Professional Networking in COVID Times

Colleagues have often referred to me as a professional networker par excellence.

Indeed, there is no doubt that I consider countless colleagues around the world, at all stages of their careers, across a wide area of interests, as acquaintances and often friends – people in my professional network that I have personally met and can readily call on for professional (and sometimes personal) advice.

Beginning in the early days of my career, I have accumulated and cultivated this wide-ranging professional network and it has always served me well. Indeed, I am fully aware of the importance of maintaining active ties, weak ties, and even dormant ties to people who have influenced me and I may, in turn, have influenced.

As I look back to well over three decades of my professional life, this professional social network has always been my go-to resource at every decision point in my career – it has enriched by academic life, my research, my teaching, my clinical practice, my professional advocacy and much else.

How did I meet all these people (a practice that started well before social media or even the internet)? It was usually at medical and scientific conferences!

As a young researcher, presenting my first poster at a major international conference, I remember waiting nervously in line to introduce myself and shake the hands of the famous professor, whose papers I had studied.

I remember attaching myself to the coattails of my supervisor in the hope that he would introduce me to his colleagues (which he did) hoping to eavesdrop on their conversations (which I did).

I remember standing at my poster waiting for the important professors to stop by and look at my work (which they did).

I remember attending all the social events and gala dinners and late night last drinks at the hotel bar, where I met colleagues from around the world, who I now consider close friends and colleagues.

I remember standing in line at breakfast and coffee breaks, sharing cab rides to and from hotels or airports with strangers, who I now count as my associates.

I remember the friendships forged with colleagues during countless memorable walks and touristic outings during time off between busy scientific sessions.

Over the years, meeting the same colleagues year after year at various places around the world, seeing their careers develop as did mine, sharing in their successes and challenges, was not only rewarding but gave me a higher sense of purpose and determination. It cemented my sense of belonging to a world-wide community of likeminded colleagues working on the exact same problems that I was dealing with in my own research and practice.

Countless ideas were born at these meetings – for e.g. I will never forget hatching out the plan to validate the Edmonton Obesity Staging System using data from the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) with David Allison, who I barely knew, during a rather choppy boat trip to the Elephanta Caves at a conference we both attended in Mumbai.

As I advanced in my own career, I was increasingly approached by younger colleagues at conferences, eager to introduce themselves and seek my advice regarding their own research projects or career decisions.

In short – professional networking has always been the essence of my own success and I would not have accomplished much without it.

Unfortunately, I now fear that all of this may have come to an end. With the current travel restrictions (I have not been on an airplane since February!), all conferences and meetings that I would normally have attended in person are now virtual.

Although the virtual technology enabling large conferences is still developing, there is no doubt in my mind there it will eventually replace most, if not all, of the previous face-to-face meetings.

While this technology will certainly do a fair job of disseminating knowledge, it is hard to see how it will replace the social aspect of attending a conference with colleagues.

This may not be much of a challenge for us older folks, who already have a well-established international network of peers that we can call on offline. But I wonder what effect this will have on the younger folks who are just starting out in their careers, who now no longer have the opportunity of meeting their idols and peers, observing them in action, and establishing personal friendships.

I cannot but help wonder how my own career would have turned out without having been able to build my own professional network over the years.

I am certain that we will soon see the spread of virtual networking events, but I fear that they will simply not be the same. I fail to see how virtual meetings will replace the serendipity of the many fruitful encounters that happen in the physical space.

I certainly do not envy my younger colleagues who are out there trying to connect from their home computers – it will simply not be the same.

Edmonton, AB