7 steps to using social media to connect with and learn from people in your discipline

This was written by Jacquie Tran who recently completed her PhD in applied sport science, investigating training physiology, athlete well-being, and rowing performance. She is currently working as a Research Specialist with the Geelong Cats Football Club and Deakin University. Outside of work, Jacquie can be found in her natural habitat: surrounded by cups of filter coffee at her favourite Melbourne cafes. Want to know more? Get in touch with Jacquie via Twitter (@jacquietran), email (jac@jacquietran.com), or by visiting her website (http://www.jacquietran.com).


“It’s not what you know, but who you know that counts.” It’s a well-worn cliché and one I’d argue is not exactly accurate. After all, there is immense value in your foundational knowledge, academic skills, and practical competencies! Nevertheless, being well-connected is a critical part of transitioning from the student life to finding employment after you graduate. And it’s not just about the size of your professional network, but how you draw upon the experience and insights of individuals within that network to expand your own learning and employability.

So how do you make connections with people in your discipline? And how can you cultivate these relationships to maximise your learning and ongoing professional development?

Seminars, workshops, and conferences are fantastic environments to meet and learn from others in your profession. In addition, with the recent rapid growth in the use of social media, there are unique opportunities to initiate contact, build relationships, and collaborate professionally like never before. Drawing from my own experiences, here are some tips on how to use social media to connect with and learn from people in your profession:

  1. Invest time into building your own account first.

You’ve got to give a little to get something in return, so put time and effort into setting up your social media account. Use a good quality profile photo and fill out your bio. Post some initial updates that provide some background about who you are, what you do, what your professional interests are, and where your career is heading. When you start out, you might not have any “followers” or “friends” who will read these first few posts or tweets, but at some point, inquiring minds will want to know more about you and what you have to offer…and isn’t that the whole point of this exercise?

  1. Do your research!

Make a list of people in your discipline that you want to get to know. Think about why you want to get to know them. “I want to get a job after I graduate” is a legitimate reason for contacting people, but I’d encourage you to dig a bit deeper! Think about the specific things you’d like to learn from them. For example, do they belong to an organisation you aspire to work for? Getting to know them might help you learn more about pathways into that organisation. Rather than adopting a scattergun approach, understanding who you’re contacting and why is essential to ensure that your professional use of social media is targeted, focused, and efficient.

Here’s one example of how I’ve adopted a purposeful approach to my professional use of social media:

  • In March 2014, I attended a professional development session where sports physician Dr Andy Franklyn-Miller was presenting, on the topic of “Managing performance teams and the quest for marginal gains”. Before the session, I learned more about Andy via his Twitter account (@afranklynmiller). In particular, I learned about his expertise in sports medicine and sports science, which aligned well with my own interdisciplinary interests.
  • During Andy’s presentation, I captured the key messages that resonated with me by creating sketchnotes. I’ve found sketchnoting to be a powerful learning process for me. To do it well, I need to listen intently for key messages throughout a presentation, identify connections between different ideas, and summarise these inter-connected thoughts in a visually engaging manner…all of which are valuable skills for any scientist and researcher! But the key is to share the output of this learning process—the sketchnotes themselves—to provide tangible evidence of these skills. (Psst…if you want to learn more about sketchnotes and the value of doodling, watch Sunni Brown’s 2011 TED talk, “Doodlers, unite!”)
  • I published the sketchnotes on my blog, and tweeted the link to share the content with my followers; I also tagged Andy in the tweet. He kindly retweeted it to his followers too (well over 10,000 of them!), which expanded the reach of my work well beyond my direct followers on Twitter. Now if the story had ended there, I would have been more than satisfied to have established a connection with someone as insightful and progressive as Andy. But it gets better…
  • Recently, Andy got in touch to let me know he’d be featuring a recent publication from my PhD research in his popular “Research Review” e-newsletter. To complement his review, Andy asked whether I’d like to be interviewed for his new podcast to discuss the paper in more depth. My answer was a resounding YES. For 40 minutes, we discussed rowing physiology, training periodisation, and openness in sport science. And as it happens, my sketchnotes got a mention right at the very end of the interview. In the week since my interview was broadcast online, it has been listened to 570+ times via Soundcloud alone! This illustrates how social media can be used to make meaningful connections with like-minded individuals, which can subsequently lead to unique and rewarding professional opportunities.

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  1. Introduce yourself and start conversations

Think of the typical conference or seminar scenario where you’d like to meet a prominent figure in your field. To many (myself included), it seems awfully daunting and even intrusive to walk right up to Professor Big Shot and introduce yourself to her out of the blue! But in my experience, the great thing about social media is that it flattens the hierarchy. No matter how famous, prominent, or well-regarded, individuals typically join social networks like Twitter in order to connect with others. So don’t be afraid to send that tweet and introduce yourself! Pro tip: Use the introduction as an opportunity to ask a question, start a conversation, or send a genuine compliment to someone whose work you admire.

  1. Be genuinely curious.

In online environments that are heavily text-based, it can be difficult to accurately interpret tone and intent. Yet I’ve often found that, sooner or later, an individual’s true motivations for connecting with you become clear anyway. Approach the task of growing your network with the goal of maximising your learning rather than hunting for a job. Not every connection will lead to a job, but you can definitely learn something from every connection that will help you continue to grow professionally and improve the quality of the work that you do.

  1. Be generous.

There is a natural synergy between social media and the sharing economy. Social media platforms provide online environments for global communities to grow, while the sharing economy relies on the people within a community being willing and active ’sharers’ for individual and collective benefit. As a student on placement, you may feel like you don’t have much to contribute to your professional network when it comes to expertise or experience. That may be true, but here’s the thing: a sharing economy also values your time, your knowledge, your connections, and your energy and enthusiasm! An inclusive and collaborative approach to your social media presence demonstrates your interest in supporting others by celebrating what your professional network can achieve together, rather than focusing your attention on what you stand to gain individually. Michael Hyatt describes social media as relational, not transactional tools; the culture and practice of social media values generosity, other-centredness and helpfulness. We suggest adopting a 5:1 ratio: share 5 items that highlight the good work of others for every 1 item of your own work that you choose to promote.

  1. Suggest ways to work together.

Cultivating healthy networks is about give and take. While you’re thinking about what you can learn from others, keep in mind that your existing skills and resources may also be of value to them! For instance, I maintain a blog where I’ve written about my experiences as a PhD student in sport science. After meeting other PhD students with similar interests (within my faculty and at conferences), I suggested that we co-author a series of posts on the value of Twitter for PhD students and productivity in PhD life. In the process, I got to know my colleagues better, and their feedback throughout the writing process helped further refine my own thoughts on these topics. Finding ways to work with others on topics of common interest is a great way to demonstrate your own capabilities and give back to your network.

  1. Continue the conversation offline.

Social media provides many novel ways to connect with the global community of professionals in your field. But electronic contexts are no replacement for face-to-face communication, particularly when it comes to building trust. Compared to digital media, face-to-face interactions are rich with verbal and non-verbal cues (e.g., body language, posture, eye contact) that help people decide whether to trust someone or not. So once you’ve established some rapport with individuals within your online networks, seek out opportunities to meet in person. Ask to catch up over coffee, or organise to meet up at an event that you’re both attending. When it comes to developing trust and growing your professional relationships, there’s a lot to be said for being able to “put a face to a name”!