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The Power of Connecting with People: How Researchers Can Supercharge Their Career Through Networking

by The p2i Network

Networking

It is no secret that there are plenty of benefits of professional and personal networking in general, including a broad range of benefits for researchers. The question, then, is not why networking matters, but rather why is it not more common amongst researchers? The truth is, researchers are not always aware or convinced of the benefits of networking, and many don’t believe it’s a productive use of their time. 

Based on our experience running the p2i (postdocs 2 innovators) programme, postdocs realise that networking is in fact very beneficial to their career progress - whether they pursue careers inside or outside academia. However, this realisation only seems to occur after they have engaged in networking activities.

The p2i course has taught me a lot about networking, and its value, and collaboration. You can’t do it all on your own, it’s about team building and making the right connections.

- p2i Network Alumnus

Networking Explained

The definition of networking is:

 

“The exchange of information and ideas among people with a common profession or special interest, usually in an informal social setting. Networking often begins with a single point of common ground.”

 

Networking involves:

  • making authentic connections with new people

  • being curious about what they do and their needs

  • bring value by helping others 

  • sharing information and connections

  • reaching out to others for help

  • finding common professional interests

  • identifying potential future interactions 

The importance of networking to make both new and long-lasting personal connections cannot be overstated. It can help you to:

  • gain new information and insights that would be difficult for you to find by yourself

  • spark new ideas & innovation

  • gain support from experts or find mentors

  • be aware of or even create job opportunities

  • highlight funding opportunities

  • raise your own profile/brand in the networks

Networking Group

The Barriers for Postdocs

So, what are some of the barriers that postdocs highlight that keeps them from engaging in networking activities? 

Lack of Awareness of the Benefits

Firstly, it may be as simple as postdocs not considering the potential short and long term opportunities that can arise from interacting with individuals beyond their direct research field. Researchers tend to have tunnel vision on their project and anything on the periphery is considered something that detracts from their primary research activity (and their primary goal to publish papers). They consider it “…yet ANOTHER thing to do!”

Too Many Opportunities

Sometimes researchers don’t know which events to attend. In recent years, the number of in person and virtual events have ballooned and researchers are inundated with opportunities advertised via a range of communication platforms and it can feel overwhelming to have so many events to choose from. 

Social Discomfort

Researchers spend most of their time working in academic environments and research labs, and therefore find the idea of extending past their comfort zones and networking with new people from different professional backgrounds quite daunting. 

Imposter Syndrome

They are afraid that they may come across ignorant in events on topics adjacent to or different from their own research field (e.g. entrepreneurship and industry related events).

The Big Secrets

And finally, there is sometimes a fear that they may give away research “secrets” and someone else will scoop and publish their research before them, or someone will steal a business idea based on their research.

Many of these barriers can be overcome by some simple do's and don’ts (later covered in the article), so researchers can focus on the opportunities that arise from networking.

Opportunities That Arise From Networking Events

There are many different opportunities that arise from networking for researchers with varying career aspirations. 

Academic Career Aspirations

For postdocs interested in academic research collaborations, many universities have internal interdisciplinary research networking events which provide ample opportunities to network and discuss future joint research opportunities. 

At Academic/Industry focussed events, attendees from industry are also often interested in finding out what type of cutting edge research is being done at universities, and are looking for access to experts. Therefore networking could help researchers interested in being recognised as an expert in their research field.

Having followed an academic path, I started out knowing nothing about industry. Through networking, I've ended up knowing a lot about industry and how to apply it to the company I founded. Over the years, I have developed a broad network with people in industry and in the venture capital business. The benefit from this broad network of people is that even when people move to different companies, you still have those connections, which can result in collaborative projects and receiving funding from that new company.

- Academic Professor and Founder of a Startup

Industry Career Aspirations

For postdocs interested in branching out of academia, networking during industry events provides the opportunity to meet employees from companies they are interested in. This helps them find out more about the company itself, what the company culture is like, and the skills/experience they are looking for in future employees. Many company positions are not advertised but get filled through personal connections.

Company X attracted my attention some time ago. I met the Chief Operations Officer and one of the principal scientists by chance at scientific events… and I talked with them, which really helped. Speaking to people that work in the place that you may want to join is really important, even if it's not an interview. Part of networking involves having an instinctive feeling about a person or group of people, because these could be the people you end up working with every day.

- p2i Network Alumnus (who later joined Company X  as an employee)

The hackathon was definitely useful, I now work for a company that was present at the event. They had sent someone there who ended up in my team and we had a nice time. This person suggested I should apply for a position at her company, which I did, and I was hired a few weeks later. The hackathon happened at the right time since I wasn't really happy in academia and I was investigating other opportunities. From what I heard/understood later, the companies present at this kind of event are definitely there to recruit, especially when the event is directed towards AI. They observe how we behave when we form teams and work "under pressure", which is some sort of pre-job interview. It's a huge boost for a future application. So I'd say this kind of event is a sandbox where the postdocs can demonstrate relational and technical skills. It's also a good occasion to network and bridge with the industry world, but from what I perceived, the companies are definitely there looking for skills.

