Strengthening Your Strategic Network to Advance Your Clinical Research Career

Kenneth Christopher looking over his shoulder while presenting to students in a classroom

An important part of successfully advancing your role as a physician, scientist or other health care professional with an interest in clinical research involves strategically building—or strengthening—a network of like-minded colleagues and peers.

In fact, no matter where in the world you are located, who you know, in addition to what you do, can be instrumental in opening up new doors, according to Kenneth B. Christopher, MD, SM,Assistant Program Director of the Internal Medicine Residency Training Program at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Co-Director of Harvard Medical School’s Global Clinical Scholars Research Training Program and the new Foundations of Clinical Research Program.

Using Networking for Health Care Career Success

“My network is everywhere. I have a lot of collaborations with researchers around the world,” Christopher says, adding that his ability to network well has contributed to many of his career successes. “I’m interested in anyone with an idea, a particular skill set or data for me to study,” he adds. “Ninety-nine percent of the people who publish clinical research never did any of the research on their own. They lean on others. Networking will help you have so much to offer, become a leader in your field and be given opportunities you would not have had otherwise,” he stresses.

Christopher also admits that networking is a skill he had to develop over the years, since it didn’t come naturally. “The word ‘work’ is part of networking,” he says, adding that this is very accurate. Yet it’s worth pushing past your comfort zone since the benefits of networking can be multi-fold.

Exploring Dunbar’s Theory

To understand the concept of networking and how to apply it most effectively, he looks to Robin Dunbar’s theory, which explores numbers in groups and what that really means.

“Dunbar is an evolutionary psychologist who has a theory that says that everyone has 1,500 people you can put a name to their face, 500 people at an acquaintance level, and 150 casual friends. The latter—150— is Dunbar’s number, or the people in your strategic network,” Christopher explains. He added that according to the theory, it’s believed that this is the size that the human mind can manage to interact with in a meaningful way.

Advice to Build a Strategic Network

“Very few people like networking when they walk into a room. It’s not easy work; it involves going outside your comfort zone,” Christopher says. But taking the time to develop your skills can be beneficial. He offers the following advice to help you optimize your networking efforts and reach your career goals.

Identify your audience

In any networking situation, he points out that you can usually identify people as being part of one of three critical groups: Hubs are people directly connected to many influencers who can disseminate information to their group quickly. Gatekeepers are those at the intersections of different areas of expertise who can help you get access. At a conference, once you identify whom you want to meet, you’ll need to pursue their gatekeepers to help you. Pulse takers are overt influencers within networks who are often more knowing than known and can be very beneficial.

Create a brief conversation

“When networking, most of us fail to give enough information to the person we are speaking with so they can assess if we have what they need,” Christopher says. This can be an expensive oversight, since it can prevent you from finding commonalities with someone who could help you. Therefore, he suggests creating a one-minute conversation anchored by a networking pitch that can efficiently give people a large amount of information in a short amount of time.

“When I’m on a plane, I talk to the person sitting near me and have a brief conversation. I practice this conversation a lot in advance and since I know it so well, it frees up my mind to focus on other things like watching body language. You can see if they have an interest in what you say. I also do a subtle head tilt to express interest in the other person,” he says.

Practice makes perfect

“When you practice your networking pitch, try different words and a different approach to figure out what works for the other person to get into a meaningful conversation with them that reveals common interests. That’s where the richness comes in. I tried for 10 years to meet as many people as I could, and with practice, I got better and better at it,” Christopher says.

Master the art of transition

“Successful networkers know how to gracefully transition from one person to the next,” Christopher says. “When you exit from a conversation, you want to use eye contact (count 1,000, 2,000 and then look away) and use warm body language that will help people feel like they are the only one in the world who has your attention,” he says.

Meet as many people as possible

When Christopher attends a conference, his goal is to meet as many people as possible. He follows the advice of the journalist Buzzy Gordon. “Greet each new person with an openness to learn more about the person, a willingness to help, and an offer to stay in touch.” In any conference, there will be at least one person in the room who will be valuable to you, but you don’t know which one it is.

“You’ll want to give information to the other person that plants a seed in their head that you are exceptional. It’s all in your delivery. You present in an organized fashion that respects their time so the other person likes you more.

Put online platforms to work

With most interactions currently occurring over online platforms, such as Zoom, during COVID-19, Christopher recommends making the most of this format.

“Look at the camera when you introduce yourself. Even online, this is a skill that will set you apart and make you look engaged,” he says. “One tip is when you introduce yourself, say your name in a funny way. Move your voice up on your first name and down on the last name so people realize when you are done saying your name. Bringing the sound down when finishing your name lets the person start connecting on what your name is and can help them remember it,” Christopher says.

He also suggests getting as close to the computer screen as possible and making eye contact with the camera on your computer when you are connecting with others online, so you will look engaged. “Try to get the grid of the person or people you are addressing up by the top of your screen.

“If you are doing more gestures, back up a little but make sure people can see your features,” he says, adding that most people do Zoom and similar platforms poorly. “Therefore, if you pick it up a little, it makes people think you are good.”

Use social media strategically

Christopher says he developed a small social media presence, and he uses it strategically. “I have a Twitter account and I use it to post what I am doing. I don’t give opinions or post politics. I post about my latest research papers, and then followers share them with their friends,” he says.

“This shows people I have something to say. I also share photos of where I go to teach, since [when we aren’t in a pandemic] I teach interesting things to interesting people in interesting places,” he adds.

Let Your Network Evolve with Your Interests

Christopher also points out that your network should change as your focus evolves. “Contacts are internal and external but always are oriented to tomorrow. I had to change my network when my strategic focus changed, since it’s not always clear who is relevant or motivated,” he says. By honing his networking skills—and keeping his contact list relevant—he has been able to advance his career in exciting ways and establish his reputation as someone others want to work with in a variety of ways.

Written by Lisa D. Ellis

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