Most of us know that the network we build will determine (at least in part) the success of our academic careers. The more people we know, both formally and informally, the more likely we are to be considered for post doctoral and other academic positions (assuming your interactions have been positive). Additionally, a larger network affords us more opportunity for collaboration (something that is very important to have on your academic CV when applying for positions). But how can we build a large and targeted academic network? I am far from an expert in this area and I hope this post will be a learning experience for me as well as other graduate students.
There are numerous resources for academics interested in learning how to build a network (websites, books, blogs). Most universities will also hold at least one seminar every year on the subject. I recommend you attend. Seminar coordinators will often invite people with varying levels of academic experience (professors, post docs, and graduate students) to speak on networking. There is usually something for both new and returning graduate students. I have attended a few seminars on networking and there are some recurring themes.
1) Attend conferences and other academic events.
The only way to meet other scientists in your field is to meet them on common ground. This seems really obvious but to some it isn't. Attending conferences can be expensive, especially if you have limited funding, and some graduate students opt out. However, most societies offer travel grants. I received one from the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology to attend the 2009 conference in Bristol, England. Many universities also offer funding for attending conferences and/or professional development. Make sure to check with your Graduate Student's Association and faculty office. Even if you don't have a lot of funding, attending conferences is the best way to build your network and I recommend going anyway (even if that means giving up your daily cup of coffee to save!). I try to attend 2-3 conferences per year and to present something at every one. There is an added benefit of building the "presentations" section of your CV.
2) Introduce yourself or have someone else introduce you to more senior researchers in your field
In my opinion, this is the most difficult part of the networking process. It is really tough to walk up to a famous researcher (or a not so famous one) especially if they are surrounded by other adoring fans. In fact, I find conferences super awkward and stressful for these reasons. It is a lot easier to hang out with your friends at conferences because it's comfortable (I call it my "safety zone"). But you have to force yourself to do it. It will get slightly (very slightly) easier with time. As your network grows and you know more and more people, it is also easier to set up introductions, which is considerably less difficult than approaching a famous researcher at random. Your adviser is also a good resource. Most advisers are happy to set up introductions. The graduate students of said famous researcher are also good resources. They can set up introductions and help reduce any ensuing awkwardness. I had some help from other graduate students when I was applying for PhD positions (and it worked!).
3) Get your research out there
This follows from point 1. If you don't advertise your research through presentations and publications, you are a lot less likely to be noticed. I love giving presentations at conferences, even if they sometimes go badly (usually because I didn't practice!). I also find publications to be a huge motivating factor when I am sitting in the lab or office. There is nothing like a "shiny" reprint with your name on it! Of course, presenting and publishing is only the first step. Emailing your new papers to colleagues or acquaintances will help them remember you and generate feedback on your work. Publishing titles and links to your papers on your website will also help alert the online community to your work. You should also bring reprints and abstract copies to conferences. This will help people remember you when they get home!
4) Get business cards
It might seem like something out of the movie American Psycho (it's up to you whether your business cards sport a fancy water mark!) but business cards are really important tools. As above, they can help people remember you when they return home from a long and stressful conference. However, I have definitely gone home with business cards and had absolutely no recollection of why I had them. I (and others) recommend writing what you talked about or the title of your poster/talk on the back of your business card before handing it off. I have recently started doing this and it REALLY helps. We can't all remember every face and conversation.
5) Online or email networking
Emailing other researchers is an obvious first step! We have all had "missed connections" at conferences. A well-worded email can help maintain or initiate relationships. There are also numerous other means of online networking including blogging, twitter, and websites such as Linked In. Of course, you should keep all of your online activity as professional as possible. Inappropriate online content can prevent you from building a successful network. You should also be prepared to get feedback from the online community! Not everyone will agree with your blogs or tweets (but you should have a thick skin if you want to succeed in academia!).
This is a very brief introduction to academic networking. I suggest you also speak to other graduate students as well as your adviser. We have all been there!