Professional Networking in the Digital Age

by Jay Maddock, PhD

The Dean’s Perspective focuses on issues pertinent to the relationship between academic public health and the practice community.

Jay E. Maddock, PhD, FAAHB

How and why should public health professionals create a strong network in the digital age? This is a question that I pondered after Dr. Katie Heinrich asked me to guest lecture on the topic in her professional development class at Kansas State University. As I prepared for the lecture, I started thinking about why we want to have a strong professional network. It has been a platitude for decades that you must have a strong network. Networking is essential. In the age of social networking, most of us have much larger social networks than the generations before us. Several studies have shown negative effects of social media and health, including cyberbullying, obesity, infidelity, depression, and divorce. However, a recent systematic review of health professional social networking found positive effects, including increased communication, information sharing, and professional collaboration. Personally, I have seen a great benefit from creating a strong social network. This includes collaboration on papers, grants, and books but also less hard outcomes like having people to bounce ideas off of. As a dean, I have directly hired faculty and staff that were part of my network. I have also done letters for tenure and promotion, job references, and award nominations for people in my network. Most recently I have been writing and editing a book with three great colleagues that I came to know through my professional network. Although we worked mostly remotely on the book, when we did have a chance to come together, we all remarked on how much fun we had working together and how it made putting a book together an enjoyable task.

Now that we’ve looked at the importance of developing a professional network, the next question is how to develop a network. Unless you are over 60, you probably don’t have a Rolodex siting on your desk with hundreds of business cards. I still get and give cards at every meeting that I go to. This is an important ritual that helps me make sure that I get people’s names right in the meeting and remember who they are. However, when I get back to the office, I look the person up on LinkedIn and connect with them. This is important for several reasons: one is that I can never find the specific business card when I’m looking for it, and two when people move jobs or change email addresses, they tend to keep their LinkedIn pages updated. I currently have 1,420 connections on LinkedIn. There is no way I could find their business cards and keep with their current positions without this tool. An important step is to make sure you have an updated LinkedIn page with a picture so that you can connect with the people you meet and they will know who you are. On the topic of professional networking sites, I also like ResearchGate. For academics, this serves as a great repository for your intellectual work. The site allows you to post papers in both public and private formats, depending of the publication’s copyright criteria. A recent study has shown that articles published on these types of sites lead to higher levels of citations.

Now that we know what to do once we connect, the question is how to connect. While networking can happen organically, it is much more effective if it happens purposefully. It is easy to stay in our routines and socialize with the people that we already know. Try to step outside your comfort zone. Based on your schedule, try to meet someone new every week or two. I like to find people that are doing interesting work and schedule a get-to-know-you meeting. Often times, there are mutual things that people are interested in, and finding these can lead to new collaborations. I like to follow our university’s news feed and look for people doing physical activity research in other colleges. This can lead to exciting new possibilities, and I’ve had several people find me that way too. If you are early in your career, your mentors are conduits to their professional network. Ask them to introduce you to their colleagues. These introductions could lead to jobs, collaborations, or other possibilities. It amazes me how often I go to conferences and people go out to dinner with the people they work with every day. This is a perfect chance to meet new people. Even if you are introverted, invite one or two people to join your group. These simple strategies can add 50 or more new people to your network every year. Every connection is not going to be a strong one, but if 10% are, you are adding valuable new connections to your network.

Networking can be highly enjoyable. It is fun meeting new people and finding out how different people approach the same problems. It is also a great way to find your strong collaborators and strong ties that you can work with and form friendships throughout your career. Happy networking!

Jay E. Maddock, PhD is the Dean of the School of Public Health at Texas A&M University. He is internationally recognized for his research in social ecological approaches to increasing physical activity. He has served as principal investigator on over $18 million in extramural funding and authored over 100 scientific articles. [Full Bio]

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