Not that Kind of Network: Tales of Developing a National Reputation
I never really thought about networking and reputation as a graduate student or postdoctoral research fellow (postdoc), but rather was the beneficiary of respected mentors long established in the field and regular attendance at our society’s annual meeting. I always assumed the science and funding would speak for itself. When I became faculty, I discovered that my institution will ask a certain number of scientists to write letters of recommendation for promotion and tenure. These anonymous (to me) letter writers are expected to comment on tangible things, like my contributions to the field, but also more squishy topics like “national reputation.” This has made me think about how I am going to develop my national reputation, beyond securing funding and publishing papers. I am sure many of you have started doing these things, but these are the approaches I have taken to start building said reputation. As always these days, n=me.
It is never too early to start: Even though these tips focus on new faculty, most of them apply to graduate students and postdocs as well, regardless of career plans. Reputations do not develop overnight, and building a presence in societies, online, and in the field takes time. The earlier you start, the easier it will be.
Find a social media platform that works for you: I am not what you would call an early adopter of professional social media. I joined LinkedIn sometime during my postdoc and finally joined Twitter a couple months into my faculty appointment. It has been transformative. These social networks connect you with other trainees, scientists, and fields much more quickly than attending conferences, workshops, and seminars. I try to keep mine fairly science focused, but many of my colleagues use it as a platform for advocacy in science and/or politics, which I also admire. Some rotation students and graduate students look at social media before applying for rotation spots or postdoc positions in labs, and this is free advertising that you, as a new faculty member, need. You may not have amazing papers or grants out of your lab yet, but being involved in social media will give you good visibility for recruiting those trainees who will help you build your national reputation. If you are reluctant to participate in social media, at least set yourself up with a Google Scholar page. If you are a trainee unsure about your career, use social media to connect you to fields you might not normally see. For example, LinkedIn is a very accessible platform focused on networking. While it is a less popular platform for academic scientists, many of medical writers, industry scientists, medical liaisons, and patent attorneys I know use it exclusively. A quick primer on social media can be found here.
Build a lab website and keep it updated: If you are a faculty member, your department will have a website for you covering the basics, like your address, training history, and brief research interests. These directory pages tend to be limited in content, static, and do not leave much room for highlighting your outstanding trainees. Build yourself a better lab website that you can update as needed, including blurbs about your trainees and their projects. If you are a trainee, make sure your mentor’s lab website includes you! If you are exploring non-academic careers as a trainee, building a personal website that showcases your skills and professional interests can be a very useful investment.
Ask your mentors to plug you in: Your mentors have more of a national reputation than you do. They serve on journal editorial boards, national committees, and grant review panels. Ask them how they became involved and what it would take to get involved yourself. For example, I asked my faculty mentors to recommend me as a reviewer when they declined to review manuscripts or foundation grants. I am now a regular reviewer for a foundation and receive an appropriate amount of requests to review papers. If you are a trainee, identify the skill you would like to develop. This can be as simple as learning to review papers or grants, or asking your mentor to connect you with their collaborators or colleagues. Many of our friends did not choose an academic path, and most of us are happy to connect you with them to explore other career options.
Become involved in your Society: Examine the committees of your Society, identify the one with which you would like to be involved, and ask the committee chair how you can join. More often than not, you will find yourself the newest member of said committee. That is how I ended up on my present committee in my favorite society. Societies value their junior members and often have programs that include them on committees, so as a trainee, do not be afraid to ask about joining a committee.
Go to meetings, wear the name tag, and have business cards: I spent my first year as a principal investigator (PI) attending new conferences and workshops. This might be one of the few times in your career you have a large travel budget, so use it to build relationships, meet study section members, and talk to senior investigators about how they think about grant writing. If you are a trainee, the number of conferences you attend will be limited, but the advice is the same. Should you be considering non-academic careers, attend larger meetings that have a vendor show. These shows usually have tables from industry partners pitching their newest technology, drug, or technique, medical writing services, journals, and advocacy groups. Ask the professionals on table duty if they would talk to you about their career path. They might request to talk later, but it is much more likely that they will welcome the break from booth duty while conference attendees are in sessions.
Give talks: As a new PI it can be tempting to wait until you have a complete published story before agreeing to give talks. I would suggest you suppress this urge and show some of your new data. If you are struggling to secure invited external talks, take the vacation approach and reach out to relevant departments at your vacation location to inquire about giving a research seminar. Most departments, given enough advance notice, will not refuse a free speaker. For trainees, focus on opportunities to present your science at internal conferences, seminars, poster sessions and one national conference annually.
Your network and national reputation will not grant you tenure in the absence of funding and strong papers, but they can facilitate acquiring funding and papers that will support your tenure case. The sooner you start building your network and reputation, the sooner you will reap the rewards. For the trainees working to establish and grow their networks and reputation, I admire your proactive approach, and I wish I would have listened to my peers sooner about networking and social media. Now, excuse me while I go update our lab website with the latest news. Stay tuned for more tales!
Did I miss an important point? Do you have questions or concerns about the post? Or perhaps an anecdote to contribute! Feel free to send some electrons my way in the comments, via Twitter @PipetteProtag, or through traditional electronic mail firstname.lastname@example.org