The network keeps growing

26th February 2016


About once a year I like to look back at my professional development and review. In a lot of companies you would do this with your supervisor or boss. I have decided to discuss my development openly with the readers of my blog.

The main topic that I wanted to focus on was the development of a professional network. I would like to discuss what I feel I have done well and other areas where I could have performed better. I have tried to build a network of collaborators from within Germany and internationally. Over the last two years I believe that I have achieved some success in this area.

The yard stick

How do you measure your professional development? Especially, how do you identify success in building up a professional network? Qualitatively, this can be measured by how connected you feel when attending conferences. More quantitatively, this could be measured by looking at the collaborators on published papers. Personally, I think that both are valid. Both of these metrics will be used to guide the discussion in this blog.

The starting point of this analysis will be from the end of my PhD. This point will allow me to assess the growth in my professional development as a fully fledged academic. Also, during my PhD I attended the INFORMS Annual Meeting for the first time in Phoenix. The comparison comes because last year I travelled to Philadelphia for my second attendance at the INFORMS Annual Meeting. I have grown a lot in my academic career over the past three years and attending the INFORMS Annual Meeting really pointed that out to me.

Attending the INFORMS Annual Meeting in Philadelphia was an overall positive experience. Much more positive that when I attending this meeting in Phoenix. Much of this is to do with the current stage of my academic career. As a comparison, when I attended the Phoenix meeting I had just commenced the third year of my PhD. This time around I am in the second year of my first postdoctoral position. I am now a much more experienced researcher. As such I was able to get more out of attending the INFORMS meeting and use my time productively.

What has changed?

Three years can feel like a very long time. Especially when you complete a PhD and move overseas during that time period. I feel like I have done a lot over the last three years, both personally and professionally. Personally, I am embracing the life living in a foreign country. Expanding my horizons and learning so much more about myself and the world. Professionally, I am currently a member of a great research group. This group challenges me and pushes me to take a much broader view of my research field. Because of this, I am now a very different person to the PhD student that travelled to the US for the INFORMS meeting in Phoenix.

Have I successfully built a professional network?

So, what does attending INFORMS tell be about my professional development over the last three years? The question that I want answered is whether I am doing a good job being an academic. A conference can only answer part of that question, specifically whether you feel like a member of the academic community. There are other aspects of being an academic, such as publishing, grant writing and outreach, that are difficult to judge from attending conferences. For those, you will have to wait for another blog.

I previously posted a blog about building a network of collaborators (which you can read here). Building a network of collaborators was my way of trying to be successful in an academic position. The more collaborations that you have brings more connections to the wider academic community. Some success in building collaborations was highlighted by my activities at INFORMS. In particular, I had two meetings with collaborators to discuss progress on papers and my two presentations were of work completed with disjoint sets of co-authors. While these are not unusual activities, it is something that is becoming more common for me while attending conferences. Just a way to mark the progress of my career.

I have found that building the collaborations is extremely valuable from a career point of view. But building collaborations also helps create an environment that makes this career much more enjoyable.

What could I do better?

From my above assessment, I feel that I am progressing well in an academic career in regards to my professional network. Additionally, the INFORMS meeting helped me evaluate my academic performance in other areas of my professional development. In particular, INFORMS highlighted to me the diversity of my research interests. I discussed the problems related to this in a previous blog. At INFORMS I gave a talk on aviation applications and another on the Steiner tree problem solver SCIP-Jack. In addition, I attend many different research areas including combinatorial optimisation, computational optimisation methods and transportation applications. Covering this many research fields can be a little tiring and does not allow you to direct your focus.

Is having diverse interests really a problem? The downsides of having diverse interests is not really clear to me. The main disadvantage that I see is that it becomes difficult to remain up-to-date with the current literature. In this regard, it can be better to limit your focus and become really involved in one area of research.

After continuing for two years with diverse interests, I am starting to find my true direction. This has taken some time. However, I think that without investigating many different research areas it would have been harder to identify the area that most excites me. To be more focused in my research, my approach from now on is to look for academic positions that align well with my research interests.

On to another year

Another year completed at ZIB, marking two years since the completion of my PhD. I am a very different person both personally and professionally. Attending INFORMS in Philadelphia really pointed out to me how different I am. I feel that I am progressing well in the development of my academic career. However, there are still many things to improve and plenty of room to grow.

© 2018 Stephen J Maher
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