Why Networking in Academia is overrated and how to do it right

I was motivated to write this blog post because I watched this YouTube video of a PhD student who is thinking about quitting because “academia with its networking isn’t for them”.

If that’s you, too, don’t despair. Networking in academia is overrated and I’ll explain why I think so based on my own experiences over the last years (now soon to be 3 years post PhD).

Not enjoying networking, in my opinion, is not a good reason to consider quitting academia (on its own). You may be grossly overestimating the importance of networking in academic success. It’s not totally unimportant and its part of conferences, sure, but I would definitely consider it overrated. So give this some more thought. Maybe my ramblings will help you with that.

Your first conference or networking experiences aren’t representative of how you’ll feel after

I’m not saying social anxiety isn’t real and if you have it, socializing will continue being harder for you than for others. But also, please don’t forget that first times are always scary. So many unknowns. Don’t let that (alone) deter you! I’ll try to put things in perspective in this post, maybe that helps somebody.

Networking felt very different to me when I was new in the community than it does now. As someone who is neurodiverse myself (despite being very good at masking), conferences are challenging. In my case, I often only notice how tiring it really was afterwards.

But with the right mindset and some tricks up your sleeve, you can do it. If you want to. I think should at least give it a few tries, especially if you have (social) anxiety (which will initially cloud your judgement by making everything look scarier than it actually is). If you still don’t like it then, fine. But give it a chance.

Focus on building a few genuine connections with peers rather than stressing over meeting high-profile academics

Networking doesn’t have to be about making a performance or trying to impress others. When you try too hard, that will most likely backfire anyway. Brace yourself for awkwardness and realize it’s normal. Everybody experiences it and it’s not a big deal. It will get a bit better and easier with experience.

For all those like myself, who find social situations exhausting, academia offers some unique advantages: Just ask people what they’re working on and they’ll never stop talking. What’s more, since most human beings enjoy talking about themselves more than listening, they’ll remember this as the best social interaction ever. In the first stages, when you’re still very anxious, focus on other people’s work rather than the dreaded prospect of aggressive self-promotion (that doesn’t usually work anyway unless you already have all the privilege).

Just listen to what others have to say and ask intelligent questions. People may remember you more for the thoughtful question you asked them than for your research topic (that’s probably at best marginally relevant or interesting to them). If you think you need to do more, you can work up to talking about your own stuff at the next conference.

Let’s be real: most certainly, people won’t remember your first conference appearance anyway. There are just way too many people at most academic conferences, even the small ones. And when you’re stressed out from last-minute fixing your slides and getting to the conference location on unreliable public transport, some random early career scholar is the least of most people’s concerns (even if they’re really nice and thoughtful, they may just not have any time or mental bandwidth left for you).

The famous professor won’t remember you anyway

Initially I thought I had to go and make the most of everything (be everywhere, attend everything, talk to everybody, …), but ultimately, now that I know some people, which is something that has just been gradually building up over time (and not someething you can, have to, or should rush!), when I go to a conference I just meet my friends and if I can talk to somebody famous, yeah that’s nice, but if you don’t have the energy to do that, just don’t, because the famous person’s not going to remember you anyway.

I know lots of people dream of that but that’s just not the reality of most people’s lives. They’re meeting a million scared PhD students who just want to have a photo with their academic hero or want the famous academic to remember them and it’s just not going to happen in most cases. All that the famous professor wants to do is hang out with their friends and I think you should do the same the thing: focus on just hanging out with a few people that you like and who seem to like you.

That’s much easier among peers or maybe somebody who is a tiny bit beyond your current career stage than building a connection with a busy professor whom you have nothing in common with. They usually just don’t have anything to gain or learn from you (reciprocity is a necessary part of genuine connections), so unless they’re feeling like supporting random early career scholars today… They sometimes do, so be on the lookout for those opportunities, for example in dedicated mentoring programmes, not when you’re blocking their way to the bathroom.

You’re not going to make friends with a professor (and you probably shouldn’t because professional distance). It’s easier to build a connection with people close to you in career stage and you can still learn a lot from motivated peers or an early postdoc. In fact, as they’re more likely to remember you, they’re better targets for you (and your limited socializing energy) anyway. They’re the ones who might invite you to give a talk if they like what you’re working on, etc. Do dare to ask a Postdoc a question about their field or work, they might be more eager to talk to you than you thought.

Usually you can at least find somebody to hang out with for a bit, even if it does not turn out to become the deepest connection ever. And once your social battery is drained and you have no more responsibilities coming up, just leave. It’s as simple as that. If you can’t absorb anything more, then don’t. Or go to a quiet space where people are getting work done at or close to the conference location. You’ll blend right in.

