Networking for Principal Investigators

Young PIs walk the long path to tenure on two major roads: funds and publications. Obtaining either one, preferably from a prestigious source, can make the difference between obtaining the tenure or not. Thus, one would assume that a successful PI knows how to write good grants and good papers. Fact is that a third and important ability that differentiates successful PIs from mediocre PIs is their ability to network within their scientific community.


Why invest in networking?

Some of you might think that networking capabilities are not that important for the success of a PI. If you're a good scientist, surely the scientific community will appreciate and reward you back, right? Well, not exactly. It's true that a brilliant scientist coming up with a novel idea will most probably be embraced by their institute and colleagues. However, since there are so many young scientists out there the competition for every tenure track slot is fierce and many times you need to connect with other scientists within your field to enhance your visibility. Advantages include:

  • Extending your Reach – Not exactly a collaboration, but close. By networking you have better exposure to other researchers, even those at the 2nd and 3rd circles (much like Linkedin).  With greater exposure you can take advantage of resources (equipment, know-how) that are not available in your institute.
  • Enhancing your Reputation – Acknowledgment of your contribution to the field are not just publications. Many institutes, especially the prestigious ones, will be asking other scientists in the same field whether you're one of the leaders in the field. Talking with other colleagues in your field and making the right contacts can lead to more valuable collaborations that have more chances of leading to publications in the top tier journals as well as personal recognition which is important to institutes.
  • Increased Involvment – When you're networking you will slowly become an active participant in the field which will both enable you to influence others as well as be exposed to other suggestions and offers.

How to connect

Basically, networking is all about talking with other colleagues. The best place to start networking is at conferences. This is one of the prime reasons why fresh PIs should attend their field's annual meeting. At conferences some scientists might network without effort while others might be a bit intimidated or shy at first. It will be easier for you to approach when you have some knowledge of their research. Don't let chance take you by the arm; do your homework and scan the abstract book for potential collaborators and key scientists in the field. Make sure you know what they are doing and think of points at which your lab and theirs can interact together. Do remember, though, that high tier profs will be tremendously busy, some will come to their keynote lecture and afterwards will leave the conference for their next destination. Aim to talk with a least one or two of the leading scientists in the field. Its more important they know your face and name so when you participate in the next annual meeting you'll be familiar to them. In that vein, avoid being too pushy since abrasiveness may make a stronger impression than your science acumen. Try to catch them at coffee breaks and make sure you know at least one or two people at the meeting that can introduce you to others. Another good point to start your collaboration is to give a mini-lecture about your research (if you have preliminary data). In most cases, this is the only real way to make other PIs appreciate your work, so if you do not have anything to show try not to drag your old work from more then one year after your postdoctoral studies.

Another good way to connect is through personal connections. You have friends from grad school or your most recent post, right? Ask them to introduce you to some of the institute members they are familiar with and that are relevant to your field.

Most important, be accessible – you should be available to others, make the time to talk to people. Don’t hide behind your smartphone. Don’t forget that networking starts with people.

I would like to thank Dr. Raz Zarivach for his critical comments and discussion.