If you’ve ever heard the phrase “it’s all about who you know”, you are probably familiar with how important networking is. Careers in academia and life science are no exception. Networking has been reported as the single most important factor to obtaining a job after your postdoctoral fellowship. While many postdocs have already begun networking during graduate school or before, there are many who are still not comfortable doing so. Networking can be very challenging for some people and a breeze for others. In this article, I will discuss the who, what, when, where, why, and how of networking to help increase your confidence as you continue your journey to a professional career in the life science field.

The Whys of Networking

Why should I network?

Before we get started talking about the ins and outs and dos and don’ts of networking, you may be wondering what the point of it actually is. Talking to strangers and meeting them may not seem very beneficial to you at this time, but the benefits will become apparent as you move forward in your career.

Networking is a great way to get your foot in the door for job opportunities. If you’re familiar with the idea of six degrees of separation, then you know that it is a theory where everyone is only six people away from any other person through ‘friend of a friend’ connections. If there is someone you want to meet, you can probably find a way to meet them through your networking connections.

Additionally, networking can be a good way to meet people socially and academically. Perhaps you want someone to travel with to a certain conference out of town or even need someone with experience to run ideas with. These connections have limitless benefits to your professional and personal development.

And don’t forget, networking isn’t one-sided. You can also assist someone else, find a collaborator, or eventually develop a support network for a future startup.

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The Hows of Networking

How do I prepare?

Before you attend a networking event, you want to be sure you are well-prepared. Have a plan and know what strengths and skills you have to offer. Create a brief outline of what you plan to talk about. Develop a mental introduction that includes information about yourself, your current status, your current position, your goals and your talents.

Make sure your plan includes questions for others. We can’t emphasize enough that networking is meant to be connective – two-sided. Therefore it’s important to ask people you meet about their passions, interests and research.

How do I approach people I don’t know?

Approaching people you don’t know can be intimidating, even for those who consider themselves to be social. To overcome this, many dating gurus suggest using the three second rule, which can also be applied to networking.

The three second rule says that you should give yourself three seconds from the time you think about approaching someone to actually go up and talk to them, eliminating much of the overthinking that would occur if you gave yourself time to ponder.

Using this rule, scope out someone you want to talk to during a networking event, and go start a conversation with them.Introduce yourself and if you don’t know much about the person quite yet, you can use the event you are at as a conversation topic. Did you like one of the talks that occurred earlier in the day? Is there an interesting portion of the conference coming up? Is there something about this person’s research that is intriguing to you? What you talk about matters a lot less than actually making the connection.Be friendly and polite, show genuine interest in the person you are talking with, and assess their body language as the conversation moves forward.

How do I network?

The hardest part of networking is approaching someone you don’t know, and there is another great strategy you can use to get remembered.

Business cards have become more outdated with recent advances in technology and social media, but they can be great tools to have when networking with larger groups of people. Have business cards printed before the event. Make sure your cards include your name, field, current position, and contact information including your LinkedIn profile link.

When you are finished connecting with someone, give them a card and ask for theirs so you can remain in contact later on.

How do I get people to like me and build a relationship?

While there are no secret ways to make people like you, being polite and friendly is the first step to building a connection with someone. You can also show interest in someone by asking questions about current research and future goals. During your conversation, use their name and show empathy by understanding their perspective. Making people feel like you’ve known them forever, even if you have just met, is a great way to make a positive connection with someone.

Following up with the people you meet helps you continue building new relationships. This can be easily done if you have exchanged business cards, but if someone doesn’t have a card, try to jot down as much of their information as you can remember. You can shoot them an email or LinkedIn message letting them know you enjoyed meeting them.

The Whos of Networking

Who should I network with?

Knowing who to network with can be tough because it is hard to know which connections may lead to opportunities down the road. For this reason, networking with a wide variety of people at different universities, institutions, businesses and organizations is most beneficial.

Some people may think networking with older, more experienced scientists in higher positions is the best method; however, Belinda Lee Huang, PhD, the executive director of the National Postdoctoral Association, notes that postdocs should also network with each other. Getting your name out there early enough and finding out what other people in your industry are involved in can help you to know who to reach out to down the road when you are looking for new career opportunities and ways to advance. It is also important to remember that the PI is often not the only person in a lab who has influence on who gets hired. If another postdoc has gotten to know you at a previous conference or even if you worked together during your undergraduate career, it is likely that the PI will trust his colleague’s opinion of you.

