Research is about who you know. I’m not suggesting that if you know a journal editor, your article will get published without the hard yards. What you know is still important.
I’m saying that, as research is all about sharing ideas, it stands to reason that the more people you know, the bigger variety of ideas you’re exposed to. If you know intelligent or creative people, you’re going to be involved in smarter or more novel ideas. Other PhD students are great for bouncing ideas around, and also help you learn about other fields. Your advisors not only give you access to extensive knowledge about their field; they have a lot of experience with theories and ideas.
The people you know also affect the people you have access to. If your advisor has international collaborators, you have access to a broad and prestigious range of people in your field. If you’re part of a lab group, there are all the students and researchers involved. Attending school events expands your horizons to different fields and specialties, opening opportunities for interdisciplinary collaborations.
Furthermore, the people you know can change how you keep up to date with research and news. If you don’t know anyone, new ideas and information are limited to your own imagination and what you read about in text books. On the other hand, you could read certain blogs because your friends do, attend particular conferences with your advisors, or even participate in competitions your co-workers get involved it, all of which exposes you to different people, research, and ideas. The people you meet might collaborate with you in new ways, expose you to better job opportunities, and expand your knowledge field.
It is important to take advantage of the opportunities presented. The people you know could be your future advisors, employers, collaborators, a great source of new research or ideas, or just a friend to keep you sane during PhD!
Being somewhat of an introvert, I often find it difficult to take my own advice, but when I eventually emerge from my lab, the benefits always outweigh the outside light burning my eyes. In my field (cognitive psychology) I have a huge access list. Not only friends and advisors with seemingly unlimited pools of knowledge and international colleagues, but also a large and active school of psychology, collections of psychology blogs through friends, up-to-date journal subscriptions through my university, state-of-the-art 3D vision lab, and vision mailing lists. I still need to put in the hours, but by taking advantage of all of this, the work I do has a much greater impact on my future.
Now, I apologise, as this somewhat ruins the stereotype some people have that academics are socially inept: most wouldn’t have a job if this were the case! We’re not socially awkward, you just don’t understand us ;)