The Power of Networking as an ECR

by Vachel A Carter

I consider myself socially awkward; an introvert if you will. I best relate to the fictional character Tina Belcher from Bob’s Burgers; walking through life in my own hilarious and charismatic way while simultaneously finding myself sweating at the idea of walking up to complete strangers at conferences or workshops and introducing myself. Yet, here I am writing about my personal experiences regarding the power of networking at conferences and workshops.


Learning how to network at conferences and workshops is one of the most important steps in a researcher's career


But before I begin, you may be asking yourself ‘how does Vachel (pronounced like Michelle, but with a ‘V’, not Rachel with a ‘V’) break past her self-induced mental barrier of her own social awkwardness?’ Humor, my friends, and lots of it! I use humor to break the ice in almost every situation; whether it be in presentations at big conferences, organizing workshops, or in social gatherings. Nothing sets the stage better than a quick laugh. Plus, it adds a bit of character and lets your audiences know that you’re personable. Being more personable allows the audience to relate to you more. After all, haven’t we all been nervous before a big presentation? So, if you also characterize yourself as an introvert and/or socially awkward, give humor a try!


Now, I won’t give the humor all the credit in my (thus-far) successful early career. I also attribute much of my success to my network of mentors and colleagues. For example, I was fortunate enough to attain my first postdoc in the beautiful city of Prague, Czech Republic, by networking at a PAGES and Mountain Social-Ecological Observatory Network funded Workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 2015. The workshop was organized by my academic big brother, Jesse Morris, along with several other colleagues. It was through this workshop that I met the international team of researchers I am currently working with. I credit Jesse for getting my foot in the door with this group and cannot thank him enough.


However, I knew that once I got to Prague, I would need to take the lead in expanding my science. I began growing my networks and research collaborations at the PAGES Young Scientist Meeting (YSM), which was held in Morillo de Tou, Spain in May 2017. The YSM is a stepping-stone for early-career researchers who want to develop their professional skills and expand their scientific network. If you’re interested in reading more about the YSM, I recommend the blog post my best friend, Yoshi Maezumi, and I wrote in which we describe our experiences.


All the brilliant organizers and attendees at the PAGES YSM 2017 in Morillo de Tou, Spain


It was at the YSM where I met my new research colleague, Gabriella (Gabi) Florescu. She was presenting a poster of her research on Holocene fire activity in Eastern Europe, which I found very interesting as I was researching Holocene fire activity from Central Europe. Thus, I introduced myself and we proceeded to chat about her research. At the end of the YSM conference, we went our separate ways.


Since then, I’ve continued my postdoc research while simultaneously developing my own working hypotheses in the hopes of obtaining funds for a second postdoc. I began writing a Junior-style research grant via the Czech Science Foundation to research and test these working hypotheses. However, one of the stipulations of the Czech Science Foundation Junior GAČR grant is that both the Principal Investigator (PI) and Co-PI are early-career researchers (younger than 35 years). Thinking back on our common research interests, I emailed Gabi and asked if she would be willing to join forces and write the grant proposal together. She agreed, and over the past few months we have written (what we consider to be) an ‘epic’ grant proposal. Funded announcements are in November, so please keep your fingers crossed for us!



Photo of Gabi and me at the most recent
EGU conference in Vienna, Austria, 2018.
Looking back now, I’ve realized how stepping out of my comfort zone and talking to Gabi has really opened up new opportunities for my career, and I have made a new friend in the process. While walking up to a stranger at conferences seems terrifying for some of us, this experience at the YSM really demonstrated to me the necessity of mustering up the self-courage and confidence to take my career to the next level in academia. As my PhD Advisor once said ‘You can’t win the game if you don’t play.’



So the next time you’re at a conference or workshop, try saying hello to a fellow colleague and asking them about their research. Remember, they are there for the same reason, to share their research, and they might even be as nervous about talking to strangers as you are! You never know what new and exciting opportunities await if you don’t seize the opportunity.


And a friendly word of advice from one early-career researcher to another; take the opportunity to build networks with other early-career researchers (in addition with senior researchers), for these are the people who you will most likely work with in the future.


Vachel A Carter, PhD 
Department of Botany, Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic

If you have questions or comments concerning Vachel's post, please leave a comment below or send her an email. You can also connect with her on Twitter and ResearchGate.

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