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A networking playbook

The message isn’t new: To find a science job, especially a Ph.D. role, you have to count on the assistance of others. Friends and strangers (who are, after all, possible new friends) need to be brought into your mission. In the search process anyone you ask for guidance, from your academic adviser to counselors at your institution’s career resources department, will tell you, “Get out there and network.”

But more than a few readers remain confused about the exact process and what it really means when they’re instructed to hit the networking trail. In the best case, readers will stumble through a few attempts at reaching outside their circles, slowly building up enough courage to continue doing so until it becomes second nature. In the worst case, new networkers will say or do something that makes them feel stupid, and the process dies with that attempt.

What’s needed, in my opinion, is a guide that can take a person from having a network of two lab mates to one bridging many companies, disciplines, and job titles. That’s a tall order, but this month’s column and next month’s will help you build a plan to develop your professional network.

Golden rules of networking

Networking is a skill and art as important as any other in the field of interpersonal communications. The first thing to remember is that networking is not something that you do to someone. It could be defined as the process of establishing links of communication with others in a way that may prove to be mutually beneficial. The key is those last two words: mutually beneficial. This is not a selfish act done only when you need something from someone.

Many graduate students and postdocs underestimate their value in the one-on-one networking equation. They think, “What do I really have to offer? The exchange seems a bit one-sided.” That’s not a good line of thinking. You bring value because industry scientists are always asked by their employers to be well connected with university research. If you have mutual interests in some field of science, you’ll be home free. Plus, most companies pay a bounty to an employee when that person circulates the CV of the person that eventually gets hired. These bonuses can be very important to that employee’s income, so they are incentivized to talk with you.

A matter of degree

There are a number of degrees of networking difficulty, and like any new skill, you’ll want to get comfortable before you remove the training wheels. Activities that you can start with—painlessly—begin with the people you already know.

“When my friend and I knew that we’d be coming out of our postdocs at around the same time, we began to share ideas and pass along leads for the positions we saw advertised,” one scientist told me at a talk I recently gave in Minneapolis, Minnesota. “It started with just an occasional email exchange referencing a job ad or two or an article about a company starting up with an interesting technology. But as we got into it and we both succeeded in meeting others through networking, we shared our experiences and lessons as well. It became an informal group of four or five of us who had all determined that we weren’t going to stay in academia.”

This first “degree” of networking is actually quite easy, and it does get you talking to others and sharing information and assets, all of which makes up the core of networking. But with people you don’t already know, you’ll enter an entirely new degree of difficulty. This is where it can seem quite forbidding, and where most people could use some help.

Varied networking opportunities

I’m going to assume that you’ve done some career planning and you have a general idea of what types of jobs you’d like to look for—and what kinds of organizations would be interested in your profile. At this point, it is useful to expand into online networking. Although there are a few wannabe competitors, the really important resource is LinkedIn. This site dominates the field, and as I’ve written, a profile here is an essential ingredient for any job seeker in any world location.

The bad part about LinkedIn is that people feel like they are “really out there networking” just because they’ve managed to list a couple of hundred contacts. The site refers to itself as a networking site, but it’s not. It’s just a Web-based platform to show off your profile, gather some contact names into a very useful free database, and review a number of job ads from employers you may choose to follow. Real networking occurs in the trenches, and sitting in front of your computer sending out stock language LinkedIn invites does not replace the real-life work you need to do. (It’s worth noting, though, that you can bump up your response rate by customizing the language on every invite.)

The most effective networking activities center around meeting and discussing mutual topics of interest with people you meet in all aspects of your scientific life. At a meeting, for example, you might visit the poster session and talk to a presenter from Merck about her work. It may seem intimidating to start a conversation with a stranger, but just talk about what you have in common, and keep the focus away from questions like, “Are there any openings?”

The big thing you have in common, of course, is that you both have careers as scientists, so if you’re at a loss for what to say, ask her about her work and career path. Most people have no problem talking about themselves. Good questions include, “What is XYZ Company like to work for?” and “How did your own personal transition from academia to industry occur?” The best questions will move the conversation to useful suggestions that you can put to use in your own job search. Knowing how others made their transition into a company, for example, can tell you a great deal about the best way to structure your plan. After establishing a solid, friendly footing, you can consider asking specific questions about your job prospects with that employer.

Never push yourself into uninvited territory for more than 3 minutes. If you find that the personal chemistry is not working for you, cut it short and move on. Diligently respect the other person’s time and right to not be disturbed if it isn’t a good time.

This is just the start. In part two of this series, I’m going to bring out the big ammunition with an extensive list of networking questions and tips on how to get the specific information that you seek. It’s all in the right verbiage!

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