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What's The Worst That Can Happen?

I have a confession to make. I was and still am sometimes incredibly shy. I've always been the type that would rather sit and listen than speak. If you knew me, you might be surprised by this statement; however, it has taken years for me to learn the art of conversation and to connect with people I don't know.

As a shy doctoral student, my mentor (Dr. Ed Howley) threw me into the deep end of networking. Dr. Howley challenged me at a professional meeting to walk up and talk to a particular scientist. My response was, "I'm sure she's too busy to talk to someone like me," and his response was classic (and a point I make today to my students) – "What's the worst that can happen? If she doesn't want to talk to you, you'll know someone you didn't want to work with. But if she does talk to you, you may find someone that can change your life." And he was right. I walked over and talked to the scientist, and that one conversation put me on the path that led to my dissertation, post-doc, and the research topic I pursued for the first 15 years of my professional life. I accepted the challenge, stepped out of my comfort zone, and am so grateful to Dr. Howley for challenging me.

Regardless of what level you are at in your academic career, every piece of career advice includes the same declaration - ' build your network.' Why? Because knowing people in academia and building a network of colleagues are essential to succeed and advance in your career. Also, 'no man or woman is an island.' No one can have a successful career without interacting and connecting with others. Therefore, you must get out of your shell and connect with other professionals to build a community and network of contacts, even if it's uncomfortable.

If you're unsure if you can develop and enlarge your connections, think of it this way. Lean on your training and characteristics as a researcher and scholar. As a scholar, you know how to attack a problem, rationally and linearly solve a problem, implement the actions needed to solve your research, and arrive at the solution to your research problem. So take these approaches to build your professional network.

Here's how to get started.

Step 1: Determine what type of contacts should be in your professional network.

Contacts you'll need in your professional network loosely fall into two categories – contacts within and outside your University. Within your University, you'll need connections to help you function as a faculty member. For example, professional contacts in the Human Subjects or Animal Care compliance areas, Sponsored Research, or Budget/Finance areas will help your scholarship progress.

External contacts could be other scholars in your field, editors of the leading journals you publish in, or contacts within your primary professional organization. When thinking of internal or external University contacts, think about the type of people you need in your professional life that will help facilitate your research, teaching, and career service goals.

Once you've considered the contacts you want in your professional network, you're ready to start building your list.

Step 2: Put yourself in a position to meet the contacts you want in your network.

This next step takes initiative. You must ask to be involved. For example, early in my career, I conducted human research that was sometimes considered risky by human subjects' committees. But, I knew I needed a 'seat at the table' to help get my research approved. So, I decided to give back to the University and volunteered to be on the Human Subjects Committee shortly after I started my first teaching position. Through that service, I not only went on to have a long history on Human Subjects Committees at all three of my Universities, a total of 15 years of my career, but I met and got to know many people in the Research Compliance area that helped my scholarship tremendously over the years. So, in this case, just being involved let me meet people that became part of my network.

To develop connections with individuals outside your University, volunteer to serve in your professional organization. Most professional organizations have mechanisms for volunteering on committees and task forces that will introduce you to other professionals. Your biggest challenge is determining what roles you want to serve. For example, are you interested in the publication side of research? Then, volunteer to be a reviewer for your primary journal by emailing the Editor-in-Chief or an Associate Editor.

Additionally, make a point to meet these individuals at professional conferences to remind them that you'd like to serve. This action is just one example of how you can put yourself in a position to make contacts to build your network and give back to your professional organization.

Step 3: Don't be afraid to talk to people.

While this step may seem part of Step 2, getting rid of the fear and anxiety of meeting and talking to strangers is a giant leap you must take.

If there is someone you want to meet, email them and ask for a meeting, or find them at a scientific conference. Most academics I've been privileged to know are happy to talk to others. On the other hand, the academics I've met that didn't want to speak to others weren't necessary to have in my network, so don't take it personally if someone doesn't want to engage. Just move on and keep meeting people!

Step 4: Continue to put yourself in situations where you'll make new contacts.

No matter how long you are in academia, or life, for that matter, having a network that will support you is critical to your career and life. As your career matures and changes, your contacts, and connections will change; however, the process of connecting with others will not.

For example, if you decide to move into administration (see our April newsletter), you'll need to add colleagues you can contact for advice as you move up the administration ladder. Hopefully, your professional network will also have contemporaries moving into administration. If so, you can contact those individuals should you need input or counsel. However, if you don't have colleagues moving into administration and would like to meet other like-minded individuals, consider attending University administrative training or taking an external course in academic administration.

These situations will put you in touch with other academics walking the same journey as you are. For example, as a department chair, I depended heavily on other department chairs I met within the University and my profession as a sounding board and source of advice. So much of my professional administrative network would not have happened if I hadn't continued to put myself in situations where I'd make new contacts.

Step 5: Remember why you're building your network.

Building a network creates a community of like-minded individuals that support one another. It is an integral and necessary part of building your career. Keep the bigger picture in mind. Your network will not only help you have a better job, but your students, your research, your colleagues, the University, and the profession will benefit because you'll be a better academic, human, and colleague, and your impact on individuals you interact with will benefit as well. Step 6: Invest in yourself and your career. If networking and connecting with others isn't your strong suit, consider reading a few books to develop your connecting skill set. Here are a few suggestions to get you started. The Art of Conversation - Catherine Blyth Never Eat Alone - Keith Ferrazzi How to Wind Friends and Influence People - Dale Carnegie

Stepping out of your comfort zone and connecting with others will support you in your career, your profession, and everyone around you.

So go forth, challenge yourself, and build your professional network. What's the worst that could happen?

Keep Moving Forward

Cheers, Tim P.S. New to Academic Balance? Join Us Here


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