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A Step-By-Step Protocol for Networking, Part Two

In my last column, "A Protocol for Networking, Part One," I presented a list of networking basics in a to-do list format. Because the first part of the networking process is basically research, a list of individual segments of the work involved made good sense. Scientists like a "formula" for everything ... and the first activities in the networking process fall into line nicely with their expectations. This is not the same with the actual networking process, which we will be discussing in this column. Getting on the phone, or in front of people, is definitely not as conducive to formulas as the preparation of a networking database!

Got questions about networking? Ask Dave!

Whereas Part One dealt with the process of getting organized, the conclusion of our series will tell you how to pull together your networking campaign by mail, phone, and e-mail. The actual process of communicating with your network may not flow in the same nice, neat manner as my article suggests. Stay flexible, and above all, stay upbeat. There is a way from one career stage to another, and networking is likely to be a key part of your transition. Most importantly, these are skills that will be used regularly throughout your career and not just in leaving grad school or a postdoc.

First, Some Definitions

When reading books or asking others about networking, you are going to hear certain terms. Peter Fiske and I use these all the time in our Tooling Up columns here on Next Wave. Let's review them:

"Informational" Interviewing: This term refers to meeting with networking contacts face to face in order to gather more information about the career of interest. In a normal interview, you would be sitting across from a hiring manager or associate, with that person directing most of the questions. In an informational interview, however, you will be across from a person who could be at any one of a variety of levels. This could be a junior researcher whom you have asked for more information on "how did you do it?" Just as easily, it could be a director of regulatory affairs who has been kind enough to give you 15 minutes to inquire about the R/A career track. The difference is that you are directing these meetings, not the other person.

(Of course, an informational interview can easily become the other type. Your friendly networking contact can take on a different role entirely if suddenly you look like a prospective candidate for an open position!)

Networking Call to an Acquaintance: These calls are easy to make. You know this person, and he or she knows you and your work. Without asking this person for a job (ugh! what a great way to ruin a friendship), you are making contact in order to determine what recommended contacts he or she might have which will lead you closer to your goal. Talk about a weird contradiction. Yes, you need to find a job. No, you do not call and ask for a job (!).

Networking Call to a Stranger: Here's the $64,000 question: Do you have the guts to call a complete stranger and talk about yourself, asking advice? Or, will you (as thousands of others before you) fold your cards after making one or two of these, when you have found that they are very difficult? The point I would like to emphasize is that this type of contact is a moment of truth for you as a networker. How you manage these calls and whether you can persist beyond the uncomfortable stage is the question you must ask yourself. (See other comments in the "Tips" section below, regarding "Rude People and Secretaries.")

The "To Do" List

  • Understand your goals: In the networking business, you must be highly focused and averse to wasting time (yours or theirs). Although the first calls you will make will be to acquaintances, you'll still want to watch the clock and remember your predetermined goal. Your goal is not to find a job. (This is too large a goal for this stage of the process--you can worry about that after you start getting interviews. Goals are like eating the 32-oz. sirloin steak down at Country Bob's Cowboy Steakhouse--you need to cut them up into smaller pieces.) Your job at this time is a search for names, and keeping your goals set on something manageable (like the number of contacts in your networking database) is essential. Get two or three names from everyone you call, and you will be doing great!

  • Start calling the list of acquaintances that you had developed earlier for your networking database. These acquaintances will be people who will recognize your name immediately, and they might be in all areas of the country and in any type of position. You may even want to include some contacts who are in exactly the same position that you are, possibly from another lab. Why not share networking leads with your colleagues who are in the same boat?

  • At the same time you are making phone contact with acquaintances all over the country, start writing those whom you have earlier identified as a "center of influence" for your particular niche. (See part 4 of the first column on "A Protocol for Networking.") As you know from reading my columns, these are the top 30 or so people in your field. It is not necessary to call these special people at this time unless you are acquainted with them personally. Break the rules on this one and write a great cover letter that describes your background and availability, enclosing a copy of your CV. Although you may feel uncomfortable sending your CV to a distinguished professor, you'll find that these people are the first contacts made by recruiters or hiring managers. Many of them keep a file of such letters and pull it out when a company manager asks "Who do you know?" All you are trying to do with this move is land in that folder at just the time he or she gets one of those calls.

