SIAM News Blog

CSE23 Session Helps Attendees Build Their Professional Networks

By Lina Sorg

Networking and collaboration are imperative components of every scientific domain. Although the idea of sharing awkward, superficial conversations with strangers might seem off-putting, effective networking opens many personal and professional doors that would otherwise be inaccessible. “It may feel uncomfortable to justify spending time making small talk,” Wil Schilders of Eindhoven University of Technology said. “But it’s important that scientists make it a priority to do so in order to build meaningful connections with those around them.”

During a minisymposium presentation at the 2023 SIAM Conference on Computational Science and Engineering (CSE23), which took place last week in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, Schilders—who is one of the Organizing Committee co-chairs for CSE23—offered tips and tricks for successful networking in scientific fields. He began by emphasizing the collaborative nature of science and mathematics, both within and between specialty areas. “These days, very few scientific advances are made in isolation,” Schilders said. “Collaboration is critical to innovation and good science, particularly as new technologies require increased cross-functional work between researchers in different disciplines.” Outside perspectives are especially beneficial to research progression; even simple, casual conversations with colleagues can inspire novel ideas and hypotheses.

Schilders noted that numerous studies indicate that many prospective employers value interpersonal “soft” skills even more than technical expertise. “Employers no longer only want someone who is an expert at the lab bench,” he said. “They need a well-rounded individual who can articulate and present their findings and ideas in a compelling manner.” Regular networking activities allow researchers to hone their communicative abilities and form valuable relationships; like any other acquired skill, networking proficiency demands practice and repetition.

After successfully acquiring a position, networking remains a critical component of the employment advancement process. “Establishing important connections early in your career can set you up for later career success,” Schilders said. “Knowing people who can direct you to open positions and connect you with individuals who are looking to hire can be the key to landing your dream role.” These interactions are especially useful if one is seeking a job outside of their current circle. Connections in different specialty areas can facilitate transitions and help scientists establish themselves in new environments — be it academia, industry, or government.

During the 2023 SIAM Conference on Computational Science and Engineering, which took place last week in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, Wil Schilders of Eindhoven University of Technology spoke about the value of networking and collaboration throughout one's entire scientific career. SIAM photo.
Schilders also reminded attendees that everyone already has the beginnings of a network, whether they know it or not. “A network is simply the people you know, and then the contacts of those people,” he said. “It can help to look at networking as less shameless self-promotion and more as an opportunity to expand your knowledge base and form mutually beneficial connections with like-minded researchers that may advance your professional objectives.” Additionally, starting small and tapping into one’s most accessible, low-risk acquaintances can make initial attempts more comfortable. Actions as simple as asking a coworker to coffee, talking with colleagues over lunch, or going to after-work events are all worthwhile.

Online networking has become a feasible approach in today’s increasingly virtual society; tools such as email and LinkedIn help users establish and maintain an extended network of colleagues without immediately having to meet in person. However, Schilders cautioned against sending impersonal, default connective messages that lack context and personal details. When utilizing social media as a networking tool, users should keep their profiles both complete and up to date. Professional photos, personal summaries, and brief overviews of relevant skills provide potential connections with a better sense of one’s personality, abilities, and goals. Scientists might also wish to tag colleagues in shared articles on platforms like LinkedIn, which establishes them as active members of the industry and therefore worth knowing.

Attending industry events, conferences, and poster presentations—especially during the early stages of one’s career—is equally valuable. “Conferences provide a great opportunity to start building your scientific network, which can yield benefits in the form of collaborations, referrals, and access to research or funding,” Schilders said. He urged attendees to review the list of participating researchers and speakers in advance, plan to distribute business cards or other materials when appropriate, and prepare a one-two minute elevator pitch about their ongoing work. Individuals should also listen actively, engage in conversation, and ask their peers questions as well. Finally, it is important to follow up within 24 to 48 hours—for example, via a brief email that reminds the recipient of the previous interaction—to sustain momentum and express interest in future correspondence.

In fact, a significant component of network maintenance involves keeping in touch with contemporaries on a regular basis. “It can be as simple as a LinkedIn note or cordial email that thanks them for an introduction they made or advice that led to a positive outcome,” Schilders said. “If you see one of your colleagues mentioned in the news for new research or a significant achievement, take advantage of the opportunity to reach out and acknowledge their success.”

Schilders concluded his presentation with a brief overview of his own professional experiences. Attending conferences, approaching speakers after their talks, requesting papers, and sending follow-up emails resulted in numerous job offers and positions throughout his career. Moreover, he worked to maintain visibility amongst his colleagues by joining several organizations—including SIAM—and demonstrating a willingness to assume active leadership and volunteer positions. Schilders encouraged listeners to retain active SIAM membership and join SIAM Activity Groups, as this type of longtime involvement increases one’s chances of becoming a SIAM Fellow or holding an esteemed position within the Society. 

Ultimately, it is important to remain patient and not be afraid to forge one’s own path throughout the process. “Networking requires a personal touch,” Schilders said. “It will be different for every individual, so find a way of networking that fits you best.”

Lina Sorg is the managing editor of SIAM News.
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