On navigating academic networking – lessons learnt 17 years on

Dr Sarah Scuzzarello is Lecturer in Migration and co-coordinator of the IMISCOE Standing Committee Gender and Sexuality in Migration Research (GenSeM)

Recently been asked to talk at the IMISCOE PhD Academy about academic networking, I realised that, despite working in academia for 17 years, I had never really given this too much thought. I have just been doing it, I suppose. The invitation was therefore a great opportunity to stop and think about why it matters and what networking is (not) to me, but also about what I’ve done to create a solid network of international colleagues.

Ultimately, networking is about linking up with people you can collaborate with in a spirit of mutual respect and reciprocity. An academic career in social sciences often mean spending many lonely hours in front of a screen. You want to create a group, not necessarily large, with whom you can discuss, debate and exchange ideas about your research and with whom you can work towards concrete projects and activities. Two things are important here. First, to work a network must build on mutuality and respect. Sometimes one is put in positions of doing all the work in a collaboration. This can be fine, in as far as this is reciprocated later on. If not, that collaboration is not mutual or respectful and perhaps one should reconsider it. Second, a network does not have to be big. Rather, a close-knitted community of like-minded colleagues works often better and is more manageable, less dispersive.

The key to understand academic network, I think, is to see it as a verb (to network) and not a noun (a network). It is something you do, work at, and contribute to – not something you own. Perhaps most important, it is something that takes time to build.

Networking is therefore a carefully measured activity we engage in (sometimes getting it wrong). It is not something that happens at random, or easy to do while one flutters from one person to another at conference receptions exchanging business cards. And it is not about perfecting the art of small talk. Realising this is important I think especially for first generation academics or minoritized groups who often find themselves having to navigate a whole new social vocabulary of (often white, middle-class) academia. And it was crucial to me, whose first language is not English, to realise that I didn’t have to crack that posh accent to be taken seriously. I needed to be myself. Also, networking does not only mean to reach out to Professor Big Shot in hope they will find your work interesting and offer to co-author. While vertical networking happens over time (i.e. senior colleagues are part of your network), to network with your peers (horizontal networking) is crucial. Other Early Career Researchers (ECRs) can tell you about other departments (useful as you look for jobs), are usually willing to co-author or co-organise (although remember the reciprocity aspect of networking) and can be incredibly supportive in the darkest hours of academia. Remember however, that to a large extent you decide who will be part of your network. Do not feel pressurised to collaborate with people you, for whatever reasons, do not feel comfortable with. You can, and should, choose.

Some things have been particularly helpful for me in networking. First, join an association where you are likely to meet colleagues with whom you share research interests. It takes time to find the associations where your research will be critically and constructively received. Furthermore, the research you do might change somehow over time and you might have to change the association you join. For example, I have been active in the ISPP in the past but, as my researched turned more towards political sociology and migration, IMISCOE has proven to be a good fit. Once you have found one or two associations that feel like ‘home’, you should get involved. At the beginning of my career, I started by organising panels (alone or with colleagues), offering to chair and to act as discussants, and I would always present a paper (I still do). My former supervisor was good at getting me out there, including me in this kind of activities, and eventually in writing projects. If you are not as fortunate, you should propose panels with another ECR (horizontal networking). Engaging in their PhD or ECR network is another way to meet like-minded people that you might want to make part of your network. The PhD IMISCOE Academy and the IMISCOE PhD network are great platforms in this sense, as are the ECR groups within the Standing Committees (GenSeM has a very active group, that gets together virtually for writing retreats on a regular basis).

Second, ensure you follow up with the people you met at conferences, seminars, workshops or similar. This does not mean emailing everybody you’ve met, but only those you had meaningful conversations with. When appropriate, you can also think of ways of initiating a collaboration. Keep things in proportion here. You could offer to co-write a blog post on the topic you discussed, or to organise a panel at the next conference – which are manageable goals.

Third, consider developing a social media presence. Choose a platform that works for you and decide how personal you want it to be. I have a Twitter account that is strictly professional (bar the odd rant) and other, more personal, platforms. A social media profile only works if you are willing to be regularly active and have something interesting to say so I would not invest in it unless you’re willing to spend some time on it. I have found social media to be a good vehicle to talk about my work, especially as I am not the most extrovert person and I find the pressure of socialising a bit overwhelming at times.

This takes me to the last point. Networking can be hard work, physically and emotionally, and regardless of career stage. It takes time and effort and sometimes it does not work. To start a conversation can feel awkward, but as time passes you’ll find your way of doing it. Networking can feel daunting especially because it takes time for a network to bear fruit, and sometimes it does not work. But over time, you’ll notice that people will reach out to you – to give a talk, examine a viva, open a conversation about a research opportunity. And then is hopefully when you will be able to open doors for others too.

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The views and opinions expressed here are solely those of the individual authors and do not represent the Sussex Centre for Migration Research (SCMR).