You may also come across opportunities to network with nonscientists who work in the science industry. This may include people who are launching startups, people who are involved in marketing for a company, or a variety of other disciplines related to the sciences. It is important to make connections with these individuals as well because they might have ways into new opportunities or show you a path that you have not yet considered. Networking with these individuals is not much different from networking with a scientist. The major difference is that you will want to tailor your conversation style and vocabulary to language that they are familiar with, since they may not have experience with the technical aspects of your research.

The Whats of Networking

What if I’m an introvert?

Networking can be particularly intimidating to those who consider themselves to be introverts or less comfortable in social settings. If this applies to you, the addition of social media as a networking tool is invaluable to you. You don’t have to meet face to face to make a great connection.

With a variety of platforms available for you to use to network, it is beneficial to know how to optimize your use of each. Here are some common platforms and tips for using them:

  • Facebook: Facebook is a great way to connect with those you meet networking in person that you want to stay in contact with later on. By adding someone as a friend, you have the ability to make more of a personal connection with them and have the ability to message them at any point in time.
  • Twitter: Twitter is a great marketing tool that many scientists use to keep their followers updated on their recent projects. While it isn’t as helpful for making long-lasting personal connections, it can be a way for you to connect with other people in your field and keeping up-to-date with each other’s progress.
  • LinkedIn: As far as professional networking sites go, LinkedIn has been the go-to platform for the past few years. Here, you can connect with individuals and share your CV all in one place. This is a great way to find connections for employment or to seek out individuals who need a job if you are hiring. However, some features on LinkedIn require you upgrade to a paid account.
  • YouTube: Many companies and universities have YouTube channels where they post videos about different projects they are working on. While these can help you learn about various institutions, the comments section can actually be a way to network by discussing the video and giving feedback.
  • Reddit: Reddit is a great way to exchange ideas with fellow scientists, there is even a special page for this exchange called LabRats. Here, you can post questions, ideas, or even job interests, and get feedback from people all over the world.
  • ResearchGate: According to ResearchGate, it is a site where researchers connect to “read and discuss publications, create exposure for your work, get stats on your research, and connect with your colleagues." You can even connect your profile to your Facebook or LinkedIn account.
  • Bloggers: Blogging has become increasingly popular over the past few years, and the field of science has been no exception. There are thousands of articles published daily about various discoveries, techniques, or even ways to further your career in the industry. Check out BitesizeBio for an example or search online to find many other bloggers from the scientific community.

Additionally, Facebook Groups and Facebook Events allow people of similar interests to connect. For example, if you attended a conference recently and met some people there who you didn’t get to exchange contact information with, you can go to the event page for that conference and see if you can find them that way.

For introverts, Facebook Groups can be a way of networking just by joining a group for people in your field and connecting with them that way.

However, once you are connected to people on LinkedIn, the platform has great ways for engagement including groups and shared content. For instance, if you know three connections who might be interested in a new report about a vaccine development, you can share the article and tag them asking for their insight to get the conversation going.

Another great strategy for introverts is to try to meet the person who seems to know everyone; this person is great at meeting new people and by getting to know them, you can get to know other people.

What are my objectives?

The point of networking is to make a lasting connection with someone, and leave an impression that they will remember. Since you want to have this person as a future resource, it makes sense that you want them to be able to remember who you are, what it is that you do, and how you are an asset to the industry.

Keep in mind that your reasons for networking are going to vary and these will determine your ultimate goals. Some reasons people network are discussed below:

  • To find out about different career paths within a specific life science field: In this case, you may be wanting to know how different people got to the place in their career that they are in now. Did they go straight to an academic position after completing a postdoc fellowship or did they work in industry at some point? Maybe the route they have taken was atypical and they can give you some ideas on how you want your own journey to play out.
  • To actively seek an employment opportunity: Many people network in hopes of finding job connections. This is a great way to find out who is hiring and get your name out there before submitting an application. Meeting face to face is a great way to learn about ways to enhance your CV or even find out what different PIs are looking for in a job candidate.
  • To seek a mentor outside of your own institution: In the science field, many people work with mentors along their way to seeking an academic position. Usually these mentors are from your school and are in a field similar to what you plan to work in. Sometimes, however, it can be beneficial to get a mentor from and outside institution since they will have a completely different perspective to share with you as you pursue your goals.
  • To make connections for later project collaborations: Depending on what stage of your career you are in, you may have ideas for projects that would benefit from multi-institution collaborations. This is not uncommon because resources will vary from school to school and people will have different levels of experience in certain techniques. Forming connections with people who you may be able to work with later on is great if you have a larger research project in mind in which you could benefit from this collaboration.
  • To seek support from peers in a similar position as you:There is no doubt that pursuing a career in academia is difficult and may have a few hiccups or challenges that you face along the way. While support from family and friends is invaluable, having someone who is facing the same difficulties as you can be a great addition to your support system.

