Freelance Networking: A fun way to network and see the world.

Steven NicholsonSteven Nicholson, Lancaster University, 3rd Year PhD Student

I am a third year PhD student studying trust in online communication.  As part of the research group Security Lancaster; I research threats from criminal online groups.  My other academic interests include; epistemic vigilance, linguistic persuasion in advertising, and confidence and trust in sports teams.  I like to travel.

Email:      Twitter: @ste_nick


Attending conferences provides a great opportunity to both see the world and build great international contacts, but why wait for conference season to make the most of both traveling and networking?

For the last two years I’ve combined independent travel with networking to practice what I like to call ‘Freelance Networking’.  So what is ‘Freelance Networking’?  Well, it’s any time you take to have a break from your PhD (call it a holiday, traveling or annual leave) while simultaneously taking the opportunity to visit and network with the local University at your travel destination.  Here I’ll share with you how you can start doing this fun, and rewarding, networking practice for yourself.

Go where you want to go. I realised the irony that my decision to travel abroad whenever I had annual leave, so that there would be less temptation to do any PhD work, was somewhat compromised by practicing freelance networking.  Nevertheless, I have always travelled to places I wanted to visit first, and then reviewed the local university second. I think planning a round trip to Harvard University, with absolutely no interest in Boston, would be insanity; and ultimately make your annual leave more of a work than pleasure trip.  Your mind-set should be that this is still your time off, and you are simply taking a fraction of it to do some fun networking.

Do your research. Look up the relevant departments of the local universities. Then look up the individual researchers, I guarantee there will be someone who has similar research interests to your own. However, don’t try to find a perfect match to your research area, part of this is to broaden your research horizons.

Contact the relevant people. Sending this email can feel a little strange and audacious. The key is to be honest, don’t try to claim that you’re traveling all that way just to visit a University; no PhD student has that much spare time I would hope! Simply state how you’re visiting the area on annual leave, and given your research interests (stated clearly) and theirs (pick part of their research most relevant to yours) you’d like to take the opportunity to discuss your common interests and, if possible, meet more people in the institute.

Expect nothing. Academics are busy, they may not respond to your email.  They don’t know you, they owe you nothing; so don’t take it personally if you don’t get a response.  Having said that, in my experience, most academics are flattered and intrigued by your enthusiasm, and are happy to arrange a meeting.

Arrange a time and place to meet. Here, it helps to be flexible. As it is annual leave, I’m usually able to be very flexible; so I will state my arrival and leaving time before inviting the academic to pick a time that suits them.  However, if there are dates you know you have a day trip planned be sure to be clear in stating when you can and can’t meet. Like I said, they are busy people.

Prepare, but not too much! Yes, you want to read up on the academic’s own research interests, but I can imagine how freelance networking can become a chore if you spend the first 3 days of your break studying. For my last trip, I read one paper before traveling and listened to a one-hour pod cast by the academic on the plane, this was sufficient to have an overview of their interests.  The academic will be more interested in your research anyway!

Relax, drink your coffee, and enjoy the chat. It is just that, a chat; don’t think of it as a job interview, or a lecture whereby you need to take notes on everything they say.  Soon, these people will be our peers, not superiors; you should act like that to make the interaction comfortable and friendly. You’ll both feel awkward if you feel judged and act defensive about your work, or if you are in ore of their research accomplishments.  Take the opportunity to enjoy discussing research in an informal manner.

Make email contact after the meeting. They didn’t have to meet with you, be grateful!  A short email to say thank you and sum up of what was discussed, and why you found it interesting, is enough to show your gratitude. However, you may also wish to send any papers you discussed that they sounded interested in, send any of your own work or findings if they found it interesting, or request any material they mentioned if you’d like the references.  Finally, you might also want to reaffirm when you will be finishing your PhD and are in the job market, so that they can bare you in mind if any opportunities arise.

So, why take time out of your hard earned break to freelance network? I imagine the real benefits of this will be different for everyone. Personally, I haven’t got enough space to say how rewarding this practice has been for me; from insightful interpretations of my own work to being encouraged to apply for postdoctoral positions in exciting cities. But whatever success you have, you can be sure that this is a fun practice, to feel proactive, and to really take control of your networking opportunities.  For that reason freelance networking is something I’ll continue to do and something I would encourage all PhD students to start doing! Happy travels!


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