You know networking is important but the thought of it makes you want to shudder. Or worse.
It sounds so instrumental. And fake.
And like it involves talking to people you don’t know. Out of the blue.
If you’re an introvert, it’s even worse.
It shouldn’t be instrumental, even if the relationships you build might have advantages down the road for both parties.
You don’t have to talk to people you don’t already know at least a little bit. Maybe you’ve been on the same e-mail discussion list. Or were in the same conference session before lunch.
You can use intermediaries. Friends or colleagues can introduce you to people they think you have things in common with.
What networking is really about is relationship building.
Finding people who share your interests and talking to them about stuff you are both excited about.
Building up that relationship over time in ways that seem natural and normal, even if you need to remind yourself to keep in touch, forward that article, or whatever.
Good things happen in good relationships
You’ll want to do a project, remember that person who made a great contribution and be fun to work with. A research collaboration is born.
You’ll be in a department meeting trying to decide what specialism you want to advertise for this job that’s been released. People are wondering whether there will be enough strong applicants if you advertise for [fill in the blank] and you mention names of interesting people you’ve met at recent conferences who are doing good work in this field.
The non-profit organization your friend works for is applying for funding to develop some new programs. Partly because of your relationship, the organization wants to incorporate research into the plan. They ask you to be involved because they trust you to deliver.
That student you kept in touch with is now a successful journalist. She contacts you to learn about your current research and publishes stories about it that don’t miss the point.
It’s not just about the research
Good relationships are complex. Yes, you share research interests but there are other things you have in common, too.
Maybe it’s a love of good ale. Or great vegetarian food. Or hockey. Or knitting.
It’s not “unprofessional” to talk about those things with other researchers at a conference. In fact, those other shared interests might be what takes a shared professional interest from “she’s doing interesting work” to “I’d love to work with her on a joint project”.
It’s also what reassures people that you aren’t being purely instrumental. They’re as turned off by that as you are. Seemingly trivial topics are to social relationships what bicycle grease is to a smooth ride.
You are worth meeting, too
You are doing interesting research. You are an interesting person.
Don’t do yourself down. Especially out loud.
Who wants to talk to someone who answer “What do you do?” with “Oh, not much, you really wouldn’t be interested.”
Give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Let them make their own decision about whether you are interesting or not.
And remember, “What do you do?” is just a stock conversation opening. The point of your answer is to invite further discussion. You are not on trial. You are exploring for common interests.
This post was edited July 27, 2015.