Written by Nudrat Siddiqui
So you’re an introvert working in academia. Striking up a conversation with people you don’t know well isn’t your forte. But networking is that niggling activity you know you should be engaging in to progress professionally. Not all is lost. You can grow and sustain a network of contacts without being the most outspoken person in the room.
For many of us, the term ‘networking’ invokes an image of a large auditorium brimming with strangers. While opportunities to network often do present themselves in the form of busy events, there is scope to develop your network in smaller, less intimidating settings.
Who do you already know? And who do they know?
Consider who you already know – both professionally and personally. Now give some thought to the people they know who you could benefit from meeting. Does one of your colleagues sit on a committee with an expert in your field who if you met could spark off a collaboration? Is your tennis partner friends with the spouse of someone in a role you’re interested in exploring? The relationships between the people you know and those you want to know might be a bit more long-winded and complex! But once you’ve identified a few people in your contacts’ networks, ask your colleague/friend/family member to introduce you over a coffee or email. Meeting someone new via an introduction or in the company of an existing friend or colleague often eases some of the pressure from that initial conversation. Approach your first coffee or email with points for why it would be valuable for that person to have you on their radar as well.
Build your Network Informally
Getting to know others outside the constraints of structured work scenarios, in more informal settings, can feel more intuitive. Take advantage of after-work drinks, office parties, or other social activities in your department/faculty. The potential to network isn’t confined to the workplace – Get involved with volunteering or join a Meetup group that runs activities you’re interested in. People at these events are often there with a similar purpose – to meet others, and are likely to be friendly and approachable. And the diverse range of people you encounter might present a job opportunity or a new perspective on your research.
Surviving the Packed Auditorium Scenario
The nature of working in academia means that sometimes being in packed auditoriums is inevitable. While walking up to someone you’ve never seen before and introducing yourself might feel unnatural in most day-to-day situations, it’s the norm in conferences, lectures, and even workshops. Most people you approach will be receptive and happy to reciprocate by telling you about themselves. If you struggle with introducing yourself, prepare in advance. Jot down the key points you want to share about yourself and practice saying them aloud until you can deliver your introduction fluidly. The chances are that some of the people you meet might even feel as awkward as you! Get out of your own head and consider what you can do to make your exchange comfortable and worthwhile for both of you.
If there are specific people you’re interested in meeting, consider why you’d like to meet them and prepare questions around those interests that you can ask them. Contacting them in advance and inviting them for coffee at the conference can also make it easier to avoid vying for attention with others equally enthusiastic about meeting your potential new collaborator.
Lastly, Susan Cain, who delivered the TED talk, The Power of Introverts, imparts some valuable advice on networking for introverts, including how to handle busy events, in this video.