By Caitlin Wilson (Twitter: @999_Caitlin), Dr Fiona Bell (@fionablairbell) & Professor Julia Williams (@DrJuliaWilliams)
Undertaking a PhD is about developing a researcher identity. Traditionally, this occurred through one-to-one mentor relationships, which often continued throughout a researcher’s career. However, nowadays early career researchers need to gain experience and develop connections with multiple people through networking (Ansmann et al., 2014). In fact, a study by Wolff and Moser (2009) suggests that networking is related to career progression and career satisfaction across a multitude of sectors.
PhDs can often be an isolating experience (Cantor, 2020), something which has undoubtedly been emphasized through the COVID19 pandemic and subsequent working from home, but intentional networking has been key to my PhD journey so far. Within this blog post, I share my experience of networking as an early career researcher, with valuable input from Dr Fiona Bell, Head of Research at Yorkshire Ambulance Service NHS Trust, and Professor Julia Williams, Head of Research at the College of Paramedics.
- Social media
Without social media I would not be a PhD student at the NIHR Yorkshire and Humber Patient Safety Translational Research Centre. It was through a re-tweet from @fionablairbell in March 2019 that I became aware of this amazing opportunity. The trick to Twitter and other social media platforms such as ResearchGate, LinkedIn etc., is to follow key people in your area of interest.
- Networking with peers
As an experienced clinician, I am fortunate to be surrounded by supportive colleagues, many of whom I would call friends. However, my peer network extends beyond those geographically close to me or those who I work with clinically. Seminars, workshops, conferences, webinars and courses both virtually and face-to-face have allowed me to connect with many people who I would consider peers. I perceive the value of these networking relationships to often be higher than the course content.
- Near-to-peer mentoring
In addition to peer-to-peer networking, there is a great benefit to connecting with people who are slightly ahead of you in your journey as an early career researcher. These are the people to contact when you have a question you feel is too trivial for your supervisors or just need a word of encouragement that it is indeed possible to survive your PhD.
- Networking with NHS organisations
Expertise, knowledge and enthusiasm for any topic are generally not centrally held in any NHS organisation. NHS ambulance services cover large geographies and have staff spread across their region delivering care in the community. Therefore, networking in this setting is really key to getting to the ‘right’ people to support you research area. It pays to attend internal meetings at the planning stage to get buy-in and engagement with key stakeholders who have existing connections and can advocate for you through established formal or informal connections. Keeping the whole network updated ensures that association is not lost when people or services change, and allows your network to evolve as the project develops.
- Networking with networks
Within your area of practice, there will already be formal networks and organisations, which researchers at any level can access to forge links and make new contacts. For me, this was the Research Centre at the College of Paramedics, but also included collaboration across other disciplines and professions, such as within the YH PSTRC. Research is stronger when developed in teams, so get involved in different research-focused organisations wherever and whenever you can. Often opportunities emerge through these contacts, which could help strengthen your networking activities as well as develop your research knowledge and expertise.
To further explore the topic of early career researcher identity and networking, I have been granted an NIHR Short Placement Award for Research Collaboration (SPARC) supervised by Professor Julia Williams, in her capacity as paramedic-lead for the NIHR Incubator for Emergency Care. Although it is a ‘short’ placement award, the virtual nature of the placement is allowing for a more flexible approach throughout 2021/22, during which I plan to establish an online forum for paramedic researchers, where networking, mentoring and collaborating will be encouraged and supported.
Ansmann, L., Flickinger, T.E., Barello, S., Kunneman, M., Mantwill, S., Quilligan, S., Zanini, C. and Aelbrecht, K. 2014. Career development for early career academics: Benefits of networking and the role of professional societies. Patient Education and Counseling. 97(1), pp.132-134.
Cantor, G. 2020. The loneliness of the long-distance (PhD) researcher. Psychodynamic Practice. 26(1), pp.56-67.
Wolff, H.-G. and Moser, K. 2009. Effects of networking on career success: A longitudinal study. Journal of Applied Psychology. 94(1), pp.196-206.