This post has been kindly written for us by George Gilbert, currently one of the Scouloudi Fellows at the Institute of Historical Research.
For the beginner, the idea of networking can be a confusing one, and historically hasn’t always been helped by attitudes found in our discipline. Elements of academia have in the past perhaps been slow to catch on to this technique, slower at least than many professions in the city and politics. However, the profession has largely turned round to the idea, and it’s now apparent that developing fruitful links with other researchers, not only outside your home institution, but across countries and continents, is recognized as a central part of the doctoral experience. It is particularly vital for the aspiring researcher who wants to make the most of their abilities and interests in pursuing an academic career. Getting to know senior colleagues can at times seems a daunting experience, and the idea of ‘selling yourself’ might even sound a touch undignified!
However, it’s a good strategy to pursue. Firstly, networking is vital from a career perspective. At an early stage in your doctoral research, continuous and effective networking alerts you to conference opportunities, colloquiums and seminars that allow you to take in new ideas, engage with the latest and most cutting-edge research and, most of all, meet a wide range of characters and come across interesting viewpoints that will help you in your chosen field. Later, you will find out fellowship and job opportunities from helpful and well connected colleagues and friends.
As well as this, it can be very enjoyable. Networking might seem like a sly word to describe the cunning enhancement of an academic CV, but in reality, it’s usually very fun. It rarely goes wrong, and usually promotes rather than damages career development. Possibly one of the main issues for a young researcher is considering who to share your ideas with. If you have what you think might be a new and path breaking idea, a good rule of thumb is that it is best to share it only with those you know best, at least in the earliest stages of development: you don’t want to see your ideas in print before you’ve published them yourself! But most opportunities end positively. For example, I have had much entertainment from seeing different generations of Russianists, with very different questions on the scholarly agenda, productively engaging (and less productively, arguing) with each other over what direction the discipline is (and should be) heading in at various conferences and seminars! It helps develop people skills that are vital when teaching, giving papers, and discussing ideas: basically, anything that involves any level of face to face engagement. No one is out to ‘get you’ and several will probably end up becoming good friends.
Another aspect of engagement worth discussing in this brief post is another side to networking: sharing writing. Once you have got to the stage where you are able to produce significant chunks of written work based on your primary research, it’s a very good idea to share it with experienced professionals and helpful graduate students outside your supervisory team. For me, the feedback I have received from the peer review process, and also academics working in other institutions interested in my research, has been of immense value in helping me hone my ideas and develop my arguments. You must expect some criticisms, but in my own experience, the majority of those who have commented on my work have been very helpful and constructive in letting me know when the work isn’t good enough, as well as praising elements that they particularly liked.
Finally, networking has gone digital. For most sub-disciplines, there are forums, newsletters, websites and discussion blogs all online, many of which are worth reading to familiarize yourself with the latest academic research and where the discipline is going, as well as using those invaluable 40-year old monographs written by pillars of the field. It’s worth getting in touch with colleagues to find out where the best new material is being posted online, and to find out in what direction the field is heading, and perhaps even what your role in that development might be. Even if you aren’t into social networking, finding out where the thought pieces from those actively involved in the discipline are appearing is good practice.
The following digital networking websites, for instance, have proved useful for me:
H-Russia, an online network encouraging scholarly discussion of all matters Russian, featuring a discussion log, forum, and reviews of recent scholarship. The discussion log is good for pulling together panels for conferences.
Expat.ru, a useful forum and not just for scholars, though especially helpful before that first research visit, on a variety of matters.
Finally, twitter offers more than the opportunity to berate minor celebrities. It also contains many targets for the Russianist to follow, for instance: Crossing the Baltic, Russian Universe, and the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies’ research blog, which presents links to the some of the latest papers and talks by those engaged in the field.