The introvert academic’s alternative networking guide

If you want to dodge the preamble and get stuck straight into the nitty gritty, click here. It’ll jump you down past these opening paragraphs. Otherwise if you like a context starter with your main guidelines dish, keep reading.

Let’s start this simply. I am an entrenched introvert. On the scale, I would put myself at a cold, clear ten out of ten. I don’t merely find networking events and mid-conference coffee gatherings and social meet-and-eats uncomfortable. They set off all my anxiety klaxons and I invariably lose anywhere between 99% and all of my ability to function like a normal person. Appropriate topics of conversation? Let’s do serial killers of the 20th century. Normal methods of eating? I am going to tackle this sandwich with a knife and straw. Hot container of coffee? We should all bathe in it. Sometimes I can manage ten minutes. Sometimes I can even get to half an hour. And then, all at once, I’m done. The energy supply is depleted. It’s time to suddenly need to go to the toilet (i.e. escape) or go check with reception about some minor detail (i.e. e s c a p e) or discover that my train sets off soon (i.e. ! E ! S ! C ! A ! P ! E !).

Be the people I’m with ever so lovely and personable and engaging, it is my capacity to meet them on an equal footing that evaporates like fine rain in the desert. The longer I can just stand by as a silent observer without having to produce input, the longer I can generally cope, but if called on to be an active part of a discussion then with every sentence that comes out, I can feel my social battery cranking down a percentage point. How people maintain a façade of deep interest, and contribute meaningful things to say, and consume food products all at the same time without immediately occluding their own airways and blacking out is one of the lesser mysteries of life to me.

Probably my aversion to interaction is compounded by the fact that I have face-blindness (prosopagnosia) that was only identified properly in my late twenties, so I’ve also endured innumerable situations where I have failed to recognise, and therefore ignored, people I’ve known for years, leading to perceived offences and slights. And I’ve warmly started conversations with total strangers who look like people I’m well acquainted with. Hat-tip to the incredibly nice person who gamely tried to spare my humiliation by throwing himself heart and soul into being the person I’d sat next to on my MA course from years earlier. Finally he had to confess that he had never met me until that very day, but god knows he tried.

Probably the best (worst?) example of this was years ago when I was a part-time receptionist at a busy newspaper distributors. We were expecting high profile clients to come and meet the CEO (can’t remember his name but his picture was on the wall right there in the foyer). The VIPs arrived in a big group, and I did my best professional greeting, shaking the lead person’s hand, saying, “Hi, would you like me to call Mr CEO down to meet you?” Cue amused laughter at my wittiness. Then an awkward pause as they realised I wasn’t joking.

Not only was Mr CEO already down from his lofty office. I was shaking his hand. I didn’t get fired but they did take me off reception and put me in a back room after that, and oh god my little introvert’s heart was in heaven. Best. Demotion. Ever.

For those who don’t really understand introversion, it differs for everyone, but in my case, there are broadly three situations – two that I can handle, and one that bakes my noodle.

  • Talking to a massive audience? Easy and sometimes fun. There’s minimal interaction and it’s all on my terms. I know what’s coming up. I know what’s gone. I know when it starts and ends. It’s all pretty much under control. This is mentally going through the motions.
  • Talking to someone I know and like? Easy and usually fun. My brain sits quietly in a low gear and the whole thing is effortless, the way I imagine extroverts find most social gatherings. In fact my first judge of whether I like people is whether I find my energy depletion is minimal or non-existent in their company.
  • Talking to people I don’t know, or people I do know and am neutral about, or people I dislike, or worst of all, people I like but I suspect they don’t like me? Excruciating. Everything steps up to an exhaustive high-speed strategic analysis of possible disastrous outcomes, countermoves and mitigating strategies, potential interpretative misfires, and more. There isn’t enough processing power left for the actual moment I’m in. Catastrophic social face-plant. Time to buy air tickets and move to a new country.

Anyway, that’s me and my social finesse in a nutshell. Jump forward some twenty years and now I’m in academia, land of conferences and networking events and meeting lots of strangers. I have not grown less introverted, nor have I learned many actual, live coping strategies in the past two decades. More problematic still, I cannot make my brain learn to recognise faces any more than a dog can learn to see more colours, so the risk of inadvertently offending others is something I simply cannot remove. I therefore decided, early on, that rather than try to learn strategies to play a game I will never excel at, I would be far better opting out of the game altogether.