Whether your objectives fall into one of these categories or not, I recommend that you write down your goals. This will help you to remember the reason you are networking in the first place. While your goals may change frequently based on what point in your education or career you are currently in, many of the connections you make will still be helpful even if you had initially made them for another purpose. For example, if you meet someone while you are a grad student trying to find a postdoc position, later on, that connection may be beneficial for a collaborative project even though that was not your original intention. Be flexible in your networking and try not to only make time to connect with people who you think will be of immediate benefit to you. You never know what connections could be career-altering down the road.

What questions should I ask?

Questions to ask when networking will depend on the setting; however, you never want to come on too strong. Your first goal is to learn about the people you are talking to. If you are meeting someone who just gave a talk at a conference, then you may have a follow-up question regarding some of the details that he spoke about. If you’re meeting a peer who works as a postdoc at another university, you may want to ask about her background and goals in the future as well as what she is currently working on. There are no set series of questions that you are required to ask, but you want to show interest in the person and their work. You can also use the objectives you have laid out to develop questions that you should ask.

If you are currently in a position where you are looking for leads on jobs or a career path, some of the things you will want to ask include:

  • What can I do right now to make myself marketable?
  • How have you been searching for work (now or in the past)?
  • What can I do to ensure I land a position at an ideal place?
  • What qualities or benefits should I look for in a company or university that make in an ideal place to work?
  • What have you heard other PIs say they tend to look for in a candidate?

Remember that they key to networking is giving a good first impression that you can follow-up later on so be professional in all questions that you choose to ask.

What do I wear?

What you wear will depend entirely on the setting. Generally, if you are meeting in person, you will be at a conference or another formally organized event. In this case, according to fashion expert, Joyann King of The Ladders, it is proper for men and women to wear business casual to business professional attire. It is important to steer clear of any clothing that can give an unprofessional appearance such as low-cut shirts or short skirts for women or skipping a tie for men.

There are some instances where you may be unsure of what to wear depending on the event. You’ll want to avoid being “that guy” who dresses up too much. When in doubt, you can scope out pictures of past conferences using Google, Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.You can also ask a friend who has attended the event before. If you really are at a loss, contact the coordinators of the event directly and ask what proper attire will be. This will ensure you don’t feel out of place and can be more confident in approaching those you don’t know to make connections.

The Whens of Networking

When should I start networking?

If you’re reading this article, then you should start networking now. Getting started early has many benefits. First of all, you can become more comfortable with speaking to people that you don’t know and figuring out what works best for you. Perhaps you aren’t too excited about approaching a stranger for the first time, which is a normal feeling to have, but once you get started, it will become easier.

Networking early also allows you to build a bigger network. The earlier you start, the more people you will meet and make connections with. You will also have more time to get to know the people you are meeting before enquiring about jobs or other opportunities or asking for any type of recommendation.

The Wheres of Networking

Where should I network?

Networking can be done virtually anywhere. It used to be done through formal, organized events where a group of people from similar fields came together such as at conferences, interviews, and different professional groups. While these places are still very important networking locations, within the past decade, online networking has become increasingly popular. Through social media, people from all over the world can become connected with one another. Perhaps the most well-known place for professional networking is LinkedIn; however, according to Science, less professional sites like Facebook and Twitter have also fostered many professional relationships between scientists. Additionally, you can join email lists to help you stay in the loop. One example is Life Science Network, which was founded in 2010 and is a place for life science professionals of varying backgrounds to stay connected.

With these tips, you will be set to go out and start interacting with other life science researchers. If you are still nervous, that’s normal and it will start to dissolve with practice. To help your nerves, you can practice introducing yourself to someone who you are comfortable with. Do some role playing and try out different introductions—however, don’t practice to the point of memorization or you will come off rehearsed and unnatural when you start networking.

This guide should help you gain the confidence to network, since you are now familiar with the best networking practices and armed to deliver yourself in the best way possible to those that you meet.

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By Rebecca Talley