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A networking encounter

Something was troubling Nathan Wenzel as he picked his way through dinner: His job search wasn’t going well. Jim, his roommate, was oblivious—he was caught up in a programming exercise on his laptop. Anyway, Jim wouldn’t relate; he’d had a few offers already, so it looked like he’d have no problem moving out of school and into a good job. Things are easier in Jim’s field.

For Nathan—a cell biologist with a Ph.D., currently doing a postdoc—it was tougher. So far, his job search had consisted of reviewing industry and tenure-track job announcements. He couldn’t let his adviser know this, but his heart wasn’t really in the tenure-track search. He saw how hard his boss worked to fund the lab and how little time she had for science. Nathan wanted a job in industry.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but my contact from the cell biology meeting earned a $1500 bonus for introducing me to her boss, so it worked out well for everyone.

—Dean Harris

He was not making much progress. He had received a few automated e-mails. Also, weeks before, someone in a company’s human resources office had called to ask him a few questions, promising to follow up if the hiring manager had any interest. The follow-up didn’t happen. That was the closest he’d gotten to an interview.

Someone—apparently it wasn’t Albert Einstein or Benjamin Franklin—once said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Just today he had been told, for the umpteenth time, that networking is important to success in a job search. It was time to give it a try. He started the next day.

Nathan’s to-do list

Nathan thought that he was networking already because he had completed his LinkedIn profile and had 80-plus connections. But when he spoke to his friend Rajesh the next day, he realized how far behind he was. Rajesh was from the same lab, just a year further along, and while he had decided on the tenure track, industry employers had expressed some interest, too.

“I’m talking about establishing personal contact, building relationships—not just expanding your social-media world. Yes, LinkedIn is important, but that’s just a place to store your contacts and keep them updated.

“LinkedIn doesn’t drive your process,” Rajesh had warned. “If you rely on your computer, you’re really limiting yourself. Let me help you work up a list of things to do so that you can be more effective as a networker—in person.”

A week later, Nathan was busy implementing the first items on his networking to-do list, including these:

  1. Research upcoming meetings I can attend.
  2. Make a list of people I’m connected to, at all companies I’m interested in, who might attend those meetings.
  3. Contact the more obvious prospects, by e-mail or a call. Ask if they’ll be attending. If so, ask if I can have a few minutes of their time.
  4. Develop a schedule that allows me to run into as many of those attendees as possible.
  5. Get some business cards.


Nathan’s research had turned up a large number of upcoming meetings, but fewer that industry people would be likely to attend. One of these meetings, the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) International Convention, was being held near his home. Unfortunately, for a postdoc, the cost was astronomical.

Poking around on the meeting website, Nathan found some unadvertised benefits. First, he could get into the meeting free on Career Day by submitting his CV. Even better, if he volunteered to work the meeting, he could get a 2-day pass that allowed him to attend many of the meeting’s most important events, without spending a penny. Within an hour, he had gone from spending $200 for an “exhibits only” pass to helping important scientists with their PowerPoint presentations.

Three weeks before the meeting, Nathan started trying to set up meet-ups. Mostly he got “sorry, I won’t be attending” replies. He found, though, that even people who weren’t attending seemed impressed that he was. A couple of them even offered to talk with him by phone.

Nathan managed to schedule four meet-ups at BIO—not bad, but not great. To make it worth the time, effort, and expense, he needed to work hard to make these meetings pay off.

At the event

His first contact at the BIO meeting was Dean Harris, a group leader in the assay development laboratory for a large pharmaceutical company. Dean was 3 years out of a postdoc, and they shared an alma mater. Dean had offered Nathan 20 minutes after his talk and suggested they get coffee. Starbucks was full of networkers that day.

After a couple of minutes of introductory chat, Nathan said, “Dean, I really appreciate you giving me a few minutes. Can I ask you how you made the transition to industry—particularly how you landed at Merck? I’m going through that same academia-to-industry move right now, and I’d love to hear about your process.”

When Dean held back a moment, Nathan felt a stab of concern. Maybe the question was too personal. But Dean was just collecting his thoughts. After a short hesitation, he opened up. “Nathan, I did exactly what you are doing right now. I was replying to ads in Science, keeping an eye on the Internet, and in general doing all that my adviser had taught me to do and more. It just happened, though, that I met someone at a poster session at the cell biology meeting, and she offered to introduce me to her boss. That job didn’t last long, but it was a great launching pad, and I took what I learned there and applied it at my next job.”

Leaning back, he reflected on his earlier career choices. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but my contact from the cell biology meeting earned a $1500 bonus for introducing me to her boss, so it worked out well for everyone. Still, I don’t think she would have introduced me if it hadn’t been a good fit.”

Their talk over coffee went long, but neither noticed. Dean’s career progression excited Nathan because it was nothing like the careers of his Ph.D. adviser or current boss. It was refreshing to hear that people with similar backgrounds and experiences to his, and just a few years older, had already traveled the path that he was on. His enthusiasm was renewed. And Dean was going to see if he could stir up some interest in Nathan’s CV at his company.

The volunteer

Nathan’s deal with the meeting organizers was simple: In exchange for the access he needed, he committed to helping out. He was assigned to one of the smaller meeting rooms. He felt a bit like a hall monitor in high school as he made sure everyone entering the room had a badge. When one of the speakers ran into trouble with her slide deck, he went up to help her out. It was something he’d experienced a dozen times before, and he got her back on track in less than a minute.

As the room emptied and the speaker packed up, she called Nathan up to the front of the room and thanked him for his help. They exchanged business cards. It was the perfect opportunity for an impromptu conversation, and Nathan took advantage. He was proud he didn’t choke when he looked at her card: She was CEO of one of the larger San Francisco Bay Area biotech companies. “Nathan, tell me a little about yourself,” she said.

It was the perfect lead-in question to a great networking response. Nathan was convinced then that his tactical shift had been a good idea. It was already paying off.

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