One really important part of coming up for tenure, and actually every part of your job as an academic, even after tenure, is networking. I personally enjoy networking and chatting with people in my field. Good science ideas come out of it, and most of the people are actually fun to talk to. Plus, it helps remove feelings of isolation that can often come on in this job – especially if you are “the only one” in your subfield in your department of university. Talking with experts in your field to get them excited about your work is very satisfying. Bonus: what if that person is on a grant panel or one of your letter writers? Getting them excited about you and your work predisposes them favorably to you. I will have two posts on networking: (1) Networking off campus (like at a conference) and (2) Networking on campus.
Networking off campus. I am sitting at a small research conference in the middle of nowhere, so this is on my mind now. I am actually employing these skills in many of my conversations right now!
Sometimes it can be scary, but stay positive. If you are giving a talk or just chatting and someone who is very negative to you, try to stay positive. Ask them more questions about their opinion and tell them that your goal is to do great science and their opinion is important. This often diffuses the person because they realize that you value their opinion. If they are really negative, ask them to become your ally. I say, “We have some new stuff we are going to submit, would you mind reading it for us?” This often works and makes them a colleague instead of a competitor. Many times, if he/she is an honorable person who is just a good scientist/hard-ass, they will help you. And, if they get called to review the paper, they will not review it because they have already commented and had input, so reviewing would be a conflict of interest. If you worry they might still review it, thank them in the acknowledgements and make sure the editor knows that they had input on it, and they won’t be asked. If they are really a meanypants, they might refuse to help you. If they do this in front of other people, they will get a bad reputation as a jerk, so most people who care about being liked won’t do this.
Show off unpublished work. This is also scary, and I know you can be afraid of being scooped, but sometimes you have to risk it. When you show off work at a meeting in a talk or poster, there is the added bonus of marking your territory on a problem. You also need to put yourself out there with the right group. This is especially important if you are changing fields. For instance, if you are switching from Astrobiology to Physical Chemistry, you cannot only talk to Astrobiologists. You must talk to Physical Chemists and get their opinions on your work. This is the group that will judge you, so they need to get to know you. It is easier for them to do that in person at a conference than when they review your proposal or write you a letter for tenure. Show them your work, discuss your ideas, and ask them for guidance in coming up with your problems. It may hurt at the time, but better in person than at a panel on in your tenure packet where you cannot defend yourself and refine your ideas.
Self-promote. Did you get a new grant funded? Let people know. You don’t have to be a PublicityWhore like me and announce it during your talk. You can do it discretely. For instance, in your poster or in your talk, write NEW! next to the funding agency name and the grant number. Is your student graduating? Let people know he/she is looking for a position – again loudly by announcing it or discretely, by putting up the words only. Make sure people are aware that you are doing your job and doing it well – science and the other stuff.
Don’t neglect students. Although you do want fancy BigShots to notice you and talk to you about your work, don’t forget to talk to students. One reason is that you could recruit a good graduate student or postdoc to your lab through these interactions. But second, it is a nice thing to do, and they might go home and talk about you to their BigShot PI and say good things. Good things are good. Also, give back and mentor a little. Some students have terrible advisors and need help and mentoring – offer it. You never know when it will pay off. (tomorrow or 10 years from now). PayItForward. Some of the people that were most influential to me were random nice people at conferences who were more senior. They treated me with respect and dignity, even though I was a grad student (a female one at that!). I still remember them, and their treatment meant a lot to me. I try to treat graduate students and postdocs that way, too. The old adage is true: Treat others as you would like to be treated.
Chat with friends. Having conversations about non-science things is good, too because it takes people past the colleague arena into the friend arena. Forming bonds by sharing personal information can allow people to see more sides to you besides your awesome science. They can see you are a real person who has feelings. I don’t think it can hurt.
Facebook with style. You should decide: who will you be friends with on Facebook? Is it only going to be real friends and family, and you wouldn’t want your colleagues to see you? If so, make sure it is private and people cannot friend you. I use Facebook to network and promote myself. I friend people in my field, and try to initiate science questions or even the social science of science questions.
Other specific ideas and advice for effective networking? Guest post or comment.