Setting up a professional network

Alyssa Sbisa is a neuroscience PhD Candidate at The Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, researching the role of sex hormones in schizophrenia. Alyssa can be found in the Twitterverse at @LyssLyssLyss.

Sally Grace,
Sally Grace, Swinburne U

Sally Grace is a neuroscience PhD Candidate at Swinburne University of Technology. Her research interests involve brain imaging and mental illness. Sally tweets from @sallyagrace.

Sally and Alyssa are the Media and Communications Managers for the 2015 Students of Brain Research (SOBR) committee. You can find more about SOBR by visiting our website, Facebook page, and tweeting us at @SOBRNetwork.

The Research Whisperers invited Alyssa and Sally to write for us because we’ve been really impressed by the engaging and bright presence of the SOBR Network on social media.

Those with good networks deserve praise, and those who work so hard to create the conditions for others to build networks deserve even more. 

As a graduate student, you’ve probably come across more than one article stressing the importance of networking.

And, if you’re anything like we initially were, you probably find the idea of organising networking events daunting and wouldn’t know where to start.

This year, when we signed up for a student-run committee, we didn’t realise it would be such an incredible experience. Albeit rewarding, there has also been some hard work. In light of this experience, we want to share some useful tips in the hope that if others were to take the same journey they have an idea of where to begin.

What is SOBR?

sobr_logo-smallerStudents of Brain Research (SOBR) is a student-run initiative aimed at facilitating the networking of students in the area of neuroscience and brain research, from cellular and molecular science to clinical psychology.

SOBR was formed in 2011 in an effort to connect not only graduate students from institutes across Victoria, but also early career researchers, prominent scientists, and industry professionals.

Each year SOBR hosts two events: the Professional Development Dinner and the Student Symposium. The committee itself has grown over the years, and so too has the interest in our events. 2015 is the first year we have had a waiting list for the dinner, and we expect our upcoming Symposium to be even more successful than the last!

Engagement with our online social networks has also increased; in 2015 alone our Facebook ‘likes’ have increased by 35% and Twitter followers by 360%. The success of SOBR is grounded not only on the fantastic work of the previous committees over the years, but also some key strategies.

Creating, growing, and managing a network is definitely not a one-person job. The SOBR committee has eight members this year and each one is integral to our success.

If you were considering a similar initiative in your own research area, we recommend considering the following:

Setting up your committee

  • First off, do your research and identify whether there is a gap. That is, is there the need for a committee or student network in your field, or is there already a similar committee with relevant networking events? Further, try not to be too narrow in your definition. For example, SOBR is a ‘broad’ network in that it welcomes all students of brain research rather than just molecular neuroscience or psychology. This promotes networking across the subdomains of the field, which is something that we want to support in science in the hope that it builds collaboration and facilitates mutual understanding.
  • Diversify your committee. A committee with members from several different institutes boosts the number of potential outlets for advertising and sponsorship, and participants to attend events. Diversifying might be difficult in the beginning, but is a good goal to keep in mind.
  • Keep the committee fresh! The SOBR committee members are entirely different each year. This provides diverse perspectives including different knowledge and connections, which can benefit sponsorship and event planning. This also helps to foster the career development of new students every year.
  • Have regular, structured committee meetings. The SOBR committee have fortnightly meetings to discuss event planning, budget, advertising, and everything else that goes with running our events. We have designated roles for our committee members, such as media and event managers, a treasurer, and president.

As SOBR is a student-run not-for-profit organisation, our awesome events could not be held without funding.  Let’s face it: it’s difficult asking for money!

If it’s for a good cause, however, it doesn’t feel as uncomfortable.  One of the aims of SOBR is to facilitate networking among brain research students and provide the opportunity to showcase work. Fortunately, this aligns with the mission of many institutes, facilities, departments, and schools that are home to brain research students, and this aids the decision to sponsor our events.

Seeking sponsorship

  • Prior to reaching out to anyone for sponsorship, it is important to create a formal sponsorship proposal. This should include an explanation as to why the funding is necessary, followed by details of the proposed event including the date, speakers, venue, schedule of events, etc. If the committee has sought funding and organised an event previously, it is fantastic to include details of the outcome to help paint a better picture.
  • Get to know who the ‘big wigs’ are in your field: Lab/ department/ institute heads – these are the people who sign off on the funding. Finding potential sponsors that are relevant to your cause is key. Fortunately, 99% of the time the details of these big wigs are online, making it easy to ‘cold-email’ with your proposal.

Following on from the last point: you must use the Internet to your advantage. Research potential sponsors, order items for events, find keynote speakers, and – importantly – advertise, network, and spread the word!

Creating and maintaining an online presence

  • Be sure to create social media accounts for your committee. Both Facebook and Twitter are simple to use, easy to register for, and highly effective for not only advertising but also committee networking. For example, this year two of SOBR’s keynote speakers were discovered via Twitter.
  • Unfortunately, it isn’t good enough to have a social media account just sitting there, it needs to be maintained to keep up your online presence. SOBR aims to post daily on Twitter and weekly on Facebook as this reminds our followers we’re still around. It helps to start conversations and build networks. Social media management websites like Hootsuite and Buffer are also great automators to help lend a hand and save time.
  • Use data and analytics to your advantage. Without getting too deep into the analytical jargon, social media websites provide ‘insights’ so you can determine how your posts are performing and what you can do better. Improving your posts and increasing your online presence will only benefit your cause. For example, via our Facebook insights, we’ve found that our posts reach more people (thus our advertising is more successful) after 8 pm.
  • Network, network, network! SOBR’s goal of assisting students to network couldn’t be effectively achieved if the committee itself wasn’t also forging important connections. It’s important to make a name for yourself. When next year’s committee is seeking sponsorship or are in need of assistance in promoting an event, these online connections come in handy.

Finally, utilise feedback to your advantage. Every year SOBR asks for feedback and thoughts from event attendees, sponsors, keynote speakers, and the previous year’s committee. This ensures that we’re most efficiently fulfilling our committee goals, and that our initiative can continue to grow each year.


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