Treating networking like a research project


I’m an introverted researcher. I’m uncomfortable with attending social events to meet new people, which can be problematic when it comes to expanding my network.

I know networks are really important for a career, and I know how much of an issue networking can be for me, so I try to be considered and prepared about what I do. I need more of a run-up to networking than some others, and this post shares the four steps I take to ease myself into making new connections.

From the start, I want to say that I strongly believe that a good connection is about being genuinely interested in the person, and not only seeing them as a contact or an opportunity. The strategy and conversation suggestions below are what I find myself saying when I am connecting with people. They are not sure-win scripts. Hopefully, some of these suggestions may help researchers with similar anxieties around networking and building their professional community.

1. First, I read widely

I read potential new connections’ LinkedIn and ResearchGate profiles. I know some of you may be thinking, ‘online stalking!’ but I figure that people spend time crafting their online profiles to tell the world who they are. So, I should do them the favour of reading their profiles.

I also look at their recent posts on social media. It’s like skimming through the references of a research paper, to get a deeper insight into the author’s ideas. I take the same approach with their online profiles. I get a better sense of their current interests looking at their recent activities on ResearchGate and LinkedIn.

I then pause to decide whether it is the right time to connect. When I find myself wanting to know more, that signals to me a genuine interest in that person. But if I start thinking of possible projects, I stop. Why? Because I think networking needs to always be about the person first, not the opportunity.

This process I’ve just described reminds me of how I approach writing an article. I begin by reading many papers, but only cite those that are relevant.

Does this make me anxious about missing out on possibilities? Well, I figure that if they’re meant to be, future opportunities will present themselves another time.

2. Next, I plan my approach

As with conducting research, there are many ways to network. I select the best approach based on my context (think epistemology) and my tasks (think methodology). I’m a lazy researcher (context) who conducts interviews (tasks). To feed two birds with one scone, I try and turn my participants into my network.

A caveat about my approach: My research is about finding better ways for architects to collaborate and involves interviewing architects. I am genuinely interested in my participants and their problems, and they are curious about what I have learnt from my research. Because of this mutual interest, my participants are also my potential professional network. This dynamic will not work for everyone, so plan your approach appropriately.

My participants have often done the most daunting task already: initiating contact. They have shown an interest in talking about my research topic, with me, and are giving up time to do so. From my experience, all that is left is to have a pleasant interview with them and at the end of it, connect with them on a personal level. This is an example of something I might say:

“Thank you so much for this interview, you’ve given me so many insights just in the last thirty minutes. If you are free for another 15 minutes or so, I love to hear more about your story and your ideas over a coffee.”

I make it very clear that the second session is not for the research. I think it signals to them that they can drop their guard a little and even ask me questions. I do find that they often ask why I chose to do a PhD on that specific topic so nowadays I try to be prepared with an inspiring response!

3. Then, I focus on the significance

On the finale of Oprah Winfrey’s show, she revealed how she forges connections with her guests:

“”I’ve talked to nearly 30,000 people on this show, and all 30,000 had one thing in common: They all wanted validation. If I could reach through this television and sit on your sofa or sit on a stool in your kitchen right now, I would tell you that every single person you will ever meet shares that common desire. They want to know: ‘Do you see me? Do you hear me? Does what I say mean anything to you?’”

This is something I keep at the front of my mind. When I connect with people, I keep the focus on their stories. I listen carefully and build on what they say. I ask them open-ended howswhys and whensHow did you come across that opportunity? Why did you make that decision? When did you realise that it actually paid off?

To me, these stories are like the significant findings of any research. And, like most research articles, it is all about showcasing what is significant.

Even when people say something that opposes my views, I suppress my critical mind and dial up my openness. After all, my goal is to learn more about them. It is neither to show off my intelligence or debate them. So, if a flat-earther told me why a round earth is a myth, I’d probably reply:

“That’s an interesting thought, something that I’ve never come across before. Can you help me understand it? Why do you think of it that way?”

Finally, I try and say new connections’ names once or twice in my conversations. Honestly, I find it awkward still, because it doesn’t come naturally to me but I know that it leaves a good impression. I know this because, of all the sixteen interviews I conducted at the start of last year, only one interviewee said my name, and I remember him well!

4. At the end, I ask myself, what’s next?

A good research conclusion not only summarises but also teases readers with a glimpse of what the author is going to do next. So, when I’m in a networking conversation, I always ask myself what my next step might be once this conversation ends.

Is getting an email address enough to sustain the momentum of this new connection? Is asking for feedback on my research too much?

I think there’s no right answer, because it depends on the person, the conversation, and the engagement created during the conversation. I do have a go-to response, which is effective and applicable across most interactions. I ask them to suggest someone from their circle who might have a different perspective on the conversation we’ve just had. I might say something like this:

  • “By the way, is this unique to you or quite common with others in the profession? . . . Would you mind putting me in contact with that person? It’ll be interesting to hear their perspective on it.”

For me, this kind of request is easy to move into, reminds them of the (hopefully exciting) conversation we’ve just had, isn’t a big imposition, and ends the interaction on a collaborative note.

As I flagged at the start, this post is focused on how I approach making professional connections. You may well do it differently! Whatever your style, I hope this has been a helpful window into my form of introvert networking.

Author Bio: Linus Tan is a PhD Candidate at Swinburne University of Technology. He researches design and management strategies that enhance collaborations in architecture teams.