One day, I will sit and write about some of the frankly bonkers things I have done to get out of socialising. The list is long, exhausting, and sometimes novel-worthy. Most of it can be distilled down to, “Claire has left the conference chat/lunch networking event/group conversation three minutes in. Again.” But as time went on I grudgingly came to accept that, yes, having a network of relevant contacts was probably something I should sort out, and that I therefore needed a better approach than “exeunt stage right”. As a result, I stitched together my own version of networking that I could not only do but even be good at. Thus, this is my survival list of how to both avoid as much academic networking as possible, and also still develop and maintain a network.

I’ve split it into the five heavenly virtues of networking, which are essentially five ways to work the net. The result is that, thank all the hosts and angels, I do not have to now approach anyone, anywhere at all, coffee in one hand, cookie in the other, formulating words to the effect of “hi im claire please like me oh boy look at that distraction over there i think my train is here bye”. All my current network contacts made contact with me first. I then got to determine which ones worked and which didn’t, and respond to them in my own time. The result is, even by my own heavily biased judgement, fairly impressive, and substantially greater than anything I could ever have achieved face-to-face. So let’s get stuck in, starting with the minor, easy, trivial steps that you’re likely already doing, and ending with the biggest, most challenging, and most labour intensive.

Your potential network and its habits

Throughout all of this, I’m working on the assumption that you are not the Noam Chomsky of linguistics, or the David Attenborough of biology, or the Brian Cox of physics. In fact, I’m assuming that you’re a PhD student, an ECR, or essentially lacking instant name recognition either within or beyond your field thus far. With that context in play, you in turn have to bear in mind that there are roughly three potential network audiences out there for you:

  • The academic (scientist, researcher, etc.) who knows that someone like you exists and might be looking for, e.g. a speaker, a co-author, a co-investigator, etc. Note that these people are likely to go/have access to conferences, articles, etc.
  • The non-academic specialist (e.g. practitioners, industry R&D leads, potential stakeholders) who probably knows that someone like you exists and might be looking for, e.g. a consultant, a partner, etc. Note that these people are much less likely to go/have access to e.g. conferences, articles, etc.
  • The non-specialist (e.g. journalists, politicians, civil servants, policy makers, academics in very different fields) who possibly/probably don’t know that someone like you exists but might be looking for, e.g. an expert advisor, empirical evidence, a counterpoint, an interdisciplinary perspective, etc. Note that the non-academics are extremely unlikely to go/have access to e.g. conferences, articles, etc.

The five steps below provide methods for making you and your work accessible to these three different audiences. Crucially, don’t discount any of these audiences out of hand on the basis of assumptions you’ve made. You might think “Well academics can find my articles and therefore they can find me!” Sure. Here’s a quick question. If you’re based at a university, can you name every single member of staff there working on research that has at least some overlaps with yours? Ever discovered someone just across the building who’s essentially doing the same thing from the perspective of a different field? Perhaps they’re using different terminology? People also change research trajectory and shift into different areas, and they don’t tend to advertise that in the weekly uni newsletter. So, if you don’t know what everyone at your own university is doing, how can you possibly know what everyone else everywhere else is doing? In short, don’t discount anything just because you can’t imagine how it would apply to you. Sit back, and let the possible network out there decide if you are right for them.

#1: Details

For those who go to conferences or give school presentations or do any kind of large-audience work, make sure that your presentation gives the audience the maximum opportunity to note down your contact details. Plenty of people put their email address on the first slide, but at this point, your audience doesn’t know you. They have no idea if you’re worth listening to or of the calibre of your information. By the last slide they may have decided that you’re marvellous, but your contact details are long gone. This is the easiest problem to fix:

  • Have your most crucial contact details on your first slide. Yes. Just like you already do. Very good. And now…
  • In every slide between the first and last, add a small footer text box with your email address or Twitter handle or a very short URL or even a phone number. Whatever you feel your key method of contact is. (For PowerPoint users, search how to update the master slide and then after modifying it once, it will do this for you for every new slide, no effort required on your behalf.) But most important of all…
  • On the final slide where you would traditionally put “Thanks!” or “Questions?”, instead of just having that one word all by itself, duplicate your opening slide with all its crucial contact details, paste it at the end, and then simply replace the opening title with your chosen ending (e.g. “Thanks!” or “Questions?”). That slide will generally be up the longest, especially if you do a Q&A. By now your audience knows you, and whilst someone else asks a long-winded question-that-is-actually-a-comment they have plenty of time to jot down your details.

