Like any number of scientific couples, particle physicist Alexander Skutlartz and his wife, an expert in grain science, had a two-state marriage. He worked at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, and she at the Campbell’s Soup Company headquarters in Camden, New Jersey. But then, during one of Skutlartz’s visits to his wife, the couple had dinner with a colleague from Campbell’s. When the conversation turned to a production problem at the factory, Skutlartz realized that his expertise in optical sensors could provide a solution. Mentioning this led to an offer to consult with the company and, some months later, to work there full time. The first Ph.D. physicist the soup giant had ever hired, Skutlartz sparked improvements that resulted in big savings; won several innovation awards; and, ultimately, had a successful, decades-long—though initially unexpected—career in the food industry.
This encouraging tale comes from Networking for Nerds: Find, Access and Land Game-Changing Career Opportunities Everywhere, a helpful and thorough guide published in July that explains how scientists can and should foster serendipity and harness mutual benefit in order to launch and advance their careers, both in and outside academe. The book’s author, Alaina Levine, a career consultant and a writer who contributes to Science Careers, believes that this powerful combination is the essence of networking, which she sees as discovering unexpected opportunities through the process of making others aware of how your skills and abilities can help them fill their needs and solve their problems. Taking advantage of networking, however, will require many people of the “nerdly” persuasion to adjust their approach to the job market, she writes.
[C]limbing up—or even getting onto—that traditional academic ladder is no longer an option for the great majority of early-career scientists.
Unfortunately, “to many budding researchers the thought of networking brings about visions of unsavory representations in smoke-filled rooms—of prostituting one’s scientific ideals to get ahead in the world,” writes Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt in a foreword to Levine’s book. But “[m]y experience is that networking is instead the essence of scientific progress,” he continues. Scientific and technical progress depends on collaboration among people with differing but complementary skills, and networking, Schmidt and Levine believe, is the perfectly honorable effort to find those people. Just as appropriate is meeting new people and letting them know how your abilities can beneficially complement theirs as you seek unexpected opportunities to apply your skills outside of academe, they argue.
The hidden market
When Skutlartz found his new career, “there was no ad that announced ‘Wanted: Someone to solve this factory problem’ or ‘Physicist needed to provide soup-based solutions,’” Levine writes in the book. “His job didn’t even exist. Campbell’s created both the consulting and the full-time positions just for [him] because, given the opportunity, he was able to appropriately communicate his value to decision-makers who recognized that value and its benefit to them.”
Such a story of career serendipity is not rare, she writes. In fact, it illustrates a basic truth about the job market, especially outside of academe: “Most jobs are NOT advertised and neither are most opportunities that have the potential to be career game-changers, such as invitations to meet with someone, serve on a committee, pursue a leadership role, or apply for an award,” Levine writes in the book. When job ads do appear, furthermore, “often times, the committees already have people in mind whom they want to invite to apply or have promised the job to someone under the table.” While in many work sectors, such as academe and government, “jobs are legally obligated to be advertised,” that doesn’t mean they are necessarily open. Instead, often “there’s already a short list of candidates identified in the search committee’s head,” she tells Science Careers in an interview. This practice is so common that in Washington, D.C., government circles, there’s even a word for it: Such jobs are said to be “wired.”
But alongside the “not-really-open” openings that appear in many job ads is what Levine calls in her book the “Hidden Platter of Opportunities.” This consists of all the needs and problems that people in every kind of organization constantly face, but that they have not yet announced publicly or reduced to job descriptions—or, as the Skutlartz case illustrates, even begun to consider in those terms. “The idea [of] a hidden job market is often mystifying to a lot of engineers and scientists. They’re so used to seeing ads,” she says in the interview. “In business schools, on day one, they teach you about networking. … They teach you how to honorably promote yourself.” But science or math programs don’t do that. During her math studies, she continues, she never heard a professor or mentor say, “If you want to advance in your career, you have to network.”
So how do you access that hidden job market and help yourself to those potential opportunities? Use networking to expand your professional community and make yourself “a known quantity,” Levine advises. This leads to offers because hiring new employees costs “upwards of three times somebody’s salary,” without any guarantee that the person will work out, she says. But if you are “a known quantity, the risk associated with me potentially hiring you is mitigated significantly,” she continues.
Meeting Dr. God
The book gives detailed advice on how to become that known person. It recommends specific techniques to create a professional identity and build your reputation; to broaden your circle of professional acquaintances; to create mutually beneficial relationships; to get the most from a conference; to gather valuable knowledge from random encounters with strangers; to use social media to your advantage; and to make distinguished figures in your field aware of your abilities and expertise and, even more importantly, to overcome your reluctance to do so.
“Why would Dr. God want to talk to me? What could she potentially get out of that conversation that's win-win?” is what early-career scientists ask Levine when she suggests they try to network with the eminent, she says in the interview. But prominent people “didn’t get to be successful by being totally isolated in their work,” she adds. Networking has formed part of every eminent scientist’s work life from the beginning, and it has played a significant role in getting her or him to the pinnacle of success, she argues. What Dr. God gets out of discussions with junior scientists are insights into the latest techniques and ideas that will connect her work to future generations, Levine explains. At the Lindau conference, where dozens of Nobel laureates each year meet with scores of young scientists, “the laureates told me over and over again, ‘I come to Lindau to work with early-career scientists here because they are going to be my legacy,’” she says.
Through copious examples of how networking has created unexpected yet promising opportunities for herself and numerous others, Levine makes a strong case that every ambitious scientist needs to make it “part of [their] day-to-day strategy”—something they think about, plan for, and work at regularly. “Just because you have a job now doesn’t mean you stop networking” because someday you may want or need another. And given its power today, social media, she emphasizes, “has to be integrated into your daily or weekly plan.”
For people long trained to view career development as progressing up a prescribed set of rungs such as those climbed by their professors, and to believe that single-minded focus on scientific work is the way to get there, Levine’s insistence that career advancement lies in cultivating the unexpected and unpredictable opportunities that arise from human connections may seem disorienting. The kind of program she outlines, in which networking becomes a constant, systematic effort, may also strike many as overly time-consuming and demanding.
But climbing up—or even getting onto—that traditional academic ladder is no longer an option for the great majority of early-career scientists. Furthermore, Levine adds, the lure of the unpredictable that is inherent in serendipity lies close to what attracts people to science in the first place. “We study science anyway because we want to see where … unpredictability may take us,” she says. “It could take us to the next major scientific breakthrough, the next engineering innovation.” But also, “[i]t could take us to a new job that we create. It could take us to a new company or organization. … You never know.” And you won’t find out, she insists, unless you give networking the energy and attention it deserves.