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For career support, tap your network! It’s deeper than you realize

“You’re screwed!” Jane says over breakfast, pointing at the one-page letter Otto just brought in from the mailbox.

“I am not!” Otto responds. “They want to meet me!”

“May I correct you,” Jane says, ironically emphasizing her posh Oxford accent. “They welcome you to give a lecture in an auditorium filled with professors and students about a topic you know nothing about, and you only have 2 weeks to prepare. If you ask me, that sounds like being invited for a confrontation with an armed gladiator in the Roman Empire.”

She’s right, Otto realizes, and his excitement turns to stress. He has a Ph.D. and a couple years of postdoc experience in organic chemistry, yet somehow he is supposed to give a 50-minute lecture about groundwater circulation and pollution—something he knows absolutely nothing about. But he knows he can’t postpone or cancel. This is their test: making him lecture about a topic outside of his core field. And isn’t that the job he really wants? He dreams about becoming a lecturer and covering a range of topics. The interview conditions are very tough, but what choice does he have? In the past 2 years, he had only seen a handful of job openings in the area and with decent pay. He had applied for all of them, but this was the first time he made it to the interview.     

“I’ll be fine, Jane. I’ll pick up some books at the library after work. And I’ll phone Chris tonight. He’ll help me,” Otto says, casually taking a bite of his toast.

“Chris? Who’s Chris?”

“Oh, he’s an old friend. He studied something with groundwater, and the other day I saw on LinkedIn that he is still active in the field.”

“Have I met Chris?” Jane asks, slightly stupefied. Jane and Otto have been together for 8 years, plenty of time to meet all family and friends. But Jane can’t remember meeting anyone named Chris or hearing any stories with a Chris playing a leading part or even a supporting role.

Otto pauses chewing for a moment. “No, you haven’t met him. He is living in Berlin.”

“And when was the last time you saw Chris?” Jane asks.

“It’s been a while. But 10 years, 10 days, or 10 hours ago … why does it matter, Jane? We were in high school together. We played in a band for a while and hung out in the same youth club. I know he would be happy to hear from me.”

“You are not seriously going to ask for help from someone you haven’t talked to in a decade, are you?”   

“Why not? I will just ask him for advice—a few ideas and some feedback on my ideas. And best of all, it’s a good reason to catch up!”

“That is just weird,” Jane says, already feeling ashamed on Otto’s behalf.

She would never contact a person she hasn’t talked with for years. She is connected with many former colleagues on LinkedIn and ResearchGate, some of whom now work for organizations she could envision working for after finishing her Ph.D. in a few months. But contacting them would feel like taking advantage. They would instantly know why she was getting in touch after letting so much time pass!

But she is not about to argue the point. After all, it’s his life, his contact. 

That evening, Otto flops onto the sofa next to Jane with a grin on his face, holding a book about groundwater.

“Chris instructed me better than an undercover agent would get briefed before infiltrating the Hells Angels,” he says excited. “With his advice, together with this book, I will rock that lecture. Chris is even going to send me some maps for an interactive exercise.”

Jane raises her eyebrows.

“And Chris didn’t find it super strange you phoned?”

“Of course not! He was happy to catch up. He has a wife and a kid now, and he says that we are more than welcome to visit them whenever we are in Berlin. Wouldn’t that be a great reason to go visit?”

“Berlin would be nice,” Jane agrees hesitantly. She’s still not sure what to think about it all, but she’s happy that Chris did not hang up on her partner.

“And after talking about science for a bit, he asked me whether I could proofread a short manuscript he is about to submit. It’s pretty heavy on my field, and he reckons my English is better than his. It’s perfect timing! I told him that I’m happy to reciprocate.”

“It sounds like it,” Jane says smiling at Otto. She kisses him on his cheek and adds, “I really hope you get this job. And if you do, we’ll go to Berlin to celebrate.”

The moral of the story

Your network is much larger than you think.

Oftentimes, Ph.D. students and postdocs feel insecure about which people from their past are socially acceptable to contact for help. For example, can you contact someone you haven’t seen or been in touch with during the last 24 months? Are they still part of your network?

Yes! It’s completely natural for people to lose touch as their lives and careers develop. You stay in touch with some people but not with others. But as long as you and the other person separated on good terms and you did not burn any bridges, you can contact anyone who is likely to remember you.

Be frank about what you want from them. For example, you might write an email that looks something like this:

Hey Chris. I am reaching out because I am looking for groundwater expertise and LinkedIn tells me that you are the expert! I got invited to interview for a lecturer position and would love to chat for a few minutes to get your input if you’re available. Maybe I could do something for you in return.

And it would be great to catch up, too! I still have fond memories of when you played that prank on our high school math teacher.

That’s better than starting with a lot of filler, such as “I thought about you the other day and how we lost touch. It would be super nice to catch up with you. How is your mom doing? Is she still running that bakery in town? Blah, blah, blah … .” Taking too long to get to the real reason that you’re contacting them makes people feel like you aren’t being straight with them, and you will come across as dishonest. Play with open cards instead.

Do you still feel insecure about contacting certain people? Just ask yourself what you would think if that person contacted you. If you wouldn’t mind, or would even enjoy it, they will feel the same way!

*Philipp Gramlich (NaturalScience.Careers) and David Giltner (TurningScience) contributed to this article. Philipp combines industry and academic experience in his workshops and talks for scientists. David teaches scientists how to design and build rewarding careers in industry.

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