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Opportunities Come Through People


This is the seventh article in a series designed to help you create an individual development plan (IDP) using myIDP, a new Web-based career-planning tool created to help graduate students and postdocs in the sciences define and pursue their career goals. To learn more about myIDP and begin the career exploration and planning process, please visit:

In his popular book Where Good Ideas Come From1, Steven Johnson debunks the notion that great innovations come from brilliant scientists sitting in solitude, pondering perplexing questions. Hundreds of years ago, breakthrough ideas may have come from solo creative geniuses like Gutenberg, da Vinci, and Galilei—but in recent history most breakthrough ideas have emerged from collaborative environments. Johnson makes the case that interactions among people with different backgrounds and perspectives spark new ideas. Thus, networks that connect scientists so that ideas can flow freely are an essential component of scientific innovation.

Although it is important to have close friends and confidants, from a career standpoint it is more beneficial to have a broad and diverse network with lots of loose connections.

There is another important reason to get out of our silos and get connected to others: Those connections are essential for career progression.

Among scientists, the word "networking" evokes visceral responses, and usually they're not positive. Many associate networking with schmoozing, gossiping, empty flattery, shameless self-promotion, and other uncomfortable things done with strangers over cheese cubes and wine in plastic cups. Alternatively, some other scientists may associate the word with social networking: communicating online with massive numbers of widely scattered people, most of them strangers.

Here's this column's first piece of advice: Rid your mind of those associations, and start over with something like this: Networking is a process of cultivating professional relationships by being authentic, sharing information, and working together to achieve the shared goals of doing good science. The goal of networking is to form and strengthen the relationships that are essential to the optimal conduct of science.

But these relationships have a fortunate side effect: They enhance your visibility in the profession and help you advance in your career. And that is our primary goal here.

Why does networking work?

Most people find jobs through connections with other people—not by responding to job ads.  That surprising finding was first described by Mark Granovetter in his classic and widely cited study from 1973. It's likely that since then this has become even more true.

Granovetter found that workers didn't find out about jobs from their closest friends, but rather from people with whom they had indirect connections. He called these connections "weak ties."

At first this may seem surprising, but when you think about it, Granovetter's findings make sense. Your closest circle of friends occupies the same universe you occupy. They participate in the same activities and frequent the same locations. People outside your immediate sphere are likely to have contact with different people and to hear about career opportunities that you wouldn't otherwise hear about. Thus, although it is important to have close friends and confidants, from a career standpoint it is more beneficial to have a broad and diverse network with lots of loose connections.

How do I meet people?

The first step is easy: Just step out of the lab. Specifically:

  • Attend events - seminars, conferences, and social events.
  • Become a member of your disciplinary society, and be active. For example, if you are a physiologist you should be a member of the American Physiological Society. For physicists, it's the American Physical Society.
  • Join other professional organizations. For maximal impact, join multidisciplinary societies like the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the publisher of Science Careers, and attend their meetings. Organizations such as the Association for Women in Science organize interesting national and regional activities; many focused on helping members connect.
  • Serve on committees. Help organize a seminar series in your department, especially one that's career-related. Local committees, such as your university's graduate student association or postdoctoral association, are an obvious choice and easy to join—but don't overlook opportunities at the national level. Many disciplinary societies welcome trainees to serve on their standing committees, and the National Postdoctoral Association has opportunities for participation. You may be able to help out at national professional society meetings—and even get benefits like free admission.
  • Join community organizations (e.g., church, local government) or service clubs (e.g., Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions Club). You may be surprised to find that the person you're sitting next to is the CEO of a company or a top university administrator.
  • Visit other labs. If your vacation takes you to or through a city with a leader in your field, inquire about making a brief visit. Get yourself invited to give talks at nearby institutions. Attend talks in other departments at your own institution. Ask questions, and introduce yourself to people when cookies (or wine) are served.
  • Networking is mainly a real-world activity, but the Internet can be useful, too. Create a profile on LinkedIn. Join relevant LinkedIn groups. Use the search feature to find and connect to people in your desired career path or in a specific organization. Once you have a profile, others may find you as well.


Be prepared for your offline, real world encounters. Bring the right attitude, and your business cards. Here's a checklist of things to keep in mind:

  • Smile and be friendly.
  • Sit with people you don't know.
  • Introduce yourself.
  • Shake hands firmly and make eye contact.
  • Put down your smartphone and LISTEN.
  • Show a genuine interest in the people you meet.
  • Ask questions ("What are you working on?") Seek a common connection on which to build a conversation.
  • Suggest a tip, tool, book, or Web site.
  • Introduce new friends to old friends.
  • If conversation lags, it's time for a gracious exit. ("I appreciate your advice.  Enjoy the rest of your evening.")

After the event, follow up.  If you offered to send information, send it.  If you got a business card from someone, send a quick note mentioning a topic you discussed. Keep track of who you met by using the "My Activities" feature of myIDP.

Get out of your comfort zone

On the introversion/extroversion spectrum, scientists and other technical types tilt, on average, toward the introversion side, so meeting other people may not come naturally. You may have a natural reluctance to step up and start a conversation with someone you don't know. In general, introverts do well by strategizing an approach, and may find it easier to meet people if they have a task.2,3 If this sounds like you, consider these possibilities:

  • Offer to help out with an event (name tags, reservations, cleanup, and so on).
  • Prepare conversation topics before attending an event.
  • Linger by the hors d'oeuvres and hand a plate to the person behind. 
  • Offer to get a drink for people nearby. Be careful not to act obsequious—just friendly and helpful. This can be an excellent icebreaker for people uncomfortable with small talk and prone to social anxiety.
  • Visit the information table and strike up a conversation with the people there.
  • Make a positive comment about a speaker.
  • Ask people about the work they do.
  • Ask for advice. If you learn about a new project, offer to help.
  • Introduce people you think would benefit from knowing each other.

Scientific meetings are ideal networking opportunities!

Take advantage of scientific meetings by making it an explicit goal to expand your network. This doesn't mean passing out business cards to everyone you see. Your goal could be to have substantive conversations with two to three new people, to the point where future follow-up seems like a reasonable idea.

Read the agenda in advance and consider what you can get out of different types of sessions. Poster sessions are optimal because people are waiting at their posters to talk with you. Target posters presented by people in organizations that you would like to learn about, and perhaps work in.

Go to the exhibits with more in mind than collecting pens and free candy. Companies that supply scientific equipment (and display in the exhibit hall) also hire scientists. 

Attend special interest sessions. Large conferences can be intimidating, but smaller groups meeting around a discrete theme are usually more relaxed, so it's easier to make a connection. Join in the evening social events, and sit with people you don't know.

The message that must be underscored is that locking yourself in your lab or office to ponder great scientific questions is a recipe for failure.  Connecting with other people—in the real world—is essential for your career success. Through them, you will be exposed to new ideas and provided with solutions to scientific problems. You will also have access to a broader array of job openings.

1 S. Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From (Riverhead Books, New York, 2010).

2 M. S. Granovetter, The strength of weak ties. The American Journal of Sociology 78,1360–1380.

3 D. Zack, Networking for People Who Hate Networking. (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, 2010).

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