How important is “web spinning” in science

A scientist today would have to be an excellent “web spinner”. Here a clarification is perhaps due: under “web spinning” I mean networking – building and creating of networks and catching others in your “web” or network. As most researchers tend to be introverted, for them networking may prove even more challenging than making a brilliant scientific discovery.

I prefer focusing on my research rather than networking, which, unfortunately, one cannot escape from. Without it, there would be fewer opportunities to find a position or finances. Networking in a broad academic circle guarantees invitations to conferences and inclusion in collaboration projects.

Below I’ve included three examples of situations in which I could not have managed without the art of “web spinning”. Being not the best of communicators, I often don’t take the most optimal advantage of such situations, which means missed opportunities to make it in the international academic world. The first of the examples has to do with poster presentations, the second with keeping close to the leading scientists in your field, and the third with going to the pub with your colleagues.

Most large conferences feature not only traditional oral presentations but also poster presentations. A researcher displays his or her research on a poster and presents it during the poster session. A poster presentation usually involves standing next to the poster for an hour, sometimes for two, being prepared to answer the questions of anyone who takes interest in research. However, shifting weight from one foot to another with a forced smile on my face and waiting for people to take an interest in my poster is one of my least favourite pastimes.

At a recent conference in France, participants presenting their posters were handed a bottle of wine, which they were asked to pour out to guests interested in the poster. A waitress’s role proved even more difficult. I must confess that I couldn’t make it for more than ten minutes, even though my poster was excellent this time and I was very proud of both the research and its presentation. I slipped the almost full wine bottle on the first unoccupied table corner and, with a slight pang of guilt but huge relief, sneaked away.

Once I was at a conference in the US, with several leading experts in the field attending. I braced myself and approached a famous French researcher to compliment him on his paper. We struck a conversation, at the end of which I offered to take him on a hike in the local nature park. He gladly agreed and was excited about the chance to learn about the nature of the area. Over the course of the hike, we discussed potential collaboration projects, and by now, we have published several co-authored articles. This single brave networking move which took me a lot of courage proved hugely beneficial!

The author of this article, Tuul Sepp, networking with excellent French scientists Frédéric Thomas and Mathieu Giraudeau in the Grand Canyon. Image from a personal archive

My adversity to drinking has proved to be a significant disadvantage in academic activities. Going to the pub and sharing a beer or two are of invaluable importance in networking. You may, of course, tag along and have a glass of water, but this inevitably makes you an outsider. So, for the sake of my career, I have accustomed myself to consuming small amounts of alcohol.

Once, at a conference in Florence, Italy, I agreed, somewhat reluctantly, to join a group of colleagues for dinner. The socially tense situation occupied my attention and concentration to the degree that I completely forgot to tell my husband about the event. He was waiting for me at the hotel, and I couldn’t hear the phone ringing in my handbag. I was wholeheartedly connecting with other researchers until, close to midnight, I finally happened to look at my phone. By then, my husband had already searched through half the downtown of Florence and was about to launch a police search for me because not letting him know where I was is not something I would normally do.

What is the point of these examples? For different people, communicating is variously both challenging and demanding. Those who are natural at it have an advantage because, as the above examples suggest, the possible benefits of good communication skills are immeasurable.

Scientists who are also skillful “web spinners” have a huge advantage in the modern academic world even if they are far from being brilliant. They choose geniuses as their collaboration partners and reap profit from promoting the projects based on their ideas. This is mutually beneficial because a genius may not have the necessary promotion skills. Successful “web spinners”, however, in cooperation with many introverted geniuses may build themselves the most competitive CV of them all. They may not be brilliant scientists, but they are brilliant “web spinners”. I also know a few scientists who are both brilliant and good web-spinners, and this is a killer combination that leads to a great scientific career.

Good communication skills are certainly useful in all areas of life. Still, most people entertaining the idea of an academic career or looking at science from outside probably don’t realise the importance of these skills in science. Including a course on self-promoting in the curriculum of doctoral students would not be such a bad idea at all. To some degree, possibly, one can be socially reclusive in research activities, but it is important to realise that opportunities will be missed if communication is avoided.

Tuul Sepp is Senior Research Fellow in Animal Ecology at the University of Tartu. This article was originally published in Estonian.

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