Sunday, July 22, 2018

Networking for job transitions in academia (and out of it)

The #HiddenCurriculum hashtag has emerged on Twitter and reminded many of us who have been at this job a while how students and postdocs often are not taught the critical workplace skills beyond bench work.


One of the most important skills for any job is networking. While I have written before on how to network (here and here), in preparation for conference and job-search season, I want to focus this post on networking for job transitions. Any job transition within academia and from academia to other businesses can be made faster and more successful by networking to generate contacts and leads. Networking and reaching out to people out of the blue is often very scary for students, but there are multiple principles that can make it easier and even enjoyable.

1) Networking is a long game. Building a large network and identifying the people who will help you and support you over your career can take years. As you change universities and often countries, you will naturally build relationships with a variety of people. The expectation that you have to generate a large number of contacts in one sitting will only generate anxiety and a feeling of failure. While it may happen that you are in the "right place at the right time" to meet the person who is looking for someone with your skills and background, strong work relationships are mostly developed over time. So, relax, accept that you will have other chances and realize that even if you get to have 1 or 2 meaningful conversations at a conference or networking event, you have succeeded. Follow up with an email saying something like "Nice talking to you. Hope we can keep in touch/meet again", find them on LinkedIn, and build connections little by little.

2) Targeted networking requires planning. You are interested in a job with someone in particular and know they will be speaking at your university or at a meeting you are attending. Join the lunch or ask to be in the room if your PI is on their schedule, or email them in advance of the conference to set a time to speak. If they are in your PI's network, ask for an introduction, especially if this is someone outside of academia. Prepare a few questions: "Are they looking for postdocs?" "What is it like to work at their university/company?" "What are the characteristics of a successful applicant in their field?" "What is the faculty search committee looking for?" Have a short 2-5 min pitch about you and what you are passionate about that relates to their job (e.g. your research, your interest in drug development, your passion for science policy...) Remember to thank them for their time.

3) Network with your peers. It's perfectly fine to hang out with students and postdocs at conferences and create a network of "conference buddies". You will see the same people from labs with similar interests over and over again. You will be networking without even knowing you are doing it. My conference buddies from grad school are now professors in many different universities or executives in pharma and government. In addition, if you are scared of reaching out to the big professor or they are not coming to a particular meeting, you can go see their trainees' posters and chat with them about their work, the lab, and how much you would like to join. You will get insider information about the lab environment and possibly a ringing endorsement "Hey, I met this awesome student at the meeting and they want to apply!". And voila', your application is at the top of the pile.

4) Sit at the table. One of the biggest benefits of a network is information, and information can be obtained even if you are sitting quietly or asking just one question at lunch. Table networking events where experts in different topics sit at thematic tables are now a staple of many meetings and university career development events. Go sit at the tables you care about, ask questions, or listen to the conversation. You can always reach out to the speakers afterward because that's what they're there for. Similarly, go to lunches with seminar speakers, and sit at those terrifying tables filled with big-wigs at conferences. Protip: those bigwigs have probably been conference buddies since grad school and they may be shooting the breeze about what's going on in their current labs, universities, or reminiscing. Everything they say is information about them, their current and past institutions. Those of them with a mentoring bone in their body will ask you about yourself and your work. If they don't, that's information also about who cares for trainees. A caveat is if they are having a working lunch to discuss a shared grant or paper and are too stressed to interact with the young'uns.

5) Mi network es su network. Make use of other people's networks to expand your reach. This tends to happen organically in academia, but it's particularly important if you are interested in a job outside the ivory tower and want to gather information and contacts. Homo sapiens is a social species and an introduction to show that you are "good people" goes a long way to get you a response. In any job, internal recommendations have a higher success rate in getting interviews and positions. Many companies give employees a bonus upward of $1,000 for recommending someone who ends up being hired. If someone on the inside can vouch that you are a good fit with the organizational culture and have the right skills, it will make things easier for you. Use your friends and colleagues who have moved into the university or industry you care about and ask them to put you in touch with others. If you are just starting and do not know anyone, ask your PI or other senior scientists. Remember, only 15% of science PhDs stay in academia, so we all know A LOT of people doing different things.

6) Find the other loners. This is all nice and dandy, but you hate small talk and tend to blend with the wallpaper at parties. You're in luck! A lot of scientists feel the same way. Scan the networking event for other wallflowers or the lunch room for that almost empty table. Go over: "Hi, I'm [name]" If you feel like it, commiserate about how hard it is to network, connect over your shared hatred of small talk, or just talk science. You have immediate access to that person's entire network. It is entirely possible they are a lonely journal editor and if you treat them as a human being, you will receive insider information on their journal and perpetual invitations to review. Repeat over and over again, until after a decade you find yourself with a network of hundreds of people and are confused because you're such a loner.

Going to meetings will soon become a joy and creating new contacts will go a lot faster. I sometimes have turned it into a game like a scavenger hunt: I have to talk to 20 new people and follow-up with 5 contacts that can provide job leads/collaborations. Set the numbers with your friends and who gets more business cards/emails wins!

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