I am extremely slow, I know it, but I have been wanting to say something about this topic ever since Dr. Crazy wrote this excellent post about being in the network and how to get in there when you are young and junior and unimportant. A few days later flavia added her view on how networking has worked out for her as a naturally more introverted person. I have returned to these posts a few times in the past couple of weeks, but never found the right way to express my own thoughts on the topic. Yesterday when I was discussing student's grades on the phone with the external examiner I came to think of it again - that conversation in itself was an example of how I network and why I think my strategy works.
I am not an extroverted person. I think many people believe I am, because I speak loudly, have strong opinions and can be dominating in groups of people I know well and feel comfortable with. But I don't like introducing myself to new people or hosting big parties and I have few but important close friends rather than a large social circle of acquaintances. I value my alone time and get tired from too much interaction with other people, but cherish my time spent with close friends and family. Nevertheless I have a large and well-functioning professional network that has already proved valuable in finding work, grants, research projects and students along with semi-casual friendships and a feeling of belonging in my field.
This does not all come down to my networking skills. Like Dr. Crazy and probably many others with a good professional network someone helped me along in the beginning and the early start was merely luck on my part than anything else. The research topic for my PhD was part of a larger international research initiative, which had already been up and running for few years when I came into the picture. The international "cluster" worked in the way that each group would carry out the day to day work on their own, but everybody would meet at annual workshops to discuss results, the future of the project and catch up on all sorts of news. As a new PhD student who knew very few people in this field, being introduced to such a closely knit and quite informal network was invaluable. The people I met at the first project workshop I attended still forms the basis of the network today, especially since we have met regularly for many years now and after a while one gets to develop shared stories, shared experiences and shared references. Some are still very distant to me, but others I have met so often now, that they are, if not friends, at least people I care about on some level.
In the country where I did my PhD, doctoral students are strongly encouraged to spend some time abroad. I was the only PhD student in a very small university-unit and desperate to get out and meet other people and arranged a stay at my all time favorite institution in arctic outpost. The stay was arranged through one of the people in the international project network. I practically didn't know him at the time, besides having exchanged a few sentences at the first workshop I attended, but my advisor helped the contact along. It was supposed to be a two months stay to take some courses, but developed into first one semester and later several long-term visits at the institution that gave me the second foundation for my present network. Being located in Arctic outpost the key strategy of the school is to attract lots of external visitors thereby creating a very dynamic and subfield-focused environment. Practically everyone who matters in my subfield (at least in this part of the world) has had some sort of connection to this place over the years.
It wouldn't be wrong to say that I have had some good opportunities to network and to get to know people falling in my lap. But, it's one thing to get the chance to meet people as a student and another to keep those contacts and develop them into your own independent professional network after leaving your PhD institution and advisor behind. And that is what stroke me while being on the phone with the external examiner, who is someone I have been familiar with for years but haven't interacted much with until recently. We were talking about the grades, obviously, and about the students, and about some recent hires and departmental things at the institution and a little bit of this and a little bit of that, like you do when you talk to people you have known for a while. I talked about my ideas for teaching this class and things I would like to change if given the chance, and I told about my new department head responsibilities. While speaking I realized that what I was really doing was giving him an update of my CV, tooting my horn or preparing for a maybe-someday in the future-job talk. Not in an obsessive way, or at least I don't think so, but in a casual- part of a conversation we are having anyway - way.
I do this a lot actually. I tell people I meet about my ideas for research, for teaching and for re-organizing the world and I also tell people about my successes, but not so much about my failures (I whine about those to Fiance and write about them here). I think this is part of the reason why people remember me and do come back to me with job offers and invitations to take part in research projects. I also think that I am only comfortable doing this because most of the people I interact with are not perfect strangers, but people I have met several times and have known on some level for many years. I think this all boils down to that I suck up to people and that it works.