‘Building Networks’: Episode 5 of The Cancer Researcher Podcast

In this episode we explore the importance of networking in research. Dr. Hege Russness, Professor at the University of Oslo, and Dr. Lisa Hoffmann-Haas, Senior Editor at Nature Cancer, share practical tips on improving your networking skills, with a focus on conference participation. We discuss strategies for both in-person and virtual conferences, and touch on the role of social media. Tune in to discover how networking can boost your career in research.

Listen here, scroll down for the transcript and subscribe now via Spotify and Apple Podcasts so you’ll never miss an episode. You can find the other podcasts and their transcripts here.

Our guests in this episode:
  • Dr. Hege Russnes, Professor at the University of Oslo, head of the group at the Institute of Cancer Research at Oslo University Hospital
  • Dr. Lisa Hoffmann-Haas, Senior Editor at Nature Cancer based in the Berlin office

Episode transcript

Alexandra: I believe we all agree that networking is incredibly important for successful career progression. The problem is that it’s often difficult to know where to start, and I believe the most obvious choice for networking is conference participation. Would you agree?

Hege: Yeah, I think that’s a very good point to meet people. Especially now after Covid, we really see how important it is to meet people face to face. So yes, I think conferences and approaching them in a good way is very important for networking.

Lisa: I fully agree. I think the pandemic really made us realise what we miss if we can’t go to conferences and interact in person.

Alexandra: Speaking about the Covid period, many conferences went online around that time. Do you see any differences in the way that people network in the online environment and the in-person environment at conferences?

Lisa: I think that Zoom conferences or the option to have hybrid conferences are great, especially for people who may not have the travel budget to go to really big conferences or people who have family obligations that maybe don’t allow them to go. So I think it’s really important that we have noticed that this is a good thing to integrate, but I generally don’t think that they can completely replace in-person conferences because the interactions you make in person are still very different. So I think in the end we will probably in the future have a mix of both.

Hege: I also think that after conferences, virtual networking is very important to keep in touch and to keep the network active and get to know each other better. That’s much easier if you have met physically first. I’ve been to virtual conferences with breakout rooms, but it’s not that easy to actually interact or to build on later, in my opinion.

So, if you want to meet new people and build a broader network that’s more transdisciplinary, I think being active in conferences is very important. For instance, I think it’s very good for young researchers and students to give poster presentations, and to select conferences that might not be the biggest. You really hit the field of interest so it’s easy for you to interact because you know what to ask for, and you’re interested in the field. Select conferences that are within your field, and prepare a poster because that attracts people. And you can also discuss other attendees’ posters which is a very good way to get to know people.

Alexandra: Speaking about poster presentations, I remember reading a blog post a while ago which was a bit surprising to me, but maybe it’s something that people should expect. The blog post was suggesting that when you present your poster, you should not keep everything about your own research, but you should also ask the people that are interested in your poster about their research and what attracted them to your poster to see whether there’s a connection there.

Hege: Yeah, I totally agree on that.

Lisa: I also think it draws people in and makes the conversation more fluent. And you may also learn something for your own research that you didn’t know about, and that can be helpful.

Alexandra: When you go to a conference as a young researcher, do you think you should limit your conversations or your networking interactions to the people that are interested in your research, or are there any tips that you could suggest? Is there any pre-conference research that someone could do in order to prepare to approach a certain person?

Hege: Early on, I experienced many times that I was not well prepared for what the speakers were going to talk about. I saw their titles, but I did not know the person because I didn’t know that much about the field. So to know more about what someone’s main interest is, and what they’ve been working on, is quite an important thing to do ahead of conferences, especially if there are parallel sessions, so you can pick the session that’s best for you. It also means that you know which people you would like to talk with, or which of their students would you be sure to see posters from.

Lisa: I think that preparing for conferences has gotten a bit easier with all of the apps that conferences have now, where you can even look up people’s photos so that you know whom to approach. It’s definitely good to look up what people are working on before, as you said, and more than just their session or poster title.

In terms of how to engage with people, it can be intimidating to walk up to someone that you’ve never met before. So I think especially if someone is really introverted, I would definitely recommend writing an email before and trying to arrange a meeting because then it can be easier to make the connection if you have reached out before.

