Forming and maintaining strong professional relationships is a key component of career success. These days, very few aspects of science are done in isolation. Many projects are conducted in collaboration with researchers in other disciplines, and new ideas are frequently sparked by conversations with other scientists. Moreover, finding a job in academia is often helped by knowing people who have a position to fill, or who can point you to those who do. And when venturing outside academia, meeting people who can give you valuable information about how to enter a new work sector is crucial.

Building professional networks provides a range of benefits including learning, sources of information, salary growth, innovation and a means of getting things done. Research shows that people with diverse contacts are able to access information that helps them generate better ideas.

Building professional relationships improves both quality of work and job satisfaction. As the landscape of work changes rapidly, networking is a critical competency.

Why network?

If you hate networking, you’re not the only one! Most scientists know that networking is important for success, whether in their research or career, but many still find the mere word off-putting. For many scientists, the thought of stepping into a room full of strangers and striking up forced, superficial conversations over wine and cheese cubes feels icky and can produce anxiety. Studies have shown that in networking situations, we are more likely to gravitate towards people we already know or have connections with. This makes it challenging to form new networks and explains why it can be difficult to join established networks.

But it doesn’t need to be that way—and for networking to be effective, it shouldn’t. Good networking requires a genuine conversation about your interests, those of the other person, and how they may benefit each other. It takes practice to get good at networking, before you can enjoy and reap the benefits.

How can I network successfully?

Previous studies show physical proximity to others is important in building new relationships. Employees are often encouraged to relocate to regional economic clusters (Silicon Valley, for example), join incubators and coworking spaces, and find ways to be close to other entrepreneurs, investors and customers.

But for people to form new connections, research indicates that social, not just physical barriers, need to be reduced.

One of the solutions to this are structured events to reduce these barriers and decrease search efforts to find new networks and opportunities. But for networking to succeed it needs to be more than one-off events. Studies show that individuals who receive organised introductions make a far greater number of new contacts, and make far stronger connections with these contacts, than those who received no introduction.

These findings emphasise the importance of creating opportunities for both employees and entrepreneurs to connect, beyond just bringing them together in a particular setting or event

Our top tips for successful networking

Tip 1: Get Started Now!

The best time to start growing your network is now. Most of you are busy enough with daily work. Hence, you might wonder how to find enough time to do this. However, it’s well-invested time that will pay off soon.

Conferences are a great place to make new connections, so look for meetings in your area and attend them. At the beginning, you will need some courage to speak with people you don’t know, but the more you do it, the easier it gets. You will be surprised how simple it is to get a conversation going after taking the first steps. An easy way to start a chat is to ask people questions about their work. Most academics enjoy talking about what they are doing and feel comfortable with the subject. This usually works—and it also shows that you’re interested, which is always good.

Besides conferences, there are many other ways to start building a solid network. You can also attend courses and events or join organizations and discussions on different subjects. You may also establish new contacts by e-mail or social media. Taking the first step to start new research collaborations is also an excellent way to introduce yourself to other academics and let them know about your work and interests.

Tip 2: Be Open and Friendly

Networking involves meeting other people and exchanging your ideas with them, so being friendly and open is essential to making a good impression and creating lasting relationships. When communicating with others, it is important to understand their needs—and to be able to listen to them carefully. You should speak about yourself too because your peers should get to know you as well (that’s the main idea of networking). Showing a genuine interest in the other person and avoiding arrogant behavior can usually take you a long way.

However, your goal is to make other academics see you as a colleague, not a fan—even if they are currently at a higher level in their career than you. To achieve this, it is important that you show them respect without showing reverence. Most people will not connect with someone they consider to be significantly inferior to them, so you must always keep a good portion of self-confidence when communicating with others.

Tip 3: Give Your Network Time to Grow

An effective network does not happen overnight. It takes a lot of dedication to create one. That’s the reason why some academics are reluctant to spend their (limited) time in joining commissions at their university, making face-to-face appointments with their collaborators, stopping by for a short chat with their colleagues, or signing up for Twitter or LinkedIn. But every second you spend in developing and maintaining a good professional network could give you many benefits, so you should better start right away.

Tip 4: Use Online Tools

Another way to create an international network of collaborators is to start using social media. Many researchers are already involved, and it is never too late, so you can start now too. Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook are some of the platforms you can use to communicate with peer experts, track research related to your work, and support or follow the impact of your publications. Even if you do not want to post yourself, you can still use social media tools to stay up-to-date with recent advances in your field and find out what others are doing.

Tip 5: Be Persistent

Don’t be disappointed if things don’t work out fast. It takes time to build an effective network and sometimes you will not get a quick reply (some of your contacts will probably not reply at all), but don’t let that put you down. As you advance in your career, your good work will open new opportunities and networking will become easier.