Recently, a newly minted science doctorate asked me for some help finding a job. He had applied for hundreds of advertised openings, both postdoc and non-academic positions, but to no avail. So I asked him about his networking strategy. “What networking strategy?” he replied, clueless to what I was referring. I spent the next hour emphasizing the importance of networking in finding hidden job opportunities and communicating your value to decision-makers. I outlined for him a customised networking plan which would enable him to meet and interact with professionals who have the power to hire him for the jobs he so desperately wanted. When our meeting concluded, I asked for feedback on the career consulting session – “Did you find our discussion helpful?” I inquired, thinking I was up for a major pat on the back. “No,” he said instantly. “You didn’t tell me where I can apply for a job or places where there are more advertisements for jobs.”
Although he has a PhD in chemistry, this scientist did not understand a fundamental element associated with career planning and job seeking: most jobs are NOT advertised. And for opportunities that are promoted, like postdoc appointments and academic professorships, often times, the committees already have people in mind whom they want to invite to apply.
How do you position yourself so that you can find out about the hidden jobs and be considered for opportunities before the rest of the herd? It’s all about networking. It’s all about getting your name and accomplishments out there, managing your research reputation, and connecting with as many influencers and decision-makers as possible. And although many scientists do understand that some sort of networking is needed, they don’t often understand why it is obligatory in gaining a competitive edge. Some scientists, like the chemist I was counseling, erroneously think that networking is a side activity that won’t lead to anything solid, like a job. But that’s simply not true. The sooner you recognise that networking is actually a strategic tool in finding a job and even defining a career path, the sooner you will set yourself up for success. Here are a few other myths associated with scientific networking and career advancement you need to know:
Myth: The Decision-makers won’t to talk to me
An early-career astronomer once told me that there was no point in going to a reception at a conference, because the “stars” of the astronomy world, a.k.a. the observatory and department heads, program managers, and international leaders, are not interested in chatting with a “lowly” grad student. “They don’t want to speak with me,” she informed me. “I’d be wasting their time.” This is a myth! At a networking event, like a reception or mixer, especially one at a conference, established scientists want to meet each other, AND they want to meet the emerging professionals as well. After all, the grad students and the postdocs are the future stars of the field. They are the scientists who will add energy to a research program, and continue investigations into novel directions, now and in the future. Remember: no matter where you are in your career, you always have something of value to share, even if it is with a senior level leader. At your next networking function, don’t hesitate to walk up to a Principal Investigator and ask them about their work. Talk to them about your interests and ask them about their passions. Discuss ways in which you may be able to contribute value and collaborate on a project.
Myth: Networking begins and ends at an event
A networking affair is meant to bring people together who otherwise would not have a chance to interact. Its purpose is to afford you the opportunity to introduce yourself to other professionals and begin to forge a relationship that continues beyond the conference. You don’t need to monopolize their time (don’t spend an hour speaking with one person), but you do need to follow up. At most networking events, I spend about 10-15 minutes with individuals and then simply state: “I really enjoyed speaking with you about X and Y. I would love the opportunity to continue this discussion. Would it be possible to follow up with you via email and make a phone appointment to chat about it further?” They almost always they will say yes, or point you in the direction of someone else who can help you. I make sure to get their contact information (I usually ask for their card), and then email them within a day or two of the conference to set up the appointment. I have now begun to craft a collaboration which will serve me (and the other person) well.
Myth: It’s about the free food
We’ve all been there – they don’t call us “starving students” for nothing. When I was in college the sole reason I ventured into certain networking situations was for the free buffet. But as a scientific leader, you cannot afford the luxury of wasting time at a networking mixer with your head in a trough. The food is nice, but you are there to meet people, connect with them, and look for opportunities that are mutually beneficial to you and other scientists. So skip the multiple trips to the food line, and save the pints for Friday night with your pals.
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