So I, for example, work as an editor at Nature Cancer, and I have to say that I’m excited when people reach out before to arrange a meeting because it also gives me the opportunity to do some pre-conference research and look up what the people are working on and familiarise myself with the topic. And I think it may also make it easier for junior researchers to engage with me if they know we have a setup meeting where they can just meet me.

Alexandra: And on that note, apart from being approached for your own poster, visiting other colleagues’ posters, and sending emails in advance, do you have any other tips on how to start a conversation and maintain a conversation in a conference setting?

Hege: I think that most senior people that you’re a bit afraid to approach if they have given a talk or a speech, many of them are very open to conversations with people. Most senior speakers know that they will be approached after they talk. After the session, it’s a good opportunity to stand in line if there are several others, or listen in. I think it’s important to be polite and to introduce yourself exactly as it is your name and your position. And then also say very directly why you are interested in talking to the person. I have never met people that are not interested in talking to students. I know myself as a senior that I really like when students approach me because they often have a different way of seeing things and they have questions that are often very good.

Lisa: Yeah, I think in the end, we are all scientists who are excited about science and that’s probably the most important thing to not forget and not be shy. Of course, being polite and things like that should always be considered. I’ve not had a single conversation at a conference where I felt someone was annoyed by me now coming up and asking a question.

Alexandra: And how could you make sure that you are also adding value to others whilst networking to make sure that the interaction is not unilateral.

Hege: I think, like Lisa says, in the scientific community, you don’t approach someone just to brag about your own work. You approach because you’re interested in their work and interaction and questioning. So, I think if you approach people or you try to build a network, it’s because you want to have interaction and you want to have discussions, and we all like discussions. I think that’s what we really have in common. No one is very interesting if you just want to talk and talk and talk about your own stuff!

Lisa: I fully agree. I think it’s always a case of give and take, and of course when one is happy to talk about their own project, you should also talk about the work of the other person. And I think sometimes if you come from a slightly different background or a different field, people are maybe afraid to comment on something that they are not super familiar with.

But I, for example, did my PhD at an institute where we had a lot of really basic biology and I was always amazed how the people that knew the least about cancer research could sometimes give me the best ideas because they had such a different viewpoint. So don’t be afraid to give feedback, even if it may not be your field of expertise.

Alexandra: You’ve mentioned that by all means, people should avoid bragging, which makes sense to me. But are there any other dont’s in formal networking settings?

Lisa: I think the biggest don’t is just not to network! Don’t be shy at a conference and not use the opportunity, and then maybe fly home and think, okay, I didn’t make the most out of it.

Hege: When I was a student and a junior, the best conferences or conference experience in networking I had were those where I traveled by myself. I didn’t go with a group from the institute. Then you’re all by yourself, so if you have dinners you have to sit with someone else. I encourage my research group by telling them that if you go as a group, don’t behave as a group. Spread out and mingle with people. You don’t need to sit together, eat together or do everything together because you do that every day. You need to do it with other people.

I think a danger in conferences if you want to build your network is that you just stick to the safe people that you know. Networking takes a lot of energy to actually approach people, but that’s part of what you should do and you can rest when you get back home.

Lisa: And many conferences also offer networking opportunities, like career round tables, meet the editor sessions or conference dinners. I would definitely also recommend people to use these opportunities to meet new colleagues.

Alexandra: I understand that going alone at a conference would definitely increase the amount of networking that you’re doing. But is there maybe a possibility that if you are going with someone else, like for instance with your supervisor, maybe you would be introduced to the right person or people?

Hege: Yeah, I’ve been very fortunate that way myself, to be introduced to people that I might not dare to approach that easily when I was young. So, of course, that’s very important. It’s also very important that if you try to email people upfront, they answer you more easily if they know which group you are from or if there is some connection. At least my experience is that you will more easily get a positive answer from them. Because some people get overloaded with emails and don’t respond when they don’t know anything.
So, I’ve also had my mentor email someone senior upfront to meet me if I was going to a conference, for instance. So, to ask for senior help is also good.

Alexandra: And on a slightly different note, I was actually reading a paper that was highlighted in one of the Nature briefing emails that I received about how conference attendance actually increases an author’s likelihood to be cited or the work of a certain author to be cited. Lisa, maybe you have a bit more insight on this, on how conferences can help you to get your work published or cited.

