Sunday, June 24, 2018

Networking, part 3: Just a friend you haven’t met yet

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that you’re in the science business.  What you might not realize is that this is also a people business, and that the relationships you build within (and outside of) the scientific community are not only essential for your career progression, but can also be fun and meaningful.  When we hear the word “networking,” it can trigger visions of an awkward “speed dating” event where people are all trying to get something from each other.  However, as I explained last month, transactional networking is not necessarily a bad thing, and is also a very small part of the whole picture.  The majority of networking is really just about building relationships, and this month, we’ll wrap up this series by taking a look at two different approaches.

In person. Arguably, the best way to get to know someone is by meeting them and spending time together.  This typically happens in person around your workplace, at conferences, or at other events, and video chatting also enables you to network “in person” with people who are far away. If meeting and spending time with new people sounds terrifying or unpleasant because you are an introvert, you’re not alone.  The good news is that most people love to talk about their research and how they got where they are in their career. So, having a set of questions at hand will take you far in building relationships and provides a great opportunity to learn some interesting new things. The questions you ask may vary depending on where someone fits in your network (more info on that here), the context in which you’re meeting them, and your own personal style and career goals. Below is a list (compiled with help from my research group) that offers a few examples to get you started:

Questions you ask mentees:

  • What are your career plans?
  • What are you most excited about in your research project right now?
  • What did you think about [class/lab meeting/project idea/seminar]?

Questions you ask peers:

  • How is your day going?
  • How did you [find job/postdoc, write proposal/etc]. Would you be willing to send me an example or look over my materials?
  • What is the biggest challenge are you facing right now and how are you dealing with it?

Questions you ask mentors:

  • If you were in my situation, what would you do?
  • If you could do everything in your career over again, what would you do differently?
  • What accomplishment are you most proud of?
  • What is the advice that I don’t even know that I need?

Questions you ask models:

  • Tell me what it’s like to have your job. What do you like? What are the challenges?
  • How did you get from the stage I’m at to your current career?
  • What do you wish you knew at my stage?
  • What were the most important resources for your career development?

Questions you ask champions:

  • Can you introduce me to [person]?
  • Can you get me invited to [conference]?
  • Would you be willing to recommend/nominate me for [job/postdoc/award]?

Electronically. Interacting with people electronically may seem less effective than in person networking, but it can be an important first step to building new connections. While scientists are on many social media platforms, Twitter and LinkedIn seem to be the most popular right now. I was reluctant to join Twitter for many years, even as I heard my science friends talking about how useful it was.  I eventually caved, and over the past 6 months, have found it a great resource for gaining knowledge and building relationships (heck, you’re probably reading this blog because of a link on Twitter!).  If you are a student or postdoc thinking of using social media for networking, here are a few practical tips: 

  • Maintain separate personal and professional profiles.  For LinkedIn, you should clearly only have a professional profile.  If you use Twitter for personal posts, consider starting a parallel account for professional posts.  If you follow other scientists, be sure to do this from your professional profile so that they will see this side of you if they follow you back.
  • Keep your profiles updated with relevant information, especially if you are about to start searching for a job or postdoc.
  • When you meet someone new in person, connect with them soon after via social media by following them on Twitter or sending a request on LinkedIn.
  • If you feel like you have been interacting with someone frequently via social media (liking/commenting on posts) and you want to get to know them better, don’t be afraid to reach out personally by email.  They may not reply, but it’s worth a try. A key goal of networking via social media is to initiate relationships that eventually grow via in person interactions.
  • While social media interactions may seem fleeting, it does make a big difference when you do finally get to meet that person in real life.  Also, it can be a great way to maintain relationships over long periods of time, even if you don’t get to connect in person.

Hopefully this series of posts has helped to clarify the who, what, where, when, why, and how of networking, and help the process to feel less intimidating and more fun.  While most people embark on a career in science for the thrill of discovery, one of the more rewarding aspects of this career can be the opportunity to build lifelong friendships as you continually expand the scope and diversity of your professional network.