If you do talks that are not strictly conference papers, e.g. I do admissions and open day talks and school talks and community outreach and whatnot, invariably, at the end, a parent or attendee will approach me and say something like, “That was fascinating! I work in the police/my wife works in the civil service/my dad was a mayor and… [interesting conversation commences].” I don’t tend to have long to talk to those people since there is usually another talk after mine or I have multiple people to chat to or my train is arriving very soon (and sometimes this is even true), but just because I’m “only” doing an open day or an admissions talk, people in the audience are no less possible future contacts. Some prospective students have parents doing extraordinary work. So, rather than trying to faff about with pens or phones, you could have a handful of business cards ready. I know, I know, old fashioned, but it may be easier for an intermediary to pass onto a possibly interested acquaintance. If your university won’t provide them for you, you can get a little run of 100 or so very cheaply online. And you can dash off a quick message on the back: “Would love to hear from you! Rgds, C.”

#2: Twitter

The fact that you’re reading this means you’re probably already on Twitter, so this will be preaching to the choir, but there are always things we can learn.

A surprising array of people search Twitter (and of course the internet at large) for information on topics. Especially breaking news topics. And those searches also look through what your Twitter bio says. Put yourself in the shoes of both experts and non-experts, and imagine what each of those groups might type into the search bar. Might they want a “language researcher” or an “linguistics professor” or someone who wrote the book on “forensic historical sociolinguistics”? Might they be looking for someone in a certain locale or at a certain university? All these are terms that you can choose to include (or not) in your bio, name, and location fields. In turn, these will then pop you higher up the results (or not) when, say, journalists are looking for someone to comment on a breaking story, or policy makers are looking to see which experts are chatting about an issue right now and what they are saying.

With this in mind, if you know your online behaviour can sometimes get a little out of hand and may give a bad impression to the Top Person in Your Field, I suggest divorcing Salacious You from Stately You by creating two distinct accounts. However, if you feel like you are just generally thoroughly dignified right down to your very bones, then the one account that explicitly identifies your research should be enough for all your needs. I tried this split last year because sometimes I have OPINIONS and sitting on them gives me a headache, but it was a resounding failure. I found the funsies account fun, but bereft of deeper meaning to motivate me to bother with it much, and I found the formal account meaningful, but, given my field of research, too depressing to spend much time on without the lighter stuff to balance it out. (For some people, their subject of study might mean that an anonymous Twitter account is a better idea. This is a topic for a different post on a different day but it’s something that some should bear carefully in mind.)

Moving on, within academia in general there are hashtags that will get you in touch with the latest broad-spectrum discussions, e.g. #AcademicChatter, #AcademicChat, #AcademicTwitter, #ECRChat, #PhDChat, and more. These are nice just for solidarity but you should also strive to learn the specialist tags for your discipline(s) and interests. As admissions tutor I’m currently monitoring #TeamEnglish and sometimes tweeting using it too as a way of inviting local schools to come to our talks and asking them what they’d like to hear about. (Remember, just because it’s not an “academic talk” doesn’t mean there aren’t potential network contacts in there!)

More to the point, if you know there are directly relevant networks out there, when you tweet, include the hashtags for them. This will automatically open up your content to a much wider audience.  That said, don’t go mad hashtagging everything on earth. There seems to be a critical mass of hashtags before a tweet becomes unreadable. Three looks to be a sensible number.

“But,” you might say, “what am I tweeting about? I can’t even think of anything to say.” And I would reply, read on…

#3: Blog

Plenty of academics have something like a LinkedIn profile, or an profile, or somesuch, and increasingly, these sites are heavily locked down or invasive-inbox-species. More importantly, for many (though not all!) fields, external non-academic users don’t even consider them. You may also have a cookie-cutter university profile page somewhere that you might even have been allowed to crack a lame joke on. Yay. How exciting. Often such profiles prioritise publications and project funding for REF cycle viewers and teaching and evaluations for TEF cycle viewers and to the external non-specialist they may convey almost nothing of value. In this highly structured set of bullets about your office hours and campus locations and committee memberships, who are you exactly? And what do you do? Are you engaging? Can you answer a question on some important current issue?

