Late in 2019, in a world without COVID and in a room with some wonderfully successful scientists, I led a panel discussion focused on how scientists can successfully build a network outside of their scientific circles. Going back over the outputs, it is clear that these practical and essential activities are the same even in a COVID restricted world.
From the collective practical experience of the panel (thanks @Ella Kelly, @Tom Hennessy and @Rebecca Koss) and the scientist participants in the room, we generated five essential elements for scientists to build and maintain an effective network outside of their science.
They are the top five practical activities participants agreed were needed to to grow their non-scientific network. Most of them are self-explanatory. Embedded in each activity below is a hint on how to do this in a COVID era, where heading out for a coffee is not possible!
Identify your core network and nurture it. This is where a review of people who share your future interests, or currently work in an area in which you want to spend more time is the best way to identify your core network. In a COVID world, you can easily do this from your (desk or arm) chair. Nurturing your network means being a positive and constructive participant in your network. It means being as generous as you'd like people to be with you. Networks are relationships.
Plan your networking goals for an event. This activity is very practical advice on turning up to every event with a networking goal (big or small) in mind. Set yourself a goal and aim to achieve it. In a COVID world, events are mostly online, and this advice does not change. Be planned and make the goal achievable - i.e., meet Professor X or Chairperson Y, or at least get your name in front of her.
Access a mentor. Know your mentoring objectives. Mentors are a great way to learn from people who have been there before. Ensure that any mentors you choose align with your objectives. There is no point getting a small business mentor if you want your science to have impact into a policy arena or shape Government guidelines. In a COVID world, mentors are still mentoring, and many great people are meeting up online to mentor. In fact, the reality that we are all working from our homes has made more genuine insights into the people behind the mentor possible. Working from home is the great leveler, and mentor-mentee relationships work the best when there is a genuine meeting of equals sharing new knowledge with each other. I often learn as much from my mentees as I think they learn from me.
(Constantly) refresh your personal profile. Regardless of what forum you choose to highlight your personal profile (e.g., LinkedIn, Instagram, Researchgate etc etc), keep your profile up to date with your achievements and flavour your posts with your goals. This will help to inform your network about what you are doing, as well as signal where you are moving to. Under COVID this is activity does not change. While you might post less action photos of you out in the world, you have just as much opportunity to highlight your achievements and signal your next steps.
Decide how you want people to remember you. And be that person. The final practical tip is fundamental and does not change in a COVID world. People will always remember you the way they experience you. Be aware of that and use it to help shape what people remember of you. Are you viewed as the academic who only publishes in the top journals? While this is excellent for your colleagues and progression KPIs, it is probably of little more than passing interest to your network beyond academia. Perhaps you would rather be known as the academic who publishes in the top journals AND can hold a conversation with a commercial partner, or a Government policy lead? Be that person. If necessary, ask your mentor or friends who know those networks to describe what it would look like if you were to be remembered that way. Having said that, it is essential that you are genuinely that person... people needed to touch, see and feel authenticity to believe you. Most people can see through a fake.
So... from our COVID lock down, we can still build and nurture our networks. The majority of the scientists in the room for the panel discussion were surprised at how easy it will be to build a network outside of their science. They all had excellent and vibrant networks in science and aimed to grow their influence outside of academia. The good news is that I see some of their names out and about now and I wonder how much these simple, practical tips helped! Try them and see.
What has worked for you? Either with or without the restrictions from COVID...