Read our COVID-19 research and news.

It's Not Always the Best and Brightest (Part 2)

(Kelly Krause, AAAS)

My column last month made the point that the person who gets hired today isn’t always the person you'd expect. It's not always the graduates of top universities with the best grades; companies often hire the scientist who was in the right place at the right time and managed to get noticed. I’ve always wondered why more people don’t recognize this and use it to their advantage; anyone can see that many of the best and brightest are caught in today’s postdoc pipeline along with everyone else.

It isn't just a matter of luck. As I wrote in Part 1, you've got to be smart to get noticed. This week, I'll put forward a couple of helpful ideas and make some specific suggestions for how to make it happen.

The desire—the need—to be noticed must be addressed with common sense and courtesy.

Upside-down networking

Generally, job seekers think of networking as a process that slowly takes them up the pecking order, starting with peer-level contacts who may know group leaders, who in turn may know a manager or two, and so on. That is, you might say, the classical networking model, and it works.

But you need to recognize that this kind of networking is complemented by another kind that goes on behind the scenes, which I call upside-down networking. No one ever talks about this. Just as you and other job seekers network to try and find jobs, hiring managers network to try and find employees.

Let’s say that the director of analytical chemistry needs to hire a research scientist to run the mass spectrometer that her company just acquired. Will the director run an ad? Not usually; you’ve probably noticed that there aren’t many ads for entry-level Ph.D. science jobs. Instead, the manager decides to pick up the phone and call her former postdoctoral or grad school colleagues and ask that famous question, "Who do you know?" That’s how she locates the three people she will interview. Your assignment, if you choose to accept it, is to be one of those three people.

Done right, classical networking meshes perfectly with upside-down networking. If you've done your networking job well, working your way up to supervisor-level contacts, this director is likely to learn about you when she reaches out to talk to her friends.

A great way to set yourself up to be noticed is to set up informational interviews with people who are one or more levels up the corporate-scientific hierarchy. An informational interview will put you on personal terms with the people who get those "Who do you know?" calls from other bosses.

Think you're not likely to be able to set up an informational interview with these important folks? Think again. Senior people often like to "give back," and one way of doing that is to spend a half hour or so with a promising-looking young person who is interested in their field. That would be you. Not every request will result in a meeting, but you'll probably do better than you expect to. For more information on informational interviews, read this previous Tooling Up column. Informational interviewing is the best way to connect with that circuit of upside-down networking. It's the best way to get noticed.

Other ways

Effective as it is, informational interviewing is just one arrow in your quiver. Here are some others.

Use LinkedIn effectively. LinkedIn has become the social media standard for professionals. For some, it’s just a place to store their profile in hopes that a hiring manager will be looking for just their set of attributes when scanning the site. Yes, this can result in a cold call for a job interview. It happens, but not often, so don’t count on it.

Others use LinkedIn in a much smarter way. They make sure their profile is as complete as possible—LinkedIn will tell you how complete your profile is and make recommendations on how to make it more complete. A regular update (through the "Activity Update" feature) when you have something of value to share—a new publication, an article of interest, a bit of industry news—keeps you out there in front of your network. (Just don't act like it's Twitter and announce every little thing.) By the way, LinkedIn can be a great way to find people for those informational interviews.

Attend local chapter meetings. On the Science Careers Forum recently, a scientist in Connecticut argued that it was difficult to search for a job located in that state because there aren't many local employers. Someone suggested that he start attending local meetings of relevant national organizations, and within a post or two several meetings were identified that would be taking place in Connecticut over the next month.

I'm talking about local events, not national trade shows and scientific congresses. I’ve attended local meetings for the National Association of Science Writers, the Society of Quality Assurance, the Regulatory Affairs Professionals Society, and the American Association of Indian Pharmaceutical Scientists, among many others. Similar organizations exist for just about every niche you can think of, and in many communities there's a local chapter. Meetings are generally informal and held in restaurants or over a glass of beer. They are inexpensive to attend and newcomers are warmly welcomed.

Join committees. For local organizations and chapters—and sometimes also national professional societies—there are usually opportunities to get involved in committees and subgroups. I love the Society for Industrial Microbiology and Biotechnology (SIMB) because they have such a great relevance to what I do and because the organization is still relatively approachable in comparison to giant organizations such as BIO. SIMB has 20 subgroups that offer great networking and opportunities to head social committees, membership committees, and so on.

Connect without connections. Perhaps the most important networking skill of all is the ability to introduce yourself to people without an intermediary. Most people like to network through others, where "Bill suggested I be in touch" opens the door. But really successful job seekers don’t need Bill, or Susan, or anyone else. They just call up a person and introduce themselves. It’s not as uncomfortable as it sounds, and if you learn to do it well now, it will benefit you for a lifetime.

The line between smart and pushy

In offering advice like this, I run the risk of encouraging people to be pushy and obnoxious. In an effort to get noticed, some people will assume that it's OK to charge like a bull into a process that requires finesse and sensitivity. It's not OK—and that's where the skill comes in. Don't be aggressive; what's called for is gentle persuasiveness.

A scientist who reads my columns and has attended my lectures on these topics approached me not long ago with a phone call and an e-mail, too long and too demanding. I forwarded his materials on to a hiring manager friend just to get him off my back. I figured out that I had made a mistake when I heard back from my friend, who said this person was "stalking" her. This is not how you want to act.

The desire—the need—to be noticed must be addressed with common sense and courtesy. You stand a much better chance of being noticed (in a good way) when you are persistent, persuasive, and courteous than when you are the hard-charging networker who annoys everyone he meets.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers