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Sustainable networking: your network’s success is your success

In this first installment of a two-part series, Christina C C Willis discusses the importance of creating a network sustainably to enable better scientific and career outcomes – even during the Covid-19 pandemic






The book Sustainable Networking for Scientists and Engineers was written by a laser scientist for an international audience of STEM professionals. I am that laser scientist. Networking has been transformational for me both personally and professionally, but I know that there is a lot of skepticism and confusion around it within the STEM community. That is why I wrote the book. 

The word ‘networking’ admittedly has a lot of baggage. For many it conjures up mental images of people whose only interest in others is how ‘useful’ they are; it seems sleazy and transactional. And there are some people with that attitude, but their behaviour is unsustainable. Their connections get frustrated with the one-sided nature of the relationship and stop responding, so they are forced to move on to new people and the cycle repeats. These unsustainable networkers exist in a Sisyphean cycle of digging wells that quickly dry up. They fail to recognise that their near-term-reward, ‘me-centric’ strategy doesn’t actually benefit them, and it certainly doesn’t benefit their network.

The idea behind sustainable networking is about viewing the success of your network as your success and, on-average, offering more help than you take

But flip this behavioural model around. There are surely friends or colleagues who have helped you. Someone has given you their time or guidance, referred you for a job, written you a recommendation, or talked through an experiment with you, all in a genuine effort to help because they want you to succeed. This kind of support means a lot both in terms of morale and productivity, and you probably wouldn’t hesitate to help one of these people in kind. These mutually beneficial relationships enable you to foster each others’ success in a way that would not be possible alone or with a ‘me-centric’ posture.

This latter model is the idea behind sustainable networking. It’s about viewing the success of your network as your success and, on-average, offering more help than you take. That is where the sustainability aspect comes in: thinking of professional support and assistance as a resource and attempting to create more of it than you take. Doing so is a virtuous cycle. When you help your network connections, they become more successful and that strengthens your network. A strong network full of successful people (who you helped) enables your success, and the more successful you become, the more resources and leverage you will have available to help your connections. So if transactional or unsustainable networking is about manoeuvring to get your piece of the pie (a zero sum game), then sustainable networking is about making more pie so that everybody gets a slice.

Willis' book, along with a cookie made by students at Centro de Investigaciones en Optica (CIO) in Leon, Mexico, inspired by the cover art

There is also a common perception that ‘networking’ (sustainable or otherwise) is something for politicians and entrepreneurs, not STEM professionals. A good scientist, you might argue, doesn’t need to network; the quality of their work will speak for them. And there is truth in this: doing good work is the critical foundation upon which a scientist or engineer builds their career. But add networking on top of that foundation and it can make you more productive and efficient, make your work more well-known, and give you unique and valuable opportunities that you couldn’t find any other way. A well-established network gives you colleagues to discuss research problems with, and ideas for new projects. It helps you find collaborators and interdisciplinary solutions. Your network can help you break through when you are stuck, educate and inspire you, disseminate your work and papers around the world, and get you speaking opportunities, jobs, and funding. In short, networking is a long-term investment in your career and a multi-purpose problem-solving tool applicable to almost any career situation.

The practical mechanics (or the ‘how’) of using networking to do all of these things is covered in detail in Sustainable Networking for Scientists and Engineers and will be the focus of the second installation of this series. However, the concepts of goal-setting and networking strategy are so central to sustainable networking that they merit an introduction here. Career goals and strategy are to networking what a hypothesis and methodology are to experimentation. They allow you to focus your efforts and make progress in a systematic way.

Willis speaking at the Centro de Investigaciones en Optica (CIO) in Leon, Mexico. Credit: Ana Karen Reyes

Goals come in all shapes and sizes. They can be short-term and straightforward or long-term and expansive. Whatever your goal, it helps you determine your networking strategy – that is, what networking actions to take. A near-term goal might be to network with your work colleagues and improve your organising skills, so your strategy could be to organise a work happy-hour or journal club. Longer-term or more complex goals could be changing careers or writing a book. To change careers, you could attend events in your target area to learn more about it and develop connections with professionals already working in that area. For writing a book, becoming involved in a writers’ group or reaching out to established authors for advice can strengthen your efforts.

And just as you refine or sometimes discard a hypothesis due to your experimental results, you can do the same with your goal. Finding the right goal is about experimenting and self-awareness, and your goal doesn’t have to be perfect for you to get started. You can pick a goal, build a strategy on it to determine what networking activities to pursue, then collect some data in the form of experience based on your participation. You analyse that data then either keep the goal, tweak it, or pick a different one. Keeping a journal in the way that you keep a lab notebook can help you to note your progress, analyse your experiences, improve your self-awareness, and recognise patterns.

In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic the idea of setting a career goal and networking towards it may seem futile. But envisioning and planning for a positive future is known to have a beneficial psychological effect, and thinking about a goal may not be a bad idea if you have the time to spare. Many typical networking opportunities are out of the question right now, but that doesn’t mean you can’t network. Video and phone calls, virtual events and happy hours, email, and engagement in social media are all accessible networking options right now. Consider setting a small, achievable networking goal such as becoming a consistent participant on a particular online platform like LinkedIn, or talking to one or more networking connections a week via phone, video call, or email. You can even meet and make new network connections this way. Consistency is more important than intensity, so consider picking something easily achievable to do regularly, building a networking habit that will continue to serve you once the world returns to some sense of normalcy.

Networking in a sustainable manner is a powerful tool and a valuable investment in your career as well as your community. Even in the midst of this historic crisis it is possible to network to support and expand your network, keep up your productivity, and work toward your career goals. If you would like more information, Sustainable Networking for Scientists and Engineers is available for free as an ebook from SPIE, and the next article in this two-part series will address some practical applications of the sustainable networking approach. 


Christina Willis is a laser scientist, writer, and public speaker, living and working in Washington, DC. She specialises in novel, high-power laser development, and has worked in metrology, laser tracking and imaging, and lidar applications. Willis is currently serving as the 2019-2020 Arthur H Guenther Congressional Fellow on Capitol Hill. 

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