An Introvert’s Guide to Networking

Irrespective of how clichéd this title is, for quite some time now, I have been meaning to write about the role of networking in my life as a “budding” scholar (or for any scholar, if I may), who happens to be an introvert. I have been thinking a lot about what I need to do professionally as a researcher and academic to be taken more seriously. Yes, I know–less puns. But, other than that, perhaps a list of strengths and weaknesses that I need to be focusing on?

The more I think about this, the more I realize the value of networking with other researchers and socializing. I know some people are naturally good at it. Unfortunately, I would categorize that as a weakness for me. I am awkward; although I wear my awkwardness with pride. And I consider myself better at writing than speaking, especially when English is not my first language (and not even second for that matter). This often puts me in even more awkward situations, especially when it comes to communicating with strangers.

So, to deal with this challenge I had identified, like any decent scholar, I started to make a list of possible steps or changes that I need to make to overcome this weakness. Therefore, I started with a suggestion I saw in the following Ted Talk by Amy Cuddy, where she highlighted this idea of “faking it till you become it.” In other words, pretending that you are good at networking, and doing things that someone who is good at networking or socializing would do. Eventually, and arguably, you become this person. Now, I don’t quite accept the validity of this study it. I have my doubts. But, there was nothing for me to lose. So, I tried her suggestions.

I realized that if I wished to pretend to be good at networking, I might need a frame of reference–a list of traits of a person who is good at this. Because if I knew what I needed to do to become better at networking, I might have just gotten better at it by now. I clearly did not know. Therefore, I decided that I will form an imaginary person who has these traits that I desire to have. Then, I will pretend to be that person. It may sound weird at first, but it is not something radical. I recall watching Jason Alexander and Jack Black talking about a similar approach in their acting, on different occasions. They pretend to be an actor who they think would be perfect for the role they are working on, and just do whatever they think that actor would have done. If you get a kick out of Star Trek references, this can be defined as the “What Would Picard Do?” approach.

Long story short, I decided to think of academics and scholars who I have met in person, and made a medley of their qualities that I admire. I then decided to pretend how I think they will handle a situation; which in this case is networking with people.

Now, I would not bore you with details, but here is what I have learned from trying to execute this approach at an international conference:

  1. It helps losing the inhibition. The biggest obstacle when trying to meet new people, especially when these are some established names in their fields, is what would you say? My adviser once told me that there is no point being a groupie running behind big names at conferences. What is important is to follow up later. What he meant was that most of the big names in education are nice people, but they would not remember who they had met. It is better to talk about something short and substantial at first, ideally something interesting that you do, and then follow up with an email later, with better detail. In the email, you can coherently get your thoughts together. Now, all this is assuming that you wish to learn something from this person, or wish to collaborate, and are not just bugging them because of their celebrity. If this is the case, pretending to be someone who can approach such a situation can help you lose that inhibition of approach someone new or relatively famous.
  2. Rehearse and improvise. You can never be ready for any possible situation, but you can always have a few tricks up your sleeve. Getting a handful of self-introductions ready can help. How would you introduce yourself in 5 seconds? In 1 minute? If you had a dinner appointment? And so on. Then being flexible with these guidelines lets you improvise when new things come your way.
  3. Insightful comments (being useful). You don’t have to be an extrovert to be good at your job. You know your research well. If you are in sessions at conferences where you have common interests with the presenter, saying something useful and insightful can always earn you some points. This is clearly no breakthrough here, but we often tend to forget to be nice and to compliment other people’s work. If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say it. Unless there is something seriously wrong with the research.
  4. Finally, promoting the brand: you. As corny as it may sound, this is what it boils down to. And this is something I have brought up in conversations with my adviser quite a few times. Modesty is something I value, and it is also something that acts as a weakness, when it comes to sharing what you do. Modest people tend to undersell themselves; and this can be bad when you are in a field when you are the brand. As scholars, when we go into the job market, we are selling our ideas and what we stand for. Our job is to convince other people that we have something substantial to say. The problem is that no one else is going to sell your ideas for you. You need to do it yourself. This is why, we sometimes need to keep modesty on simmer, and find a way to get its flavor as you promote your achievements. The balance is hard. And I think it can be developed with practice. I also think this is a skill people often lose easily. For instance, writing this post in itself is a struggle. How can I say what I genuinely mean to say without sounding precocious? Well, using the word precocious does not help.

In sum, networking and promoting oneself is hard in itself. It becomes even harder when it does not come naturally to you. If you are already good at networking and think it comes naturally to you, help those who struggle. If you are an introvert like me, and struggle with it, I hope these thoughts help you, even if slightly.

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