Professional Development

The cost of networking

Melissa Vaught
August 01, 2017

We talk a lot about how networking is really important. And it is. Many collaborations, jobs, and other professional (and personal) opportunities arise out of connections made with others, often at conferences or local happy hours or any other number of meetups.

We often talk about the emotional and psychological challenges networking can hold for some of us. It can be exhausting for the introvert, uncomfortable for the shy, near panic-inducing for the socially anxious, overwhelming for the one with imposter syndrome.

Yet we don’t often talk about the financial aspect of networking. And this is also an important consideration.

Sometimes events at conferences or organized by local groups are sponsored and free, which cuts down on the financial concern.

But a lot of informal networking happens locally or at meetings. “Let’s meet for happy hour.” “Why don’t we continue this conversation over lunch?” “Hey, who’s in town for the conference? Let’s get together for dinner!” There are (good) reasons for this. Our time is limited, especially when we’re traveling for work. Plus these can be more comfortable* settings that occur over meals or drinks.

But cost — and uncertainty about what to expect — can make these outings stressful. Conferences are often in expensive cities (and often in expensive parts of those cities). There are caps on how much institutions will reimburse for each meal, and most (if not all) don’t reimburse the cost of alcohol. Academic institutions are notoriously slow in processing reimbursements. If the outing spins out of a local group or networking event, then there’s likely no financial cover for an informal gathering; it’s simply coming out of one’s own pocket. Many in attendance — especially early-career folks — may have stretched finances.

If you’re out with one or two students or postdocs, it’s nice to pick up the tab (if you can afford it). It alleviates the financial pressure. I do this these days. Many of us have had professors or other established professionals pay for our coffee or dinner or drinks over the years, and paying it forward is one way to return the favor.

In a large, loosely associated group (e.g., people connecting for the first time), though, picking up the tab becomes less feasible. Singling out one or two people to cover may not be fair or comfortable for you or for them. So if you’re organizing a meetup, please be mindful of cost — especially if you don’t know everyone (or their financial position) well and especially if early-career folks are invited. Everyone may not be as comfortable with a big bill as you may be.

Sure, if someone’s not comfortable with the prices, they can choose not to go or bail out at the door. But that means they’re missing out on an opportunity. Again, we tell everyone that networking is crucial. So are we really just OK with excluding someone who can’t afford it?

Alternatively, a person may choose to go but then be very stressed about accounting. They might try to be careful about what they order. The bill arrives and someone says, “Oh, let’s just make it easy and split it evenly.” The person who’s not comfortable with that arrangement may be too embarrassed to speak up. Now this chance to hang out with some interesting people, to talk, to network and maybe to have some fun has turned into a source of anxiety. Beyond this one time, it might influence this person’s stress level or willingness to join in the next opportunity that comes along.

This isn’t just some hypothetical scenario. It’s not just an exercise in empathy. I know how this feels, because I’ve been this person. I’ve made the mental calculations over the course of the evening. I’ve discretely (or at least, I hoped it was discretely) double-checked my account balance or made a transfer under the table. I haven’t had this experience for a few years. Yet just thinking about this — much less writing about it publicly — still induces that tight feeling in my chest. I can still feel that stress keenly. And it can even trigger a feeling of shame, a worry that even today people will think less of me because I was in such a financially precarious position.

So on behalf of past me and others who have financial worries, please consider the cost of the informal events you plan and how it might stress or exclude those who’ve been invited.

And to all those who picked up my bill over the years, thank you for that kindness.

* Certain settings can be challenging for individuals for a variety of reasons. Some bars and restaurants present obstacles to those with mobility issues. Loud restaurants present a challenge if someone has a hearing impairment. Being surrounded by alcohol and those consuming it can be uncomfortable for many different reasons (from those who don’t drink for health or religious reasons to those who’ve been in unpleasant or even dangerous situations where drinking was involved). When organizing outings, try to be mindful that your comfortable setting might be uncomfortable for someone else.

Melissa Vaught

Melissa Vaught is the director of research development for the Institute of Translational Health Science at the University of Washington (views expressed here are her own). In Seattle, you might spot her running on the roads or the trails.

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