Building a Professional Network: My experience thus far

If you’re a business-minded person, you might find this post a little basic, but learning to network has been one of my main focuses (and biggest challenges) since graduating at the end of November. This is a little post about my experience, and maybe it will inspire and bring hope to some other struggling scientist trying to find a career outside of academic research.

Networking is challenging, but ultimately worth your time.

In graduate school, I tried to prepare myself for leaving academic science from the moment I identified that my career goals pointed elsewhere. I went to all the free seminars, all the career development discussion panels, all the career fairs. I spoke with people whose jobs I admired and tried to get advice and information. I thought I was soooo prepared. I was not.

I applied for job after job, searching the online postings and having daily email alerts from various job boards clutter my inbox to the tune of 25 messages per day. I had an entire folder on my desktop devoted to resumes and cover letters, and I spent hours each day writing, re-writing, submitting, and agonizing over why I had yet to hear back. I got attached to certain job posts only to get an email saying that they decided to pass me over in favor of other candidates. After months of this, my scientist instinct told me, “Hey, this experiment is not working. This experiment will not work. You need to find another way to get your desired result.”

This is when I really started to use my network. I had very few contacts to start – two from undergrad, and one awesomely connected friend that lived in Washington D.C. – but I asked them for help and let them know I was looking for jobs. They introduced me to some people in the area, and those people introduced me to more people. