Being Bold on a Budget
From reading most articles about postgraduate life, you’d be forgiven for assuming that academia hooks you up to a continuous IV supply of coffee (which, admittedly, does not sound like the worst thing in the world), sits you down in a library, and constructs a tiny academic prison cell out of the dusty tomes that will become your only friends for the next one-to-three years. So often, it’s presented as an exercise in isolation – this is your research, and yours alone – and, particularly in the Arts and Humanities, it’s true that long, arduous hours of solo effort are pretty well inscribed in the small print. But research doesn’t happen in a vacuum; and “networking” is increasingly important in academia, no matter how uncomfortable you are with corporate buzzwords (and I am, and the word will remain firmly ensconced in quotation marks for this reason), or the prospect of putting yourself out there in the first place.
Here, I’m not addressing the confidence you need to start the process of “networking” at all, but the mechanics of making connections. This poses more of a problem when you’re working with limited funds, whether those are your own, or your department’s: these are some low-budget options you might consider as an alternative to the expense of conference attendance.
As a first port of call, your supervisor is an incomparable resource: someone who’s familiar with your work and, in all likelihood, leading the charge in a similar field; and someone who’s had a significantly longer time than you have to forge the kind of connections that are important both in discovering new routes for your research, and in disseminating it a little further down the line. Contacts in your supervisor’s address book can easily find their way into yours – ask who’s doing what in your field, whose work they’d recommend, who might be able to spare you half an hour of their time.
Along the same lines, take half an hour to scout through the “People” section of your departmental website. Depending on how long you’ve been at Warwick, it’s possible that there are people much closer than you think working on stuff that you find interesting and relevant. This is true of the academic staff, but Warwick’s EPortfolio function means that most PhD students will also have their research advertised on the department website. It’s relatively easy to see what sort of projects are being undertaken and, while direct collaboration might not be appropriate for your subject, most people are happy to take the time to chat to someone who’s genuinely interested in their work.
Emailing in the Field
While you’re scouring the web for articles that don’t omit the one keyword that was actually important to your search, keep a note of the names that keep popping up, and look into them a bit more. Where are they located? Is there a contact address? Sometimes it’s less intimidating to contact a prolific academic by email than it is to approach them at a conference after they’ve given the kind of talk you wanted to stand up and applaud – and even if they don’t reply, giving it a shot doesn’t lose you anything.
More than conferences, though, there are a number of opportunities for “networking” across the university. Research Refresh takes place in the Wolfson Research Exchange, and offers opportunities both to meet other researchers, and to top up your caffeine drip; there are various workshops on offer throughout the year where you can develop the skills you need to move around.
Conference attendance can be expensive, but that doesn’t immediately write off your attendance. Most departments will have some funding available, particularly for PhD students – drop your departmental office a line to find out what’s on offer.
Alternatively, Warwick hosts a lot of conferences itself, and many of them don’t require registration fees for Warwick students (not to mention the most you’ll have to fork out in the way of transport is £4 and two hours waiting for a U1).
Don’t underestimate the value of the interactions you have with other PhD students in focalising your research. These conversations have the potential to spark a discourse across disciplines or, at least, to direct your research down an avenue that might not otherwise have occurred to you. That’s not to suggest that you become the person who goes to the pub and talks about nothing but their thesis – that guy doesn’t tend to get invited back – but conversations with my friends are half the reason I have any idea where my research is going. Don’t be afraid to discuss what you’re doing, because people are interesting when they talk about the things that excite them.