Lose the Fear of Missing Out! If you want to optimize, prioritize your well-being

It’s fine not to attend everything if that doesn’t work with your mental health. It’s fine to skip the morning before your own talk. Maybe don’t rub it into people’s faces if you have colleagues who might judge you for it. It’s none of their business and if you accomplished what you set out to do (however humble that minimum requirement was for you), then the conference was a success and you can just go home if that’s what feels right to do. Do what you genuinely feel like doing. There is no rule book.

If you’re really struggling with big crowds, attend something at your own institution first to build up your courage (and have first experiences on how conferencing works) before attending an expensive, huge international thing.

But other than that, take it easy. Or at least a bit easier. Do what you think you can get away with or are willing to allow yourself to do. Try to get your needs met. Set boundaries. Understand that you don’t need to “hustle” through conferences. When you feel (as) good (as possible), your conference will be most successful. So do whatever you need to do to optimize how you feel.

It’s okay to step out of crowded rooms or spend less time socializing than others. Most people are too involved in their own lives to even notice. This realization can be freeing and allows you to focus on what truly benefits you without worrying about what everybody else thinks. You’re not use to anybody if you’re constantly inches away from a full-on mental breakdown.

Ultimately, networking in academia, especially for those of us who are neurodiverse, doesn’t have to conform to traditional expectations (whatever those may be). It’s about finding what works for you, whether that’s engaging deeply with a few peers or simply listening more than talking. It’s about making genuine connections, not handing out business cards.

Reframe your definition of “networking”

You don’t have to awkwardly socialize if that doesn’t work for you. Also, honestly, I don’t think awkwardly socializing ever really works. If it doesn’t come naturally, of course, some exposure therapy might be in order and may help a bit. But if you’re not a natural social butterfly (you don’t have to be and many of us aren’t even though it may not appear so on the outside), just reframe what you consider networking. It can be about genuine connections rather than superficial clutter. I can be as little or as much as you want, although a little genuine connection or a thoughtful question can go a long way. Superficial connections matter less than you may think, so don’t waste your energy trying to make it happen if it’s unpleasant for you. Try to find what energizes you and do more of that.

Hang out with the people that you like and also feel free to not hang out as much as everybody else if that’s what you need to function at your best.

I actually found it liberating to talk to people in academia, easier than normal conversation where there isn’t an obvious topic always at hand (“So what do you work on?”). Just go to the people that you naturally gravitate towards, if you don’t feel comfortable with anybody, then just leave.

Make sure you give it a try though and find a polite excuse to leave if necessary. Mostly, a French/Irish/English/Polish exit (depending on how your culture calls this) without telling anybody will be just fine. You don’t owe anything to anybody there (unless you came with close friends, in that case, maybe don’t leave them hanging).

People notice or remember you less than you think (and that can be a good thing)

I think at the first conference you grossly overestimate how much people notice you (spotlight effect). I have found that when I leave in the middle of a talk because I don’t find the talk fascinating enough to tolerate the overcrowded room, where I have no space to myself and am unnecessarily touching knees with strangers, literally only a few friends of mine will probably notice that I got up and left, even if I had to make people get up for me to leave my seat. Or, to be more technically correct, they probably noticed. But they don’t remember or care. People leave all the time, for all sorts of reasons.

Mostly, stick with the ground rule that nobody fucking cares. People get up and leave all the time. I think you just gotta try to get your needs met as good as possible at the conference and you don’t owe anybody anything. Not allowing yourself to get your needs met will only make it more difficult for you and everybody around you. Putting yourself first, setting boundaries and getting your needs met makes it more likely that you’ll “function” at your best. (Although “having to function” is a problematic concept, sometimes it’s as simple as that, you want to “function” as best as you can at some special event, for yourself and for others.) I give you permission to do whatever it is you need to do if it makes you feel better.

And remember, it gets better. Maybe that helps.

So can you thrive in academia without networking?

Since I had much more to say and my blog posts are usually way too long already, I will follow up at some point with my thoughts on whether it’s possible to thrive in academia long-term without (hardly any) networking.

Spoiler: I think you can get away with a lot less than you may think. For low-effort networking, just plant seeds early and watch them grow!

What do I mean by that? Find out next time!

Best,

S



Cite this blog post
Sarah Lang (2024, April 1). Why Networking in Academia is overrated and how to do it right. Epigrammetry. Retrieved May 25, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/w51l

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