- p2i Network Alumnus, Wellcome Genome Campus Hackathon 2018

Entrepreneurial Career Aspirations

For postdocs curious about or interested in commercialising research, networking can help make initial contacts, gain industry insights and discuss how their research could be relevant to specific industry challenges. Postdocs on the entrepreneurial path can connect with possible co-founders and individuals with complementary business expertise, or even find a mentor to support them in their journey.

I would say start to engage as early as possible with all kinds of people. Networking is a huge factor in the early days. I would say the main message is talk to people, work out business plans, test them… and talk to even more people. I think scientists are often trained to work things out themselves and that's something that is different if you want to start a business; you need to have the ability to ask for help, and not be afraid of doing so. So always engage with customers, engage with other people, test your business idea, test your material, test everything and learn from that feedback.

- p2i Network Alumnus & Start-up Founder

This founder & p2i Network Alumnus explains how they met their cofounder through networking:

I started to urgently look for somebody else and a friend of mine told me that she had a friend who was “an engineer”. When my now co-founder and I first met, we also found out we share the same values. We met the others in our team through being active in the field. We talk to people, go to webinars and attend conferences. And at these events we manage to meet people who are interested in our project, so our support network has evolved quite naturally.

- p2i Network Alumnus & Start-up Founder

Laughing Work Colleagues

Opportunities That Arise From Networking Events

To reduce fear and increase your confidence to talk to people at networking events, here are some quick guidelines on what to do and what not to do.

Do’s

Once you do these things for 1 event, they will benefit you for future events and it will become easier.

  1. Do your research on which events you want to attend ( the topic, who will be there, what are you looking for, and how you can contribute to the conversations).

  2. Learn essential business vocabulary to be able to describe your research and potential applications using business terms. To help you prepare, you can access the p2i Network ‘Entrepreneurship Glossary’ by applying to our p2i Network App here. 

  3. Prepare a one minute (maximum!) personal “pitch” that you can use as an icebreaker introduction to you and your research. It’s imperative that non-experts can understand this, therefore consider using analogies and suitable language that the listener can relate to. Focus on the benefits and impact of your research and not the details or “secrets” if you are worried about someone scooping you.

  4. LISTEN to the people you talk to! Ask what their needs and challenges are. Can you help them? Can you connect them to the right person? 

  5. Quality over quantity. It’s okay to have only 1 or 2 quality conversations per event.

  6. Follow up with new connections 1-2 days after the event to continue discussions, whilst the conversation is still fresh in mind for all parties. Follow up on any actions you agreed to.

In industry we have to navigate business conversations. Someone will come out with a sentence about the market, and at least being able to follow the conversation is really important. Obviously, a person will learn this language eventually because in industry you'll be surrounded by those conversations. However, having a starting point that helps understand what people are saying is way better. So the p2i Network course really helped me be able to follow the business conversations from the outset.

 - p2i Network Online Course Alumnus

Don'ts

  1. Don’t immediately dive into details and use acronyms to describe your research to show that you are an expert. Focus on the why, and what the benefits are, so non-experts can understand the potential value of your research. You want your pitch to be compelling and persuasive in language that is factual, while being colourful and easy to understand. If you lose people’s interest because they do not understand you, it is a lost opportunity for support

  2. Use networking solely for your own immediate needs – networking is sharing, not taking – so aim to add value to the conversations and help others too.

  3. Turn up with a CV to hand out to individuals at the event. Instead, strike up conversations with company employees and ask what the company is like, and what type of skills they are looking for, etc. Leave them with a friendly impression. You can always follow up after the event.

This is what a p2i Network alumnus & assistant professor had to say about pitching yourself and your research:

When I was invited for a professorship interview, the similarities between pitching your business and pitching you and your research for an academic position were clear. You have to convince the committee of the value of your research programme, how it is matching their research interests, how it matches the interests of people you will be working with, and how you can build collaborations and integrate into this local research ecosystem. You need to convince them that you can support yourself - so how you're going to fund your research, how your research group will look, how many people and what kind of expertise you need. If you come from an entrepreneurship background, it may sound very familiar and logical, but if you have been a lab based scientist, it is not always that obvious. There are not many courses that really tell you what and how to do this for an academic career, therefore the p2i Network opportunities are a fantastic option for researchers.

- p2i Network Alumnus & Assistant Professor

Take Home Message

From the perspective of a researcher, networking can be time consuming and sometimes awkward, but it's an activity that all researchers should engage in throughout their academic careers. 

Building a network of individuals in the form of experts, mentors, collaborators, or even just peers who can give advice or support when needed can provide immense value for everything from finding a job to getting advice on how to get funding for a project. Therefore, time spent networking can pay off later, both professionally and personally.

