How to Build an Academic Network

By Stephen H. Jones and Paula Brikci 

Photo by Hans-Peter Gauster on Unsplash

On 5th February, the International Research Network for the Study of Science and Belief in Society launched a call for grants to support the development of regional academic networks. In this blog, drawing on the insights of scholars from across the field, Stephen H. Jones and Paula Brikci look at what makes a good academic network and what anyone thinking of establishing a new network needs to consider.  

Networks perform an unusual function in academic life. In most professional spheres, ‘networking’ is a term people use to describe efforts to form personal links that enable new business and career opportunities. Accordingly, some individuals approach the activity with caution, viewing it as a necessary but not enjoyable part of their job or career development. However, is this always true in academia? 

Certainly, there are those in academia who find networking in the business sense less than enjoyable. Yet for academic researchers, the term carries another meaning, describing disciplinary or subject networks that bring together specialists in the same field. Academics are people who work to answer complex questions, often in isolation, and subject networks are one of the few spaces that enable them to converse about those questions and gather the knowledge that may, eventually, answer them.   

This means that academic networks are, when operating at their best, not  focused on competition and personal benefit and more on collaboration and collective problem solving. ‘Academic networks are an invaluable source of motivation, resources, companionship, research questions, and guideship’, is how Ignacio Silva, a Research Fellow at Universidad Austral in Buenos Aries, puts it. He is not alone, with many viewing their favoured research network as, in the words of Daniel Nilsson DeHanas of King’s College, London, ‘hearth and home’.  

What, though, makes a network successful? How can one build an academic network that responds to people’s interests and needs, and that can stand the test of time? How does one avoid the invidious competitiveness and elitism that people so often associate with ‘networking’, and build an open academic network that can give people a boost and that has the value of collaboration at its heart? 

Crossing boundaries 

Academic networks vary widely in their size and scope, but what unites almost all of them is they offer the opportunity to move beyond faculty, institutional and, in some cases, disciplinary boundaries. Scholarly networks are always organised around a particular discipline or research interest, but often what makes them work is the different perspectives and methodological skills members bring to the subject of interest. 

Paul Robertson, a Lecturer in Humanities and Classics at the University of New Hampshire, puts it this way. ‘What I value most in a network is connecting to those with other specialist expertise, but where there is also some overlap in interest and training. This “Venn diagram” model allows for really fruitful and effective collaboration on shared areas, which will differ depending on who is engaged’. 

This can extend further in cases where a network extends beyond national boundaries. As Tiago Garros, an early career researcher currently working at TeachBeyond Brazil, explains of his experience: ‘I was able to partner with people from different geographical regions and conduct research together, as well as gathering different areas of expertise that could be used for an investigation as a singular group’. 

Opening doors for others 

One of the reasons many people feel ambivalent about networking is that it often implies a lack of openness – it seems to suggest a model of business based upon who, not what, one knows.  

This is a problem for academic networks too. ‘Networks allow an exchange of information, ideas, and the formation of connections that enrich all of our work’ comments Shiri Noy, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Denison University. ‘But, I think it’s particularly important to be deliberate about fostering diversity, equity, and equal opportunity to engage in networks and folding in early career researchers and prioritizing mentorship and development of projects and people.’  

This means doing more than including a stock public statement about equal opportunity in public communications. It means thinking hard about how a network can meaningfully support those who are not established in their careers through mentorship, cost reductions and drawing a line between providing opportunities and exploiting voluntary capacity. With academia being international, it is crucial to consider, too, ways to lessen the inequalities that exist between countries and scholars in terms of their access to academic publications, conference spaces and virtual forums.  

A public face 

Being open and welcoming, of course, will not count for much if no-one knows a network exists. All networks need some kind of platform for exchanging ideas and making connections. Often this is a website, or it could be a simple Facebook page, especially when a network is newly formed, so that it can be tested and refined to meet the needs of members before a more permanent platform is created. 

A digital presence like this enables networks to set out their point of focus and thus connect to the widest pool of knowledge and expertise, generally within the particular field of interest itself and beyond.  

Planning for the long term 

Most academic networks, even large ones, are run largely through voluntary labour, which makes them vulnerable. It is all too easy for a network to fizzle out when its founder has even a minor change in role or circumstance. 

The best way around this problem is for networks to be collective enterprises. ‘Networks need leadership in order to make them flourish, but they also need a sense of ownership by all members’, comments Silva. ‘Good network leaders, then, would help network members to “own” the network and not only to “belong” to it by participating in activities. Hence, leaders would allow members to be part of decision-making processes within the network’. 

Various (admittedly, boring-sounding) practical steps follow from this principle: things like a joint governing body and a clear constitutional statement outlining what the network does, who is part of it and how to join it. Financial management may not be an exciting subject, but it is this that allows a network not only to continue but to keep cost-free doors open to scholars who may lack a personal research allowance. Setting out clear committee responsibilities, similarly, is no-one’s idea of fun, but it is this that guards against involving people who have more interest in getting a line on their CV than fostering real academic collaboration. 

Field development 

This last point touches on something important. What sets academic networks apart from the conventional idea of professional networking is that the end goal of academic networking isn’t (just) personal advancement, but the development of a scholarly field – or more loftily still, shifting the limits of human knowledge. This will differ from discipline to discipline and subject to subject. It may be at national, regional or global scales. But what makes any good network function and flourish, ultimately, is the shared acceptance that its members are working to a common goal. If you are seeking to set up an academic network of any sort, that is the first thing to bear in mind.