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Building your professional network is imperative for a long and successful career. Choose collaborators wisely by aligning with accomplished individuals. Attend networking events and seek mentorship. Make friends with talented science writers who can help you convey the impact and scope of your research. Avoid mismatches in expertise that will put off grant reviewers. Be shrewd by becoming a reviewer or participating in organizing committees to get to know future collaborators.

I’m Joel Berry, Founder and Chief Scientist at Astound Research. I spent 30 years as an academic scientist, building collaborations. What follows are my high-level observations about the people I’ve encountered, advice on building your professional network, and how relationships have enabled (or inhibited) my quest for funding and scientific success.

If my older self could advise my younger self on picking professional contacts for my career growth, it would be “choose your scientific relationships carefully.” 

But how do you do that? How do you know a good relationship from a bad one? Can you tell if a collaboration is likely to work out? Often, these aren’t easy to do.

Which People Do You Remember?

The people are what I remember most about my scientific journey. 

There were hundreds—no, thousands of them of all stripes. Some I knew only tangentially, and some encounters resulted in lifelong friendships. 

There were the super serious ones (sometimes too serious), the expansive personalities, and the introverts. There were the ones who had a much bigger opinion of themselves than they deserved and the ones who didn’t understand the amazing value of their own scientific achievements. 

I made my choice of professional connections and collaborators armed with the best information I had at the time and committed to working with them. 

Some of these professional relationships were a waste of time, but fortunately, enough of them were healthy and productive such that they resulted in years of successful collaboration. 

A Career in Science is About People

All scientists are connected in some way, and we have a lot in common. 

As career scientists, we want a good job with a decent wage. We want to explore our own curiosity, discover something new, tell the world about it, and ask the world to believe in us enough to support us so we can keep doing it. 

At its core, the fulfillment of being a scientist is shared by the village of scientists. 

The days of the lone investigator toiling away in a laboratory are over. Active participation in the scientific community is foundational to getting funded for your science. 

As in any community, the inhabitants exist on a spectrum of ambition, motivation, creativity, and willingness to help others succeed. 

What Type of People Do You Want to Be Around?

When you are honest with yourself, you will know where you are on this spectrum. 

When you determine your place, align yourself and build professional relationships with people who are scientifically more accomplished than you. It’s true in sports—participation with people better than you makes you a better player. The same is true in science. 

It is extremely helpful if you like the people you are seeking. Not liking them does not bode well for future collaborations. Trust your gut.

It’s Your Network. Who Do You Want in It?

Start with your primary PhD mentor. This is probably the post-doc who taught you most of the stuff you know. 

If your dissertation topic is going to be the path you pursue, seek out this mentor’s collaborators. It is a real bonus, especially if they are successful in grant writing. 

They frequently bring a fresh point of view and will most likely be eager to help you and potentially keep advising you.  

If you don’t have sufficient access to your mentor’s network or if you want to go in a new scientific direction, start building your own network. 

Aim high by contacting the leaders in the field. 

They got to be leaders for a reason, usually because they were ambitious and didn’t take no for an answer. They are people too, and will be at least a little flattered that you took the initiative to reach out. 

They will be even more flattered if you’ve read a few of their papers and can discuss the content. 

Go to conferences and seek out the leaders. If you have a plan for what you want to do with your research, ask them to advise you. 

You’ll usually get much more information than you bargained for. Also, be prepared to be dismissed by one or more of these leaders. They simply don’t have the bandwidth to deal with early career people. Trust me when I say they are doing you a favor by rebuffing your advances.

Make Friends with Good Scientific Writers 

Find good scientific writers. If you like them enough to become friends, have them look at examples of your writing or have them review your next grant proposal before it is submitted. Good writers don’t need to understand the technical intricacies of what you are doing. They can quickly discern good writing from mediocre writing. Check out this Bitesize Bio webinar to improve your writing skills.

The value of good writing cannot be underestimated. Take advantage of as many writing resources at your university as you can. They are there to make you successful.

My Real-life Examples of Collaborations

I want to share a couple of real-life examples of collaborations and why they did or didn’t work. 

A Cautionary Tale About Choosing Collaborators

My early career focused on evaluating the hemodynamics of vascular stents. I needed expertise in computational fluid dynamics to support one of my working hypotheses, so I found a senior leader in the field of aerodynamics at a neighboring university willing to help model blood flow in arteries. It was thrilling to know that a person with such prestige in a highly technical field was willing to work with me. 

I believed our expertise was complimentary, and we set about modeling these flows. We published a paper and applied for a major federal grant. 

What we were both too naive to realize was that the US National Institutes of Health did not look favorably on an aerospace engineering professor who modeled airplanes suddenly inserting himself into the world of biofluids with no previous history of work in that area. 

It cost a lot of time (and money), was a rude awakening, and a mistake I didn’t repeat again.

A Success Story in Translational Research

Here’s a story with a happier ending. 

Because my training was in biomedical engineering, I worked on projects that might someday translate into clinical applications. That meant I should align myself with a practicing medical doctor who also did research and understood the mantra “bench to bedside.” 

I needed the doctor to be compatible with my interests and bring the patient perspective to the research approach. I found a handful of these physicians that met these criteria. They were good scientific writers, and I also liked them as people. 

In each case, we were successful in publishing papers and getting our grant proposals funded. The engineer-physician team was a winning combination. From the perspective of the funding agency, such a team helped guarantee that the scientific work would also be translational. 

We were truly catering to the needs of NIH while satisfying our own scientific ambition, so they were meaningful connections to have.

Be Shrewd

Two additional real-life examples from my career that resulted in productive relationships were becoming a reviewer for other people’s science and participating in the organizing committees for scientific conferences. 

As a reviewer for 5 different journals and for NIH and American Heart Association grant proposals, I got a front row seat into what my peers were doing. 

My position as a reviewer bound me to confidentiality, but I recognized the potential opportunities and got to know several excellent scientists after the reviews were done. 

I also served on the organizing committees for a handful of conferences. This is a great way to cement your reputation within your scientific community as someone who knows how to get things done. If these same people are reviewing your grant proposals, they will be inclined to give it to you.

Your profile will elevate as you align yourself with other scientists (the villagers) who are well-respected in your area of research. 

Final Thoughts on Building Your Professional Network

As your career grows, you have more choice over who you work with. And who you include in your professional network has a massive impact on whether you achieve your career goals and the direction your career path will take.

Try to think from the perspective of a grant reviewer when writing grant applications. Consider what they will look upon favorably—and what they will not. It’s helpful to think of the reasons why they shouldn’t award you grant money and mitigate them before submitting your applications.

Getting on good terms with a talented scientific writer never hurts, as you can learn from them to effectively convey the impact and scope of your research. 

Finally, be aware of situations that could benefit you and come to fruition in years to come, and take advantage of them to build a strong network.

Astound Research’s Role

Astound Research has collected and curated over 1,000 funding opportunities in life sciences and engineering disciplines. Provide the platform with your CV or biosketch, and we go to work on your behalf. We use AI to extract the scientific keywords representing your expertise and match them to relevant funding opportunities—in seconds. Your task is to decide which opportunities are right for you. Visit https://www.astoundresearch.com/intro to learn more.

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