Entrepreneurial programs such as Impulse and Ignite allowed me to have one-to-one discussions with investors, potential customers, mentors and fellow entrepreneurs. I was pleasantly surprised how these 5-15 minute discussions have saved me years of work and helped me in quickly iterating the business model.

 - p2i Network Alumnus, Ignite & Impulse Programmes

Remember, networking doesn’t have to soak up hours of your time each week. It’s worth committing to though, as it only takes ONE conversation to lead to an amazing opportunity.

It’s my personal opinion but I think at a certain stage when you're a postdoc and you have published 5-10 papers or so, no one will care about your 11th or 12th paper when you apply for a position. But people will care if they see that you have broadened your horizons in communication skills, which you can apply in industry settings, or in some interaction with other stakeholders. That has much more worth. It's not stealing a lot of time from your project either - at that stage where I completed the online course it was a few hours per week - and you can easily afford that compared to how much time you spend on research.

- p2i Network Online Course Alumnus

Which Events Should I Attend?

In short, there are many opportunities and it's down to the researcher to establish which events are best tailored to their needs or career aspirations. These opportunities could come in the form of interdisciplinary research events, strategic research initiative events, sector specific events (e.g. industry / academia / entrepreneurial sector) or entrepreneurial training and networking events. Be open minded and look at the opportunities that are available in your institute/ecosystem/city. 

Business plan competition finals or entrepreneurial events that are open to all are fantastic opportunities for building a professional network. You will find a mix of industry experts, entrepreneurs, funders and investors attending. Many entrepreneurial training or start up creation events invite industry experts and serial entrepreneurs to help deliver the program and support the founders. Networking with these individuals is a crucial part of the programmes. 

The feedback quote below from a p2i Network alumnus explains how they met with influential individuals at entrepreneurial training events and the impact it had on their entrepreneurial journey:

The I.E.C.T Summer School 2022 was an amazing experience. I started the programme full of doubts on whether I should really follow an entrepreneurial professional path and I ended more motivated than ever to make it happen. As well as learning how to realise my business idea through the programme; “networking” or meeting the people who can help me or people who can introduce me to the people who can help me was a key part of the programme. I met other young entrepreneurs, speakers, experts and mentors who provided me not only with their own inspiring stories, but they also provided ideas, insights, advice and support I need in my entrepreneurial journey. I would not have been able to find all this expertise by myself. For sure I will keep in touch with many of them.

- p2i Network Alumnus, I.E.C.T Summer School 2022

Ready to Network?

If you would like to get involved with the p2i Network to expand your own professional network and/or learn new skills, please see the upcoming opportunities below:

p2i: In Action Event, Paris 2022

Join us in Paris on 19th-21st October to learn how to develop your ideas into opportunities & network with international entrepreneurs & postdocs. 

Apply by 25th Sept: https://bit.ly/p2iInAction2022

p2i Network Online Course: "Empowering researchers to innovate"

Apply to join the next p2i online course cohort starting 4th November 2022. Familiarise yourself with the language, concepts, tools and frameworks used in the entrepreneurial world and get access to a practical step by step guide to support you with developing your idea into a business case: whether academic (for grants), in industry (for internal projects) or for a start-up. 

Apply here: https://bit.ly/Nov2022OnlineCourse by 11:59pm 26th October 2022.

Some feedback on the p2i Network online course:

My desire to explore the world outside of academia is one of the reasons I decided to enrol in the p2i online course. I was hoping to find some answers or insight to help me make a decision about my next career move. Had the opportunity to enrol in the course occurred sooner, I may have discovered this interest even earlier.

All of the 3 entrepreneurial programmes I participated in were quite different in terms of how the learning experience was delivered, but all of them had their advantages. The course is extremely useful because it's not an overwhelming amount of work as you can do it in your own time. On the other hand, during the business plan competition your communication skills are much more tested in person because you have to pitch, etc. So there's a range of different skills that you learn in the programmes, but all of them were beneficial. I did the online course before the business plan competition, and the course helped with the business plan competition - I can recommend completing the training in this order.

- p2i Network Online Course Alumni

Join the p2i Network App

This app is an engaging platform which will enable you to: 

  • Network and connect with fellow p2i event attendees and alumni, as well as experts. 

  • Keep up to date with our upcoming opportunities, should you wish to expand your growing portfolio of skills and entrepreneurial mindsets. 

  • Access a rich and diverse range of content all around the themes of innovation and entrepreneurship skills. 

  • Access our p2i Network ‘Entrepreneurial Glossary’ (coming soon) to help you prepare for networking conversations – exclusive to app members.

  • Be inspired! We are releasing monthly interviews with inspirational p2i alumni who have gone on to pursue excellent careers in academia, industry and/or as entrepreneurs. 

 

Apply to join the p2i Network app here.