“Of course,” other academics might say, “they could read your publications!” How often have you ever sat and read even a book chapter from a field outside your own? A policy maker, or a busy R&D strategist, or a government advisor does not have time, and even if they did, they are unlikely to pay $39.95 for an article behind a paywall on the basis that it might have two relevant sentences in it. What most non-academics want is something shorter, more accessible, and right up to date.

Enter the blog.

Plenty of academics look upon blogs as trivial, and as a distraction from publishing. In turn, I would encourage them to establish clearly what the worldwide uptake of their published articles has been (if indeed they can), how often their academic papers have been cited in the press or consumed by non-academics, how fair the peer review process is, and how long their publications take to come out. In reality, the answers to most of these questions actually don’t matter because a blog post is not trying to be a published article. It is a quicker, lighter, faster offering, but at the same time, it is much more timely, and you can readily check in the background stats to see what your worldwide audience looks like. You can also check trackbacks, receive comments (if you want) and edit or delete at will.

Case in point: a number of my blog posts have been quoted countless times in the media, and one of them even appears on my Google Scholar profile. Because it has been cited. In academic peer-reviewed publications. Makes you think.

So what can you write about? Well, you can discuss issues like the one this very post is tackling. You could write about something in the breaking news as it relates to your discipline. You could catch and dispel common fallacies about your topic. You could do little reviews of past research or experiments or projects. You could put out preliminary findings or put up an abstract that has just been accepted or publish hints for how to survive interacting with other human beings at conferences. You could even post comics or jokes or light-hearted content. None of it need be very long. Two hundred words. Five hundred words. Whatever makes you happy. Nor does it need to be daily, or even weekly. I only blog when I feel like I have something worth saying. There have been gaps of months between posts. The longest gap looks to be over a year. And you can choose to put it as the link in your Twitter profile, or not, as you see fit.

Mainly, keep it engaging and accessible and even fun (if appropriate for that topic) so that any reasonably intelligent non-specialist can not only understand it, but be enthused by it and see why it’s important. And then, tweet about it, including the link, of course, and also the relevant hashtags. In turn your community can have a quick read, forward it onto others who are equally interested, tweet about it between themselves, etc. and suddenly a wider array of people start to know something about who you are, what you are interested in, how up-to-date your research is, and more. Remember always that you will be read by experts in your field, so obviously strive for intellectual excellence, but also remember your non-specialists – the politicians and policy makers and journalists who might have five minutes and want to determine as quickly as possible whether you should be urgently joining their expert advice panel at a House of Commons roundtable.

But your blog can be more than just a little public journal of your research thoughts and ideas and responses…

#4: CV and contact page

I’ve already made various comments about LinkedIn and so forth, but in case that didn’t make it clear, I have an instinctive dislike of committing all your CV credentials to a proprietary site that might one day lock down and start charging people for full access. Imagine that your would-be contact has searched Twitter or the internet for their topic, and your tweets or blog posts have surfaced. Then they’ve had a quick read of your blog posts and now have a good sense of who you are. They think you might be the right person for them. But, they want a laaaaast little bit of persuading. What are your credentials? Have you ever done anything like what they’re proposing before? They could really do with seeing your CV…

Of course, you could make them go trawl the academic repositories for it, or worse, email you and ask for it, or you could just have a page on your blog that is your CV, right there, waiting for them. This doesn’t have to be the standard dull grey-boxes-and-lines CV that you find in an academic application. It’s a blog. You are not submitting it for a job. It’s there to kitemark and gold-stamp your credentials but also to reiterate who and what you are as a human being. It can include colours. Pictures. Links. Access to your publications or software codes or projects. Pointers to some of the fun stuff you do (Goodreads, Strava, podcasts, whatever). If you can, get into the habit of updating it frequently, especially with big ticket items. Here’s mine as it currently stands, and yes, it’s not part of my blog, but that’s only because I need to migrate it over. It would take literally two minutes if I could just stop doing other shit and get on with it. [Update: I just did it. One productivity achieved this day.] Anyway, as a result of the blog/CV combo, according to a quick search of my inbox, I’ve had over forty invitations to give talks just this calendar year (Nov 2018-Nov 2019) and been made two job offers.