Lisa: I think conferences are just a great opportunity to meet new collaborators who can maybe contribute to your publication by bringing in a set of patient samples that you were really looking for but you couldn’t find, or maybe a technique that no one in your lab is able to do. And of course, if you have these additions to your study, it may become more impactful and therefore can also result in more citations. So I don’t think it’s necessarily a case of meeting people who then cite your work; it’s more about increasing the quality of your work, which then directly affects your citations as well.

But of course, if you give talks and you present your work and you make it more visible to the audience, that will also result in more visibility.

Alexandra: And staying on this topic, can you think of other types of more formal networking opportunities that researchers could take advantage of? From the top of my head would be lunches with speakers invited to give a talk at your workplace. Do you have any other examples?

Hege: I’m from Norway, so we are of course a small country and for me and many of my colleagues, we are very dependent on international collaborators to introduce new technologies and that kind of thing because we are not so close to the huge companies. So for me, it’s been very important to have shorter stays in other labs, just a week or two maybe, to see if a collaboration could be fruitful in order to get some insight into how technology works, etc. So we do that a lot – sending people for short stays to a potential collaborator as a sort of site visit, but also to learn.

Another thing is of course, to have longer research stays. That’s very important for long-term networking where you work in big international groups where you will get to know people from all over the world.

Lisa: It’s really similar for us as editors. For example, we go to institutes and then meet with the different researchers that work there and discuss their work. For example, there we also tend to give presentations where we present the journal and then have lunch sessions with PhD students and postdocs.

Something else really big these days is, of course, virtual networking. Twitter, LinkedIn and ResearchGate are all opportunities to connect as well, especially for people who may not attend too many conferences and may be a bit more limited in their options.

Alexandra: I’m glad you mentioned that actually. Let’s discuss social media for researchers and the importance of that. I was wondering how, for instance, would you go about approaching someone on LinkedIn who you haven’t met before?

Hege: That happens all the time. That’s easy on both LinkedIn or Twitter or other social media. If researchers are active there, that’s just maybe even easier than emails actually to just ask to connect first and then also send them message. I think in my experience, that’s very easy to do.

Alexandra: And have you noticed a preference in the research community for a certain social media network?

Hege: That’s a challenge, right? I don’t have an answer to that and sometimes feel this is very frustrating. LinkedIn has been a very trusted place to be, but it’s not been as dynamic or easy to use as Twitter. I think this is really frustrating to not have a very good platform for researchers to have quick and easy communication.

Alexandra: Have you perhaps noticed geographical or generational preferences for a certain social media network?

Hege: Absolutely. And some of my favorite collaborators, or people I would like to collaborate with, are not on social media, so that’s how it is. I also wonder myself how much time should I spend on social media? It’s a challenge, but we need to disseminate our work and we need to reach out as researchers. So I really want to do it, but I have periods that I cannot really be very active. It’s too busy.

Alexandra: Speaking of making your work known on social media, Lisa, do you, for instance, notice that sharing work on social media has an impact on the number of views on a certain article or the number of citations?

Lisa: I think it definitely does. At Nature Cancer, we use Twitter a lot to publicise our content. And, I think it’s really, really helpful because you get a lot of visibility. But I think it’s actually sometimes even more helpful if the author themselves really publicise on Twitter, because some authors make so much effort to make really good tutorials that describe the content of the story. So I think it’s definitely a really good way to be visible.

Alexandra: As you’ve mentioned, when we talk about social media and research, I think the first example that comes to mind are Twitter and LinkedIn. But there were alternatives of developing social media for researchers such as ResearchGate, and I’m sure there are others. Do you feel that they have any sort of impact? Are they commonly used?

Lisa: I definitely think that social media has a really big impact in networking. It’s fun! And sometimes easier to just write to someone on Twitter and connect from there. So I do think it’s a really important aspect.

Alexandra: And some journals have their own forums for authors to discuss, more like a networking platform that’s associated with certain journals. Is that something you use or would suggest researchers to use?

Lisa: Yes. We, for example, have certain platforms that are related to cancer research and I think these are also taken up really well.

Alexandra: We were discussing at the beginning the difference between in-person and online conferences. And I was wondering whether you have any tips on how one could start a conversation in a virtual conference? Because I think we can agree networking is a bit more challenging in the online setting.

