of activities that are specifically focused on networking strategies. Nevertheless, the implicit and explicit demand for a local and international network has progressively become imperative for academic development.

Even though networking is not a one-player activity, tips and advice on how to network successfully within and outside academia focus mostly on individual skills. Thus, while confident and outgoing people might spontaneously interact and expand their professional network, others may find this a more difficult task.

In both cases, it is extremely important that networking is not taken for granted as something that happens by itself with regard to international contexts where cultural, linguistic and geographical elements might contribute to making the process even more difficult.

Catching the net

Young researchers are aware that a good network is essential for professional collaboration, participation in international research grant schemes and more broadly to becoming part of the scientific community. From this perspective, specific training on academic networking could support the development of effective skills and facilitate young researchers’ confidence in building professional relationships.

This type of training is often offered by institutions through programmes for professional development, but more could be done by research associations within initiatives specifically dedicated to early career researchers.

In international contexts, networking is considered as one of the elements that motivate young researchers to participate in such activities. However, this is intended mainly as a form of social connection and is rarely used as a means by which to explore opportunities for potential professional collaborations.

Results from a study among participants of international summer schools in educational research show that while networking is one of the reasons for participating in such events, young researchers do not perceive these opportunities as a way of building professional networks or instigating academic collaboration.

Despite their expectations of meeting new people being widely satisfied, participants in this study rarely indicated a more professional scope for those connections.

Beyond social networking

This leads to a general reflection about what can be done to promote an understanding of networking that goes beyond a merely social activity. In this respect, it is important to support young researchers through focused training that clarifies the difference between social and professional networking and how the two often merge while maintaining their own distinctive characteristics.

Academic networking can play a crucial role in young researchers’ careers, both on a social and professional level. There are cases in which willingness to build professional networks in international contexts leads to long-term collaboration.

This is what happened to the authors of this article who, after meeting in a summer school in Norway in 2014, decided to start an independent project on the topic of young researchers’ academic networking. In this case, a simple social connection has become something more structured and professionally focused, although this has been mainly due to individual attitudes more than acquired networking skills.

More effort is necessary to support young researchers in enhancing effective academic networking strategies so that their future collaborations are not dependent only on their individual interpersonal skills. This can be achieved by increasing training opportunities for young researchers and raising general awareness on issues related to academic networking, especially in international contexts.

Donatella Camedda is a post-doctoral fellow in inclusive education at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, Ashling Ryan-Mangan is a PhD candidate at the School of Education, Trinity College Dublin in Ireland, and Ana Mirman-Flores is a PhD candidate at the School of Education, University of Seville in Spain.