Careers intelligence: how to network in the Covid-19 age

Just because you can’t meet in person, it doesn’t mean you can’t network, say a number of academic experts

July 23, 2020
Man looking at computer screen with video conferencing
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Networking has long been a mainstay of most academic careers. Striking up a conversation in the buffet line at a conference could lead to co-authoring a paper; an impromptu introduction after a lecture might result in groundbreaking collaboration.

While the coronavirus pandemic has put paid to such serendipitous moments, there are still opportunities for academics to make those professional connections from afar, experts told Times Higher Education.

Despite lockdowns and travel restrictions, conferences are still going ahead, albeit online. Cameron Graham, professor of accounting at York University’s Schulich School of Business, admitted that he missed the emotional connection forged by face-to-face encounters, but insisted that there were positives to virtual gatherings.

“It’s a trade-off,” said Professor Graham, who chaired the Critical Perspectives on Accounting 2020 conference this month. “We normally have around 200 scholars. This year, we had well over 500 signed up at the end of June, and they were from a more diverse range of countries. We have far more people from the Global South, for example…there will be people whose papers we’ve seen but have never met, so it is a fantastic opportunity to expand our networks,” he said.

Conference organisers had worked hard to ensure that there were ways for participants to socialise and engage in smaller discussions, Professor Graham said. Each presentation or keynote would be followed by breakout sessions that will be as social or as research focused as participants wish.

Jeannie Holstein, assistant professor in strategic and public sector management at Nottingham University Business School, agreed that online conferences result in “different types of conversations, but there are also benefits”.

“While you lose that serendipity, which is hard to replace, it becomes a little more inclusive. There are moderated discussions, and early career researchers are able to add to the chatbox in the way they wouldn’t normally.

“It’s much less intimidating for a younger academic to write their questions in that way, instead of sticking your hand up in a huge room full of people,” she said.

Dr Holstein also recommended that academics find interest groups attached to their field, which might host smaller online webinars. “You can join as part of that community – you don’t need to be an existing member – and it more directly replicates some of the networking you might do among your academic community.”

A lot of awareness of these kinds of groups is built through Twitter, she said. “If you follow the academics you work with, or the academics whose work you are interested in, you will find them communicating there.”

She added that, despite the networking opportunities, it was important to use social media carefully. “Curate your feed and follow relevant academics, groups and journals for information, rather than using it to strike up a conversation − that should be done via email,” she advised.

Bedelia Richards, associate professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at the University of Richmond, agreed that social media had become an even more important tool in the current climate and that conferences, which most academics usually attend only once or twice a year, need not necessarily be the focus for building “authentic connections”.

A useful way to strike up intellectual relationships, she said, was to invite guest speakers to teaching sessions. “Reach out to academics in your field. Even if they say ‘no’, you’ve started a conversation with them. It’s very different to a cold call.”

This was a particularly useful way for younger academics to connect with more experienced peers, she said. “You’re having a conversation with a scholar about how their work fits with your class − it’s an authentic one, rather than just small talk. In a similar way, if you get involved with organising panels at conferences and events, you can connect with other academics that way, too.”

For Hamish Coates, a professor at Tsinghua University’s Institute of Education, getting to grips with networking remotely will involve looking “both forwards and backwards”.

“Backwards to the olden days before the 1990s, when the cost of flights, phone calls and letters hindered international collaboration, and forwards to medium-term futures, which will be more existentially localised and virtualised,” he explained.

For example, it is time to rediscover colleagues around the corner, he said, but also time to turn to mentors for guidance and contact suggestions, or to ask universities and graduate schools for more support.

Academics should take the opportunity to set up global communities that reify contemporary concerns, to ramp up service work through editing and reviewing or to offer their expertise to local communities, Professor Coates added.

Tsinghua has already started university-wide research to look at how faculty and students were coping through the period and to study and design future academic communities, he said.

For Professor Coates, while many “important experiences suffer from remote academic work…it’s likely that new partnerships and communities will arise from what are starting to seem like weird contemporary situations”.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Plug into a new network from home

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