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Networking: Getting connected is not such a scary thing

My first impression of networking, gleaned from a workshop in college, was: “Get to know people so that you can use them to advance your career.” It came across as very… selfish, sleazy almost. Schmooze with people in high places, then leverage those relationships to reap benefits for yourself.

I could never take that approach, I thought to myself.

But that’s not

what networking is all about. Professional networking is about getting to know people and having people get to know you. Yes, it may lead to job offers (in fact, an estimated 80% of jobs are landed through networking), but that’s not the ultimate motivation or even the end goal. The goal is to gather information by talking to people who have a wealth of knowledge about your field and can help you break into the field.

There are so many people out there to be found, you’ve just got to take the initiative connect with them. Image credit: flickr user ricki888c.

For non-traditional science careers, you’re taking the road less traveled, so networking is particularly important. If you’re in grad school, there are a plethora of resources out there to help you break into academia or industry. But what if you want to do something your adviser or career counselor has never heard of before, like be a science writer, science librarian, or get into publishing, or molecular jewelry making? You’re a bit more on your own in navigating those paths, so getting to know other people who have gone ahead of you is all the more vital to your success.

Here are a few of the networking basics I have gathered through reading about networking and trying it out myself. I link to lots of very useful articles that delve into each topic in much more detail than I could cover here.

Take initiative.

Networking isn’t something that just happens. If you don’t send that email, make that phone call, set up that in-person meeting, you will not get to know people who are in your field (see: Networking: how to get a good connection). If you prefer email, that’s fine for the opener. Introduce yourself and ask if you can set up a time to talk on the phone, or in person if they live in the same city.

Be curious and ask honest questions.

When preparing for that first conversation or informational interview (see: Tooling up: the informational interview), don’t think about what you’re going to say as much as what you’re going to ask. What do you want to know? (See this list of sample questions for an informational interview). They’ll want to know about you as well, so have that elevator speech prepared and tell them why you wanted to talk to them and what career options you’re exploring. If you run out of things to say about yourself, ask them another question. Remember, people love talking about themselves. :)

If a professional you’d like to get to know lives in your area, ask if you can meet over coffee for a chat. Photo credit: flickr user sweetpeabicycles.

DO gather information, DON’T ask for a job.

Informational interviews and networking is for the purpose of getting you connected with people in your field, which could very well lead to job opportunities down the road. But it is not intended to be for job hunting. Do the work of building relationships, find out about what opportunities are available in the field, but don’t flat out ask someone you’re getting to know for a job.

Follow up.

At a minimum, send a simple email thanking the person for taking the time to meet/talk with you. Better yet, take advantage of online networking websites (see: Five tips for better online networking) connect with them on LinkedIn and follow up every now and then to keep the connection going. For example, if you’ll be attending a professional conference, email that person and find out if they’ll be there and if they’d be available to meet with you.

Make the most of every opportunity.

Don’t go to a professional meeting and then just hang out with the people you know from your lab. Meet new people! Mingle at poster sessions and social events and stick around to chat with presenters after lectures. Do your research before the conference to find out who you might want to meet, and then schedule a time to get coffee during one of the breaks. Talk, chit-chat, schmooze (see: Schmoozing 101), or whatever you want to call it— the point is: be willing to step outside your comfort zone.

Start sooner rather than later.

Don’t wait until you’re about to graduate to start networking. Networking is about building relationships, and relationships take time. If you wait until the last minute, when you’re really pressed to find a job, chances are you won’t build quality connections and it may not reflect so well on you. But if you start early, that tells people that you are responsible, pro-active, and take initiative—and it can never hurt to have that kind of reputation.

Have fun with it.

Networking doesn’t have to be this dry, boring thing you do just because every career counselor you have ever met with says you should. It should be fun—after all, you’re finding out things about the career that you are thinking about pursuing. If learning about this career path is not fun, then it may not be the right fit. Either way, the time was not wasted as it has helped you make an informed decision, either for or against said career path.

Networking ≠ using people, so don’t feel bad.

You’ll be surprised to find out how willing people are to talk to students who seek them out for advice. They will be there to answer your questions and give you tips for how to succeed. Then when you move up the ladder and become a seasoned expert in your field, you’ll do the same for the fledglings that are just breaking into the field (see: The seven laws of networking: those who give, get).

Networking done right is a win-win situation: the people you reach out to are happy to know they’re helping raise up the next generation of people in their field, and you get valuable first-hand information from someone who has experience in your field. You can’t go wrong.

No one’s going to hold your hand and help you network, you just have to get out there and do it. If you’re not sure where to start, I recommend a good-old google search on your career path of choice. Do some background reading, then find contact information for people who work in that area and get started. As you take the first few steps, you’ll find out it’s not so scary, not so difficult, and well worth the investment of your time.

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