By Amy Wooldridge |

Networking is not a skill that comes easily for everyone, particularly the introverted and socially-awkward, like me. However, it is a key element of the PhD experience. If I were to choose just one way that my PhD has changed me for the better, it would be that I am a much more confident person… because I launched myself into the terrifying world of communicating with others!

Networking happens in your department, across your university and online, but today I’m going to focus on conference networking.

I launched myself into the terrifying world of communicating with others!


Breaking the ice

It’s really quite daunting to be confronted with a wall of people happily chatting away in closed groups. If you have imposter syndrome, are at a conference alone or have social anxiety of any sort, it can make you feel miserable if you let it. If you aren’t yet confident enough to join a group of complete strangers during your lunch break, then fear not – it really does just take practice! All you need are 1-2 sentences describing your research/techniques/where you’re studying (all potential talking points later in the conversation), a smile, and enough mental grit to throw yourself into daunting situations for the sake of getting over your fears.

Familiar faces – walk around slowly with your lunch, scouting for anyone with a familiar face. Someone from your department? Great start – tell them that you don’t know many people and would really appreciate it if they could introduce you to some others. Someone whose presentation you saw earlier during the conference? Great – start by saying “hello”, and that you really enjoyed their presentation and found it interesting, and they will likely lead the conversation from there. Are you at the student networking night (cannot recommend highly enough for those new to conferences)? Great – start with the following lines:

  • Are you presenting your research at the conference? (Followed by “I really wanted to see that one, but it was on at the same time as another one that I was really interested in” if needed.)
  • Is there anything you’re really looking forward to in tomorrow’s schedule?
  • Did you go to that fantastic presentation (on <topic>/by <presenter>) earlier?

Then, if the person you are talking to is at the conference alone, and if they seem like they’re comfortable being around at least some of your research group, it’s sometimes a nice gesture to help them build their networks (provided you do this in a non-threatening, very open invitation way): “If you want, you can join my research group for dinner.”

If you make friends with another student, ask them to introduce you to their supervisor, particularly if they work in a similar field to you or in an area that interests you. Perhaps their supervisor chairs the society and will be looking for some early career researcher committee members for the following year; they might even be your next employer or collaborator.


Networking taboos

Please, do not ask taboo PhD questions at conferences! If you wouldn’t want to be asked it, don’t ask it! Some PhD students may be continuing their PhD lab work past their scholarship end date, with accompanying financial concerns. Let them relax a bit at the conference – after all, the lack of sleep, continual networking and stress over their upcoming presentation is burden enough. Instead, ask positive questions such as whether they’ve had a chance to visit the (monument) just across the road yet? This could even lead you to visiting the monument with your new-found PhD pal after the conference, saving you from visiting that monument alone whilst strengthening your professional network.

If you wouldn’t want to be asked it, don’t ask it!

Also crucial to prevent your networking attempts from backfiring: while it’s good to offload some PhD-related concerns to those in a similar boat, don’t be too negative! If I were a research leader running a student conference, I wouldn’t want to employ the most pessimistic (therefore apparently least productive) one in the room… successful researchers are known for their ability to solve problems, so don’t become known as the person who always just complains about them. If it isn’t a trouble-shooting conversation, steer it towards something more positive.

Similarly, don’t advertise what awards you’ve won unless it’s directly related to the conference you’re at, or whilst giving someone else advice on opportunities. Not only would it make you sound somewhat cocky, but it could further worsen somebody else’s imposter syndrome. Remember that those around you are still building their own networking skills and that basically everyone has imposter syndrome if they care for the quality of their work.


Targeted networking

By ‘targeted networking’, I mean premeditated networking. It sounds sinister, but really isn’t, I swear… You may have heard this before, but make sure that those in your field know that you exist! Is there a job going in your field? These people are the most likely to know about it. Is someone in your field wanting to collaborate with someone with your skills? So you may have successfully networked with random conference attendees, but nobody in your field will know to contact you regarding opportunities if they don’t know that you exist. By meeting people specifically in your area, you might realise you’ve spent two years working on the exact same project on opposite sides of the world (happened to a friend of mine!), or that by talking about the field in general you may identify a review that needs to be written and you might just be staring at your new co-author (I’ve seen this also, but at a university workshop not a conference).

…you might realise you’ve spent two years working on the exact same project on opposite sides of the world…


The flow-on effects of networking have been quite obvious, in my case – a review paper entirely devised during a 45 minute ‘working group’ discussion at an early morning conference session, numerous co-author papers resulting from work with other groups, an invitation to be on the local organising committee of a national conference, friendly faces to call upon for scientific advice where required, and it was through my professional network that I was referred to (and refereed for) my current position at a lab on the other side of the country to where I did my PhD studies. This was a job that I was fortunate enough to obtain even before submitting my PhD thesis   – this is why I see networking as being so crucial! So, whilst fear is temporary, the effects of networking professionally last longer.


Amy Wooldridge is a research associate at the University of Western Australia. Her research focuses on development and modulation of the preterm innate immune system, to improve outcomes in preterm infants at risk of infection and inflammatory health conditions. You can follow her on Twitter @EvilOverlordAmy

Image 1, Students For Liberty European conference by Gregory Rehmke, CC-BY

Image 2 by Joshua Davies, Public Domain

Image 3, Forbidden to sit on the stairs by Dickelbers, CC-BY-SA

Image 4, Archery target by Alberto Barbati, CC-BY-SA