  • Start making those difficult calls to strangers. Many times, you can use the name of the person who referred you as a brief introduction: "Dr. Smith, Fred Finnegan suggested that I call you with a brief question on a project of mine. Can you talk for a minute, or am I catching you at a bad time?" In other cases, you will have to go it alone, without the aid of a referring third party. Regardless, the calls are difficult because the person on the other end of the phone knows that you are looking for a job, and yet they can't refer you to Human Resources until you admit that fact. (Once you do, you will get the name and number of an H/R person at least 2/3 of the time.) But keep focused on your goal. Your job is to add contact names to your networking database. "Dr. Smith, I'm soon going to be leaving the biochemistry program here at Purdue with a Ph.D. involving signal transduction, and I am wondering if you might make a recommendation of some contacts at your company whom I could talk with. My interests are to learn what prospects are out there for me in industry, and I feel it will be important for me to conduct an informational interview with a team member who has made a similar move within the past few years. Can you suggest any contacts within your biochemistry department whom I can call for a brief meeting of this sort? I promise you that I won't take that person's time with discussion of my résumé or anything related to job hunting."

  • When you wrote up your networking database, you came up with company names that were identified as places you'd like to work, but you were unable to get good contact names. Go through online databases such as those operated by Bio Online and BioSpace and search for those companies. Look at the names in the job ads, as well as in company profiles elsewhere on the same sites. Take note of any and all names from these organizations. While you are making networking calls to strangers, as in #4 above, you'll also want to contact some of these very cold leads.

  • Often, the name you get out of a directory doesn't help you if you are trying to reach the supervisor in a molecular biology lab. This is where the frustration can begin, because receptionists are very uncomfortable giving out any information. With most companies, it does not work to ask, "Who is your department head in the molecular biology lab?" Quite often you can get through if you have some piece of information, however. Here's how you can take advantage of a receptionist's natural desire to correct you: You don't know the name of the manager of drug discovery, but you know the name of the VP business development, John Smith (because that name is in all the directories). So, you call and ask the receptionist to speak with "your manager of drug discovery, John Smith, please." Immediately the receptionist will correct you: "Oh, no. Mr. Smith is our VP business development. The head of drug discovery is Dr. Linda Morris. I'll put you right through." As you will find, people who "know nothing" get nowhere. Receptionists have a different level of respect for you, however, when you have a small piece of information, even if it is the wrong information.

  • When you cannot get past the secretary for a key contact, calling that secretary or receptionist later and asking for their boss's e-mail address will often pose no problem to them. This allows you to generate the same kind of networking contact, via e-mail. Although nothing replaces the phone or in-person networking, e-mail is handy because many senior-level managers actually read their own e-mail each morning.

Tips and Techniques

  • Never, ever interject any editorial opinion about geographical location, type of contact you'd prefer, etc., when requesting names and ideas from your networking contacts. Your goal is to continually build the database. Let people give you their recommendations free of any extraneous information.

  • Read my earlier Tooling Up column about "Tell me about yourself" responses and have one ready to go at a moment's notice. Although you are not going to launch into even a 2-minute version of this without permission, you can expect that in some small percentage of your networking calls you will actually hit the possibility of an open position. You might be asked to "spontaneously" tell them why you are a fit!

  • There is a tendency for anyone writing about careers to discount these contacts in Human Resources as annoyances. That is because, in general, H/R is "swamped" after running ads and they don't have a lot of time to spend getting to know folks who call in. However, if you have an H/R name, I'd pursue it just like any other referral. It will be one more chance to sharpen your saw, and at the same time you may just discover the person in a company who can get things done!

  • You will no doubt encounter a certain number of rude people and secretaries who will not allow you to speak to their boss. Don't worry about the occasional slammed door. You will find, soon enough, that networking is a numbers game and that the more contacts you make, the better. Those rude people you run into along the way are best forgotten.

  • Don't get sidetracked by time wasters. These might include worrying about rude people, or extensive reliance upon headhunters (whose major job is finding industrial experience for their client companies). The worst time waster of them all: falling back into the age-old trap of conducting a CV mailing campaign.

One of my favorite inspirational books, As a Man Thinketh, written almost 200 years ago by James Allen, holds a great quote that I believe relates to the networking process:

"A particular train of thought or action persisted in, be it good or bad, cannot fail to produce its results on one's circumstances. A man cannot directly choose his circumstances, but he can choose his thoughts and actions which so indirectly, yet surely, shape his circumstances."

--J. Allen

My question to you at this important stage of your life: Are you directing your thoughts and actions to create the circumstances that you desire in your life and career? Perhaps networking will be one key part of creating the future career that you have dreamed about.

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