Hege: I think it is very nice to be approached when people have a question that you can respond quite easily to so you can understand what part of your scientific field is the person interested in. So it’s very good to start like, “I saw the work you had in that journal”. It’s so fascinating with that phenomenon, for instance, that you have something that you just see that the person who approached you is someone that actually knows something about what you’re doing and has a scientific interest in talking with you. And, from there, I think it’s good to have an upfront idea of why would you like to talk with this scientist or this researcher or student?

You may question whether he or she has time to talk with you now, or is this not of interest at all? So you need to say, “I am working on this and that in this group”, or something like that, to show why are you approaching. What is your key question or key interest? So, to have that prepared, have a key question or key interest prepared so you can easily tempt the person to talk more with you.

Lisa: In virtual conference breakout rooms this can work out, but also, it doesn’t always, right? Because sometimes people don’t actually switch to the room. A virtual conference can also even just be a platform for you to say, “I attended this conference. I heard your talk and I have a question”. And then a conversation can also arise afterwards.

Hege: And some conferences are very good at having a chat function, where you can post a question in the chat with your name and you can have response That’s worked quite well. In some smaller conferences or meetings, you post your question and you are asked to say it out loud on your mic and camera.

Alexandra: The scientific world really seems to be very connected. And the ‘six degrees of separation’ principle definitely seems to apply. There’s a really interesting article about this, although it’s rather old now. It was published in 2001 by Professor Mark Newman, a physicist from the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. So in his study, Professor Newman tested the six degrees of separation theory by looking at the authors of published papers, in the biomedical research, physics and computer sciences. And starting with the assumption that co-authors must know each other, he found out that it takes between four and nine steps to connect any two random researchers.

And similarly, Mario Coccia from the National Research Council in Italy in 2016 looked at how networking affects collaboration patterns between basic and applied sciences. Then researchers from Dana Farber Cancer Institute and. Northeastern University in Boston in collaboration with the Central Europe University in Budapest, looked in 2018 at how networking affects the choice of a research problem to career trajectories and progress within a field.

So I was wondering whether it would be too dramatic to say that networking could make or break someone’s career at the end of the day.

Lisa: I’m not sure if I would say it can break your career if you don’t network, but I definitely think that it can make your career if you network, because even as a PhD student or a postdoc, you may be exposed to completely different circles and you may end up having career transitions that you didn’t even think about before just because of the people you you met during networking.

Hege: I totally agree on that, and I think it was very interesting what you mentioned with how many steps you need to go through before you actually can collaborate. There is a limit on how many projects you can have and how many you can have to fail, or collaborations you can have to fail. So, my experience is that when I have a collaboration I need, first I need to know something about who I’m collaborating with. So you actually need to do some, not only networking, but you need to get to know each other at a certain level so you know that you put the same into the collaboration, same dedication, or you have the same goal or aim with how we will move forward.

And then in the collaboration, what I’ve also learned is that you need to work quite closely when you collaborate across Atlantic borders or even within an institute, you need to meet physically regularly. And I think we’ve been much better now to meet virtually, but regular meetings. So I think the networking part upfront will show whether we connect as humans. Do we talk the same way? Scientifically can we understand each other? Will both of us gain in working together, both groups or people? I think networking is part of that. Which people or scientific groups do connect well, that’s part of the networking. It’s not breaking your career, but it’ll make your career to network, find good connections that will bring something fruitful for you and your collaborator. I think networking gives you a lot of insights, other ideas, but it’s also to find collaborators where you can pursue common scientific interests.

Alexandra: Thank you very much for your answers. We are fast approaching our time limit for the episode, so I have one last question for you. If you could give only one piece of advice to your younger self when it comes to networking, what would that be?

Hege: For me, it’s to be more brave and approach people. Talk with people. Connect, contact, and don’t be intimidated by a rejection or refusal or worry that nobody answer your email. Just continue approach. Be open.

Lisa: Yeah, I think I would’ve said exactly the same. Don’t miss the opportunities. Maybe you go to a conference in your circle of your colleagues and then you end up not talking to too many other people because you are more comfortable in your own circle. Force yourself to go out there and connect, I think is what I would tell myself.

Alexandra: Thank you very much for your answers, and thank you for joining me today for this wonderful conversation. I’m going to review the way that I network, and I hope that this episode helped our listeners as much as I feel it helped me.

Episode Bibliography

Do scientific meetings matter? Turning up for talks brings surprise benefits
The structure of scientific collaboration networks
Evolution and convergence of the patterns of international scientific collaboration
Science of science

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