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Posted on 2 May '24

How Do I Build My Professional Network as a PhD Student?

Whilst the saying “it’s not what you know, but who you know” is true, I think we forget that we have the power to change who we know through networking. When I entered food science at the start of my PhD I felt hopeless when it came to building contacts in the sector. However, 18 months in, I’m now attending conferences with lots of familiar faces and I’ve realised that I’ve started building a professional network! So how did it happen?

#1 Know your elevator pitch

I was lucky enough to hear a talk by Giles Yeo on science communication recently, whilst attending an ECR event in Cambridge. He explained that there are a number of groups of people to communicate with and that they all require a different approach.

There’s:

  • a small number of people intimately involved in your research area who want to know all the details;
  • other academics in neighbouring fields interested in the key findings;
  • benefactors of your research such as policy makers and advisers;
  • the general public.

You need to be able to communicate your research succinctly to each of these audiences. At the session we had a go at explaining our work in 30 seconds (or less!) to each of these groups. It’s a challenge but helps you think about the key messages of your work and how to make it relevant and accessible for everyone. Practice your elevator pitch before attending a conference so you know how to sell your research in a way that people want to listen.

As a side note, Giles Yeo is a master on all things science communication so I definitely recommend looking up his work for inspiration on this topic!

#2 Build an online presence

Whilst networking in real life is still paramount at conferences, being able to connect with other researchers in an online forum is an increasingly important skill. Being present on social media platforms in a professional capacity will help you make a name for yourself and demonstrate your ability to communicate your work succinctly in a post. The relevant platforms will vary depending on your discipline: for me, LinkedIn is a good professional platform to connect with people and share large updates on your work (such as publishing papers or getting a qualification). Whereas X (previously known as Twitter) is a less formal space to connect with other researchers and share your thoughts and smaller updates. Be sure to separate this from any personal accounts so your followers know what content to expect from you.

It can be daunting to post your thoughts online. Starting out in areas that you feel more knowledgeable in will help build your confidence. Follow people whose work you are interested in and re-post with your comments to build an online presence. Doing this regularly will keep you engaged in the progress being made in your field, as well as help you make connections.

#3 Be brave and talk to people (or ask for an introduction)

Whilst an online presence is important, going up to people and talking to them will always be the most important stage of building your network. When attending conferences be brave and talk to a researcher you are interested in. Or even better, speak to one of their PhD students and ask for an introduction.

In my experience, people at conferences are usually more than willing to have a conversation about your overlapping research areas, answer questions, or connect with you on social media (eg. LinkedIn or X). I’ve talked about this in a previous blog post so have a read for more advice on speaking to other researchers at conferences. Just make sure you have your elevator pitch ready!

#4 Branch into different fields either side of your research

I think one of the best ways to enrich your professional network is to look outside your specific research field. I recently attended a food psychology conference, looking at the factors that influence people’s perception and acceptance of foods. This is a side-step from my research in food science but led to great conversations with psychologists who view my work from a different perspective. This has enriched my research going forward, developed me as a PhD student, and grown my network to other fields. Looking at the areas surrounding your research might help you gain a better understanding of the impact of your work and expose you to new and interesting people!

My main advice for networking is to go for it. Be brave and talk to people – whether its online or in real life. Share your work and ask questions. Being curious is what research is all about and usually you will find people who are just as curious as you! Plus all academics love a chat and a coffee!


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Last Updated: 02 May 2024