Friday, May 25, 2018

Networking, part 2: Banish the dread

It’s conference season! That means travel to new places, listening to great talks, free beer at poster sessions, and…networking!  Last month, I talked about why you need a network and who needs to be in your network, and the fact that despite the importance of this activity, it’s one that we often dread. If you are one of the few people who get super excited at the mention of networking, then no need to read on. For the rest of us, why do we find networking so intimidating, scary, or vaguely unpleasant?  The three reasons I hear most often are:

  • you might be an introvert
  • they might be rude
  • it just feels sort of “icky”

The first point is something I’ll tackle next month with some really practical tips for striking up conversations and building relationships.  The second point is something that I can’t help you with, but I will say that the majority of senior scientists do genuinely enjoy interacting with others in their field, especially students, postdocs, and young faculty.  And if they don’t enjoy this, most have enough social grace to fake it well.  This leaves us with the third point.  I hear from many young scientists that they feel self-conscious when networking because they’re afraid that the person they’re talking with will think they just want something. Sometimes (but certainly not always) networking is transactional, as you might want to apply for a postdoc in the person’s lab, hope that they would nominate you for an award, or need to ask them for advice or mentoring. So, how do you go about this without it feeling “icky”?

Recognize that transactions aren’t always bad.  Buying food at the grocery store is a transaction, and we don’t feel guilty about that. Why?  Partly because everyone knows that food is something you need in order to live.  Similarly, there are some professional opportunities you need for your career to thrive, and senior people in your field are aware of this and generally want to help when they can.  A second key aspect of why buying food at the grocery store doesn’t make us feel bad is that you…

Pay it back (or forward).  If someone is helping you out, you may have the opportunity to return the favor sometime in the future.  This may be pretty far off if you are still a grad student or postdoc, but you can certainly pay things forward by helping the people who are your peers or junior to you.  Offer to read and edit manuscript drafts for your colleagues, participate in outreach, serve as a mentor to an undergraduate or high school student.   Be the type of person who is always looking for ways to help those around you, and you’ll feel much less disingenuous when you need to ask others for help.  Also, people will be more inclined to help you out if they know that you are the type of person who pays it forward. (If you’re interested in the psychology behind this, I highly suggest Adam Grant’s book Give and Take).

Stand on your merit.  Meeting someone and making a good impression can get your foot in the door, but recognize that this is not the whole deal.  You still need to stand on the strength of your merit to get what you want.  For example, if you are looking for postdoc positions, making a good impression during a poster session could get you an interview. But, it is the strength of your CV, your ability to present your research articulately, and your future ideas that will most likely land you the actual position.  When you network with a specific purpose, you might be asking for opportunities to show people your accomplishments and capabilities, but you will still be the one earning what you want based upon your hard work and creativity.

Build a relationship.  It feels awkward to ask someone you don’t know for a letter of recommendation or award nomination.  That’s because it is awkward.  When at all possible, take time to build a relationship before you ask someone for help.  Remember, there are lots of types of people in your network – Champions are generally the people of whom you make an “ask.” But, you also need to have Mentees, Peers, Mentors, and Models in your network, and your Champions are often people who you already have a relationship with in one of these other roles. 

Next month, we’ll get super practical with tips on how to initiate and maintain these relationships. This will lead you in building a diverse network of people who can help you, people that you can help, and hopefully make conference season even more fun!