Those of you who have read my other Tooling Up columns will have no trouble guessing what I believe to be the Number One key to successful career development: Networking. Although your specific technical skills and general aptitude will be major factors in your success, the number and quality of job opportunities that you will find along the way will depend heavily on the depth of your network.
As both Dave Jensen and I have stressed in
1. Grading Your Network. Your network is made up of a range of people, including personal friends, family, and professional acquaintances. Some of these people are part of your network simply because you have preexisting relationships with them. Others you may have cultivated in a professional setting. Either way, the value of each individual in your network may vary enormously depending on the situation of the moment. It is important, then, for you to understand which individuals you should place on your A-list during a job search and why they should be there.
In general, the most valuable elements of your network are those people who hold good positions in the organization you are interested in joining, have some influence in their organization, and who are interested in helping you. For example, if you are interested in patent law and if the three members of your network who are partners in law firms specializing in intellectual property think you'd be perfect for patent law, I can guarantee you that your job search will be a breeze. These folks will steer opportunities your direction and will put in a good word on your behalf should you apply to their firm.
In contrast, if your network is made up of people who are not in a field or an organization that interests you, they may be of little help with your job search. Sure, they may be great people--supportive and encouraging--but they will not be able to unlock any doors for you.
Thus, it is important to evaluate your network critically. Make a list of the top five to 10 people in your network who are positioned to provide the most help and then focus your attention on them. And if you find yourself with a network that lacks many "potent" members, you should begin (quickly!) to cultivate new network contacts who may be more helpful. Dave Jensen has outlined a good protocol for establishing contact with these people.
2. Nurture Your Network. The biggest challenge in maintaining your network is not meeting people but keeping contacts alive over time. You may meet a super person at a conference, but unless you follow up and maintain contact, the connection will be lost. Remember, networking is, at its heart, nothing more than a personal relationship. And all relationships require some amount of time and attention.
Keep your network contacts informed periodically about your activities and achievements. Send each one a periodic e-mail--just to let them know what you're up to. John Doerr, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist, maintains his immense network vigorously. He calls at least one person each day just to catch up.
3. Send Out Reprints. For those of you who are pursuing research careers, your past mentors, bosses, and distant colleagues will be important parts of your network. One good way of letting them know what's happening in your professional life is to send out reprints of your articles along with a quick note. One of the easiest ways of doing this is by setting up a mailing list. The small investment in time and postage will pay huge dividends.
4. Get a Business Card. Many young scientists, especially those in graduate school, seem to feel foolish about getting a business card. As one student lamented to me in a recent workshop, "But I'm not an anything yet!" It doesn't matter. Handing over a business card is a quick and convenient way of giving people your contact information; you should consider it more an act of courtesy than of arrogance. In fact, you may even want to consider having two types of cards--a business card with your work information and a "home card" with your home information. Most university bookstores sell business cards with the university seal on them. And, in case you were wondering, you DO have a right to have a business card with your university's logo on it.
5. Keep a Scheduling System. As a graduate student, you may not lead a very complex life--wake up; eat; work; eat; work; eat; work some more; sleep; repeat. But sooner or later you will have to start juggling dates, appointments, and projects. Get into a good habit early: Buy a scheduler of some kind and learn to use it effectively. In grad school I started with a daily appointment book that fit in my shirt pocket. Now I have a handheld computer that keeps track of all my addresses, calendar, memos, and e-mails; it even has games and a scientific calculator. But it doesn't really matter what medium you choose, so long as you find it easy to use and easy to carry around.
6. Answer Phone Messages and E-mails Promptly. If you're like most people, you often deal with a flood of e-mails, some of which require considerable work before responding. Similarly, you may often get phone calls that you can't immediately respond to because you're in the midst of a busy period. And then there are those e-mails or phone calls reminding you about something that's overdue! Rather than waiting until you are done to respond, consider another option: Call or e-mail back immediately, telling the person that you've received their message and that you'll be able to give a more complete response by a specified date or time (try to be realistic...). This can come as a great reassurance to these potentially important members of your network, who might otherwise be wondering if they still have the right contact information for you.
Another variation of this technique: Keep your e-mail in-box as clean as possible. Keep unanswered e-mails open until you have responded to them, at which point you can transfer them to another folder.
As you can see, engaging in "advanced networking" requires some extra time and diligence. At first, these networking techniques may seem tedious and time consuming. But with practice, they will become habitual, and you will find that it takes you hardly any time at all to stay in touch with your network. And if you question the wisdom of adopting these networking practices, take a look at the successful professionals around you--more often than not, you will find that they have been practicing "advanced networking" techniques for years.