In praise of national networks

Photo by Noel Lopez (http://digerata.net) from unsplash.com

Photo by Noel Lopez (http://digerata.net) from unsplash.com

I was listening to a wise old researcher the other day when she said:

International networks are lovely, but it is your national network that will get you funded.

I realised that she was right.

We talk a lot about the importance of building an international network, but we don’t often talk about the importance of building a local network.

We put a lot of time into going to international conferences, looking for opportunities to get out of our own countries, and there are very good reasons for that. International conferences, by their very nature, tend to provide a wider point of view, a better sense of what is going on in a field.

International links provide enormous opportunities for better research, whether it is comparative research across cultures or access to more specialised equipment and facilities. Also, getting outside your own country helps to widen your perspective.

However, my job is to get you funded, and so I’m going to tell you what she told me:

It is your national networks that will fund you.

To win a research grant, the assessors have to think well of you. They need to trust you.

With the exception of double-blind granting schemes like the Gates Foundation Grand Challenge Explorations, your assessors will know who you are. Your name will be on the application. Your carefully crafted CV will be attached. If they want to know more, they can search for you (which is a very good reason for keeping your university profile page and other social media ‘faces’ up to date).

The assessors are looking at your application from a few different, but complementary, points of view:

  • Is the idea exciting?
  • Is it worthwhile?
  • Can you make it work?

The last aspect is about trust. In the end, if they endorse your application, they are saying that they trust you to make it work.

Trust relationships are as important as they are intangible.

Who are these people?

Who are these nameless assessors that you need to trust you? Well, they probably aren’t the keynotes at that big name international conference that you went to last year. And they aren’t your immediate colleagues because academics from your own institution are usually excluded from assessing your application because of conflict of interest.

By and large, they are your national peers. People in the same country who are doing work like yours. Most of the time (but not always), they will be a bit more senior than you, but not stratospherically senior. They are folk like us.

Funding bodies choose assessors from their database. They don’t just pluck the names out of the air. They try to find people who will understand your work, but who haven’t worked directly with you. Their database contains the profiles of all the people who have applied before, plus people who have asked to be added as assessors (you should put your hand up if you haven’t already!). They augment that list of potential assessors with names that their committee can provide – people that the committee members know and think would do a good job of assessing your application.

Their database will predominantly consist of people from their country. There will be people from other countries in there, but nowhere near as many as the locals. While we work in an international world, we are still a bunch of nation-states at heart. Some funding agencies work very hard to include international assessors for each application. However, the pool is much smaller.

Also, I suspect that most of the internationals on the list aren’t as good at responding in a timely manner. Assessing for your own national funding agencies is seen as a duty – it is about building the research of the nation. Assessing for a funding agency that you normally apply to is common sense, too. However, assessing for another nation’s funding agency is more of an obligation than a duty. You should absolutely do it if asked, but you probably won’t feel the same drive to get it done.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh – both international and national networks are important. Just don’t ignore your national network.

What does a national network look like?

Most of us already have a local network.

We know the people we went to university with, the people we’ve worked with, our supervisors and past students. We know our friends, the friends of our parents and siblings, and our kids’ friends’ parents.

That’s not a national network. Most of the time, that is a local network.

If we’ve been working at the same place for a long time (like me), it might be a very, very localised network. That’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about getting to know the other academics across your whole country. National conferences are a great place to start. Most grant applications that I see include some funds for travel to key international and national conferences. That is often the first thing that a funding body will cut when it is trying to fund as many applications as possible. That means that it is often a struggle to get to the right conference.

If you can only submit to one, then it is tempting to go for an overseas conference. It feels like it has more status. Maybe it does, but – think about this – maybe the people you meet at a national conference will be the ones reading your next grant application.

In preparing to attend a national conference, don’t forget to contact a couple of people who teach your topic at the universities in the host city. Offer to give a guest lecture while you are there. Most of the time this won’t be possible – timing can be tricky. But when it is, you will get to talk to a smart colleague in your field and the next crop of potential postgraduate students. Again, this is the sort of thing that people often think to do when they are travelling overseas, but not necessarily when they travel interstate. It is like we feel we are a bit more interesting when we travel overseas, a bit more exotic.

You can even do this within your own city, at the universities that you don’t work for. You’ll need to get past that feeling that they are the ‘opposition’ though. We seem to compete the most against the people who are closest to us. This attitude drives me crazy. Yes, we are competing for resources. However, we know that we are stronger when we collaborate. It is smarter to collaborate with the people close by.

When you think about events in your own country, don’t ignore the region around your city. Don’t be ruled by the tyranny of airport hubs. In Australia, it is much easier to get to another state capital than to a regional centre. As a result, most people, when they travel, go to events in other state capitals. Effectively, they fly from hub to hub, ignoring the territory in between. Explore what is going on in the regions.

If you are in a regional campus, explore what is happening in the rest of your region – don’t just travel to the city all the time.

Finally, talk to your local print and electronic media. It is all well and good building your profile on social media, but it is essentially a disembodied space. On the Internet, nobody knows you’re from Dodge. So, complement it with opinion pieces and radio interviews. It lets the locals know who you are.

When it comes time to submit that research grant application, you may have already done part of the work of convincing assessors to trust you. 

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About Jonathan O'Donnell
Jonathan O'Donnell helps people get funding for their research. To be specific, he helps the people in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. He loves his job. One day a week he does his own research into privacy, identity and transactions on the Internet. He likes that day, too, even when it makes his brain hurt.

7 Responses to In praise of national networks

  1. fyimaths says:

    Reblogged this on First Year in Maths and commented:
    An interesting post on how to build those important connections between universities.

  2. fyimaths says:

    Great post- making that personal connection and meeting people in their own institution is so important for building collaboration. Our network is based on this.

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Thanks, fyimaths. At my institutions, I start all research workshops by getting people to introduce themselves and describe their research. In part, I do this because we often don’t know what other people at our own institution are doing.

  3. Jo Dalvean says:

    Great Post! Just added a link to this on Deakin Uni’s Yammer

  4. I think you make a really important point Jonathan. I have a couple of comments.

    First, international conferences can also be good ways to extend your national network. Look at the list of attendees and identify the ones from institutions in your own country. Make contact with ones whose research interests are close to yours. And if there are none whose research interests are close, then you need to broaden your search. Assume that people at the conference will be reviewing your proposal – both when you are deciding who you want to meet and again, when you are writing your grant application.

    Second, the judgement they will be making is whether you can you do the research in your proposal, not whether you are a good person to have a drink with. So ideally you need to get them interested in your conference presentation, and take an interest in theirs.

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Thanks, Andrew. That is excellent advice.

      I particularly like the idea of connecting with locals when you are at international conferences.

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