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Schmoozing 101


What comes to mind when you hear the word "networking"? For many scientists, the term conjures up images of management consulting types with perfect smiles and golden tans (in March!), schmoozing about their new BMWs over the latest fashionable cocktail. Amid the handshakes and the oh-so-genuine chuckles, business cards are beamed between PDAs and powerful networks are established. Not exactly the kind of environment in which a scientist would feel comfortable chatting about their recent discovery of a novel matrix adhesion protein, eh?

Well, relax. The image is wrong. The world outside of grad school has not entirely embraced style over substance, recent dot-com insanity notwithstanding. Networking is a vital component of the career toolbox for management consultants, salespeople, office schleps, and scientists alike. There's a good reason for this: Whether you're a social butterfly or a bookish introvert, the plain truth is that approximately 80% of jobs are acquired through networking. If you've read the first three articles in this series, you know the odds are already stacked against you. Narrowing your options to the measly 20% of opportunities outside your network is a recipe for career disaster.

As I see it, networking boils down to three separate phases that each demand their own approach: contact, maintenance, and harvest. Right now, while you're still a grad student, making contacts should be your primary concern. Why start now when you're not even sure what you'll be doing? Well, for one, networking is a great way to efficiently gather firsthand information about a particular job. A short question-and-answer session can easily save hours of surfing for appropriate written resources. Also, establishing and maintaining an effective network takes time. It is impossible to harvest your contacts while you are still trying to make them. And considering that networks will be critical to your career until you tap into your 401(k) and hit the links, any experience you acquire now will serve you well.

The greatest obstacle to effective networking that faces a typical grad student is fear. If you're anything like me, the idea of picking up the phone and cold calling a potential contact can make you feel like a bumbling teenager asking that special someone for a date. The cold sweat and twisted tongue were enough to send me racing back to the comfort of my Western blot. Relax! As I'll explain in a moment, the modern networker has a couple of tricks to ease that cold-call panic.

The first step in the process is to gather a list of people to contact. Although you may personally know only a few people who could help, there are several resources nearby to provide you with a healthy start. Begin with your principal investigator and other faculty members in your department. You'll be amazed at how many interesting people they know and can recommend contacting--with the added bonus that a referral can really help get the ball rolling. Track down grad students and postdocs who have moved on from your department. Most departments have an alumni list of some sort that you can use.

Alternatively, if you've narrowed down the list of careers that you're interested in to just a few, you can look to representative organizations in each area for contacts with similar backgrounds. Some professional organizations even provide a profile of each of their key employees on their Web site, and you can often find interesting possibilities just by scanning through their bio. For example, one area I'm particularly interested in is patent law. To learn a bit more, I took some time to look through the Web sites of local firms to see if any hired Ph.D.s as technical specialists. Sure enough, I was able to compile a list of former scientists with similar backgrounds, several of whom made excellent contacts.

Once you've created a suitable list, you need to begin the process of making contact. Thankfully, we have e-mail to head off any disabling communication anxiety that could stifle your network before it has even formed. E-mail allows you to compose your questions carefully and gives the contact the chance to entertain your request at their convenience. Because it is less intrusive, an e-mail can be a much more effective device for initiating contact than a poorly timed phone call.

Be careful, however, not to completely discount the value of personal communication. The real-time interactivity of a phone call not only enables you to effectively ask specific questions but also allows the contact to get to know you a bit outside of cyberspace. Remember, these contacts will become part of a long-term network with value beyond the current request for information. One technique that I've found to be effective is to request or offer a phone call in the initial e-mail. This gives the contact the option of answering your questions with an e-mail message or letting you know when it would be convenient for you to call them. And don't forget to be prepared. Keep a brief list of questions handy to keep the conversation moving and to make sure nothing is left out.

By the same token, a face-to-face meeting, a so-called "informational interview," can be the best option of all. Whether the contact offers to meet you over coffee or a faculty member initiates a formal introduction at a meeting, do not pass up the opportunity to sit down and chat. A good personal impression will have a greater impact than even the best e-mail or phone call. Remember, however, that this is NOT the place to ask about a job--the unwritten rules of networking require you to dance around any discussion of an actual position, at least for now--but simply your opportunity to gather information and start a professional relationship.

Finally, you need to decide what you'll say. Everyone's style is different, but following a few simple pointers can help the conversation flow much more smoothly. First, ask questions. You can generally start with something like "I'm interested in X and since you do X, can you tell me a bit about making the transition from science and how you like it." Obviously, you can be a little more sophisticated, but you get the idea.

Second, get right to the point. Small talk is OK in moderation, but assume that they are probably quite busy and only have a limited amount of time to spend chatting with you.

Third, do some research first. Learn a thing or two about the field or company they work for, and structure some specific questions that address their situation. Not only will you get better information, but you may even impress the contact. Finally, relax! If a contact doesn't pan out, you have a list of others to work from. With a little practice, you may find that you actually enjoy schmoozing after all.

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