Alternative Ways for Scientists To Network During a Pandemic
As I am writing this blog post, in the middle of a worldwide pandemic sitting at my makeshift home office desk (uhm... kitchen table), I only have a few more months to go before finishing my PhD. Whilst wrapping up your PhD project is always a stressful endeavour, doing so amidst a global pandemic comes with a whole different set of worries. At the moment, there isn’t much we can do apart from accepting the fact that we cannot access the labs and collect vital pieces of data. Fortunately, many of these vexing issues can be addressed thanks to our ever-developing and digital world. In this blog post, I would like to shed some light on a topic I was particularly concerned about – networking. Or, more specifically, the inability to do so during a pandemic.
Throughout my scientific career, I have been made very aware that networking is critical for career development. We’ve all heard it before: “Network, network, network.” Whilst networking is important at any stage of your career, Early Career Researchers (ECRs) can especially benefit from having a reliable social and professional network. Even if you’re not currently looking for a new job or research opportunities, the establishment of professional relationships – besides constructing and maintaining a strong and intentional network – will work to your advantage in the future.
As I am currently at a turning point in my career, trying to complete my PhD (no thanks to you, SARS-CoV-2) and on the lookout for new opportunities, I had planned to go to a variety of scientific conferences this spring and summer. We all know conferences are a great platform to meet with former friends and colleagues, establish new connections for collaborative projects and grant proposals, make yourself and your research visible, and meet with potential future employers. Having spent a great deal of time writing up various travel grant applications, figuring out the cheapest travel methods and rigorously planning my last months of lab work around these scientific meetings, I was fairly distraught upon realising that all my face-to-face networking opportunities would be cancelled this year.
Indeed, with the outbreak of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, most countries around the globe made the deliberate decision to enforce working from home and to cancel all social gatherings, including conferences and other networking opportunities. However, although these measures were initially perceived as an impediment to professional and personal development, many in the field now believe enforced social distancing could result in a substantial push towards increased online networking. As most of the world is currently tethered to their computer and cellphone, this is a great time to network online and lay a valuable foundation for when the pandemic comes to an end.
In a recent interview Rosina Racioppi, CEO of Women Unlimited and author of a book about networking titled Relationships Matter, said: “Networking is not difficult at all, the only obstacle to building a great virtual network is that many people simply forget to do it.”
In our case, as academics and researchers, I believe many people just don’t know how to do it. So, encouraged by Rosina’s words I went straight to Google and typed: ‘Alternative ways to network during coronavirus pandemic’. Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, Google did not have a straightforward answer ready for me. However, as I am familiar with not getting the easy answers (I’m sure every graduate student can relate) I started digging for alternative ways to network and thought I would share my research findings with you.
1. Attend virtual (online) conferences
Many conference organisers have taken up the challenge of hosting their meetings virtually, instead of cancelling their events. Virtual conferences have been growing in popularity over the past few years, but they have never been more relevant or necessary.
To network effectively during a virtual conference, you shouldn’t be sitting through the live keynote and presentation sessions as if they were a series of information-heavy lectures. With any virtual conference, it is important to actively engage and utilize the chat feature. The Q&A portion of the talks are not only a great way to interact with the speaker, but they also provide an excellent tool to discover other researchers within your field and to get a good discussion going.
Many conferences are now also providing discussion board pages for researchers who couldn’t join in on the live sessions due to time zone restrictions or family commitments. Another benefit of these virtual Q&A sessions is that many attendees find it nervewracking to speak up in person in front of a large audience, yet they find it far less daunting to use the online chat tool to start an inspiring discussion.
What’s more, many conferences that have been moved online are now cheaper than the physical events or free of charge, making them more accessible for ECRs with less available travel funding, family restrictions or other commitments.
2. Get on social media (e.g. Twitter, Instagram)
Over the past few years, many researchers have been building their social media presence as a way to make science more accessible to the public. However, those who are already on social media know their platforms also provide a great tool to connect with past and future colleagues. For many in the scientific community, social networking sites such as Twitter and Instagram provide an excellent, low-cost way to create a personal brand and develop a professional online presence.
The steps are easy: write a strong bio that tells people about you and your work, follow other people in your field, tweet/post strategically and add value by sharing interesting articles, ideas or other information (though always be mindful of the content you are sharing publicly).
When you’re trying to build your academic brand or expand your online network, using and engaging with academic hashtags can be a great tool to catch other people’s attention and to find relevant people to follow within your field.
Here are some great hashtags to be using and/or following when you set out to do some online networking:
3. Attend relevant webinars
When most people think of webinars, they picture hour-long presentations with limited interaction opportunities. However, many of the same tips and benefits as I discussed in the virtual conference section can be applied here.
The main benefit of networking via webinars is that everyone who has registered is genuinely interested in the discussed topic. Keep in mind that a lot of networking happens by pure luck, you never know who else is on the same webinar within your field!
4. Use professional networking sites (e.g. ResearchGate, LinkedIn)
Academic social networking platforms such as ResearchGate and Google Scholar have gained popularity over the past decade. The main advantage of these websites is that they provide an online repository to which users can upload research papers and request feedback. You can also ask questions within the scientific community: you can follow other researchers whose work falls within the scope of your interest and directly contact other users of the platform.
Other professional networking sites, such as LinkedIn, can be used to upload your resume, research interests and also engage with interests outside of your professional activities.
5. Write guest blog posts
And finally... consider writing a timely guest blog post for a blog related to your field ;)
Myrthe Mampay is a final year PhD student in the Centre of Stress and Age-Related Disease (STRAND) at the University of Brighton, UK. She is currently investigating a key question in brain research – how psychological and pathological stressors can induce and exacerbate cognitive dysfunction. In 2016, Myrthe was awarded a full doctoral scholarship from the University of Brighton, after completing her MSc project in neuro-regeneration following spinal cord injury at the University of Hasselt (Belgium) and an Erasmus+ internship at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (Spain). When she’s not stressing out about researching the effects of stress, Myrthe enjoys running, cuddling her cat and a good bottle of wine shared amongst friends.
Connect with Myrthe on social media:
- Twitter: @mampaymrth
- Instagram: @thepinklabcoats_ and @myrthemampay
- ResearchGate: /profile/Myrthe_Mampay
- LinkedIn: /in/myrthe-mampay-873167113/
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