But how are they getting in touch with me?

I have really clear lines of contact. They’re on my presentations on every slide. They’re on the CV, top left. And they’re on a straight-up contact page. This might sound obvious but I run a research group called FORGE, and every year without fail I find blogs and web pages for researchers who absolutely sound the part, and who I want to invite to speak. And can I find a single up-to-date contact detail for them? No. Nothing. So if you have cultivated someone’s interest this far, for heaven’s sake don’t leave them hanging. Grease the slope into your inbox, as it were.

I already regret that sentence.

Moving on…

#5: “Popular” audiences

And now the last, but the one with the greatest commitment. Let’s open with a question. Aside from Twitter and blogs, which I’ve covered above, where do you think ordinary people (potential stakeholders and non-experts) learn about you from?

  • Your ultra-gilt super-funded EU-wide mega-consortium multi-research-counsel project that you’re PI on? Very unlikely, unless it’s in the news for the wrong reasons.
  • Academic publications? No. They generally don’t read heavy tomes from your field and probably won’t have access to the publications either.
  • That awesome plenary you gave to 2,000 of the leaders in your field in Constantinople? No. And they’re likely not going to the Mini Vancouver Workshop 2019 to see you give a poster there either.
  • Editorial and journal boards? Obviously not. I don’t even know what editorial boards most of my own colleagues are on.
  • Your internal or external examining and photocopying and leadership and widening participation duties? Probably not, except by accident.
  • Your profiles on those seventeen different academic websites we were all told would solve all our research amalgamation problems? Unlikely. Even if they do read any of them, such portals are largely unenlightening and alienating to non-academics. Hell, I find them alienating and I supposedly am an academic.

My point is that every marker of prestige that we’re pushed towards by the internal academic community has almost no value outside of this system. I hesitate to suggest that this is something like a multi-level marketing scheme, but insofar as outsiders to academia are concerned, all these avenues are largely closed off behind paywalls, knowledge walls, or physical access walls. So how do non-specialists find out about your work?

Well, obviously there will now be your lovely blog, and its accompanying tweets, but also, you can consider other possibilities:

  • Popular (science) books: these get read by a much wider audience of people and the impact of them can be huge. I point you to BECAUSE INTERNET by Gretchen McCulloch and defy you to tell her that she wasted her time on that pure magnificence. Go on. Tell her. And tell that to her New York Best Seller’s Listing. And her awards.
  • Podcasts: if you feel cut out for it, and you have the time, commitment, and content, you can be your own little media machine and put out a podcast on your topic. I wrote all about this here for those who want to know more. Two points: it is fucking awesome. It is also fucking hard work.
  • Networking events: HAHAHahahaha jk
  • Press releases through your press office: if you already did everything above, it is very likely that you’re already drifting onto the radar of journalists anyway, but you can expedite the process by putting out press releases to accompany article publications, project funding, breakthroughs, or analyses that address breaking news issues. THIS IS NOT FOR EVERYONE. I have also blogged a lot about the hilarity of media work. This can create a nuclear fission of contacts exploding into your inbox, but it is also a big commitment mentally, emotionally, and temporally if it takes off.

The beginning and the end

Before following these guidelines blindly, think a little bit about where you want to end up. Would you want to sit on the Newsnight couch debating your topic during a heated media blitz? Do you want to sit in quiet halls deciding matters of policy or explaining technical details to civil servants? Do you want to be elbow-deep in some R&D fieldwork office as a consultant? Quite where you want to be will determine how, or if you follow any of the suggestions above. Whatever the case, if you want others to find you, you have to be visible. Not ostentatiously so, holding a coffee in one hand and a cookie in the other and babbling whilst already plotting your exit strategy. You merely need to put up a version of yourself that others can decide on without you being there, and then, quietly, in their own time, they can choose to contact you or not, and you can choose to agree or decline.

Somewhere out there, there is likely to be a person who is searching for you – the person you are with your skillset and aptitude – but most frustrating of all, they don’t even know it yet. With a little bit of input, you can help them figure out both the question and the answer, and who knows where it might go from there.