Building Your Network: Why Community Matters in Graduate School

Many experts are endlessly praising the benefits of ‘networking’ and include it in various ‘top 5’ lists of the most significant soft skills for graduate students. Unfortunately, their recommendations rarely answer the ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions and are entirely focused on the ‘what’ part covering the advantages realised by this strategy. In this article, we will provide an in-depth analysis of the factors making networking one of the best instruments for succeeding in graduate school. This understanding will allow you to identify what you need to build your own networks and what specific steps you need to take to make them effective for your specific needs.

What Makes Networking Effective from a Scientific Standpoint?

To understand why networking is extremely effective and how you can build your networks effectively, we need to delve deeper into the Concept of ‘value networks’. A good example of this marketing concept is a popular social media user. When they try a top-notch product or service and praise them to their audiences, the manufacturer/provider instantly gains access to hundreds of new customers. The best thing here is that the process is not associated with manipulative advertising or other controversial techniques. Let us take a closer look at the situation from a bird’s eye view.

  1. There exist multiple customers already interested in high-quality offerings.
  2. There exists a manufacturer creating such products or services.
  3. Both parties are willing to engage in an exchange but are not aware of each other.
  4. The network or platform combining them allows them to interact and achieve satisfactory results.

A simpler example is a person helping a friend sell a used PC. If they know another friend who is in need of an affordable PC at the moment, they can connect the two friends and help them create value for each other and realise mutual benefits.

Value Goes Beyond Products and Services

Value networks are formed by a number of individual ‘nodes’ that can exchange information, money, and other resources. In the example above, the influencer/mutual friend simply tells others about a product/service. Effectively, they transfer information across their network of contacts, which sets everything into motion. Alternatively, they can also receive some interesting tip-offs from their peers about some upcoming sales, interesting offers or other opportunities valuable to them. This ongoing exchange makes the whole network stronger than a sum of its individual parts over time as its members can redistribute resources more efficiently. Here are just some possible outcomes of the aforementioned relationships:

  1. The persons getting timely tips about quality products and services can use resources sparingly.
  2. Excessive resources in one part of the network can be invested in lucrative offerings in other parts.
  3. A person with a good reputation within the network can borrow resources from it and use short-term opportunities such as one-day discounts.

Over time, the mutual benefits provided through the prompt movement of value across the network make all of its members richer and more effective as opposed to people operating as individuals. However, this requires high levels of trust towards each member and the realisation of reciprocity principles. Otherwise, some users can abuse the network relationships for their personal gains by ‘taking more than they give back’.

community in graduate school

Why Are Networks Important in Academia?

Whether you like it or not, the world of academia is highly similar to the world of business in many aspects:

  1. First-hand knowledge about new opportunities puts you ahead of your competitors and increases your chances of ‘winning the race’.
  2. Multiple persons with like-minded interests can enjoy ‘economies of scale’ and other valuable synergies putting them ahead of ‘individual runners’.
  3. Open innovation networks grant you access to unique ideas and insights expanding your range of opportunities.
  4. Long-lasting relationships allow you to use others’ resources as leverage in challenging situations.
  5. You can get lucrative offers since close contacts are more likely to recommend you to their peers looking for specialists in a certain field.

Let us imagine a situation where a student maintains a good network of contacts in graduate school. This community will probably inform them about any interesting courses, the best supervisors, optimal assignment writing and dissertation writing strategies, and ways to save money during the period of studies. This socialisation pays off manifold in the long-term perspective since community members can also help each other with non-academic tasks. They may range from assisting their peers moving between apartments to sharing some books, subscriptions, and equipment.

At a more advanced level, academic networks can evolve into professional contacts helping you:

  1. Find the optimal supervisor for your dissertation or PhD thesis.
  2. Learn more about other students studying the same field of knowledge.
  3. Find co-authors for producing new articles and publications.
  4. Learn more about the opening positions in academia.
  5. Obtain valuable guidance regarding potential future paths in your academic journey.
  6. Find interesting internships and even real job offers.

Many of these opportunities may not be available otherwise since many people tend to ask their close social contacts about the emerging opportunities before publishing them online in official sources. This ‘internal recruitment’ process can close many requests within the existing networks with ‘outsiders’ not being aware of their existence.

What Defines a Network Strength?

In addition to the above, it can be noted that any network of contacts has a number of factors defining its strength including:

1. Size

The networks uniting dozens of practitioners can ‘catch’ and share more valuable information and resources than smaller networks uniting 3-4 persons. However, they are also more challenging to maintain.

2. Trust

Individuals within the community need to trust each other in order to share valuable resources. The absence of this element reduces the value transferred throughout certain networks.

3. Existence Duration

Long-term communities can usually store more valuable information and may be more useful for graduate school practitioners interested in reliable recommendations and knowledge.

Ideally, you want to build a network with members who have helped each other in the past and trust each other. Such positive experiences may include assignment writing or essay writing activities performed in groups as well as any other joint projects.

phd student

How Can You Build Your Own Network?

The key to building your own network is to focus on providing value rather than obtaining value. People are attracted to persons who offer something interesting rather than the ones who want to be freeloaders. Here are some ideas on how you can build a network in graduate school.

1. Start a Blog

Your publications including recommendations to younger students as well as some valuable materials may help you find new friends and increase the number of people grateful to you. Sincerity can also assist some users who are considering certain academic options and may use your experience as an extra opinion for making the final decision.

2. Engage in Group Assignments and Activities

Group activities ranging from university assignments to extracurricular clubs can help you establish new contacts. Helping others in the process is a good way to become perceived as a leader. Try to find 5-10 opportunities involving group activities in graduate school and engage in them to start building your network. One of the best options in this sphere is to organise a team of students helping each other prepare for an exam. Joint creation of study materials, answering questions in front of each other, and supporting your peers during this stressful period is the key to building a strong community based on trust and mutual gratitude.

3. Be There for Your Network Members

There comes a time when some of your acquaintances ask you to help with exam preparation, article revision or other academic task. This is the moment when you can create value for them and build up your relationship. Make sure that you are able to support others when you can if you expect similar support in return.

4. Listen to Others

As you start building your network, make sure that every member within it can express their opinion in group activities and projects. While being a leader may give you more perceived power over others, make sure that you do not abuse it.

5. Maintain Ties

While you and your network members are still in graduate school, make sure to meet each other in person and socialise. Maintaining ties both during this period and beyond is the best way to stay in contact afterwards. It can be really difficult to approach a person with a request after not speaking to each other for many years.

The recent pandemic demonstrated the significance of formal and informal contacts for maintaining mental health and overcoming the challenges of remote education. Having your own network is a powerful support tool for any graduate school student. It also helps obtain the wisdom of senior peers while helping first- and second-year peers by sharing your acquired knowledge. Value networks in academia transform competition and rivalry into mutually beneficial collaboration leading to optimal results for everyone.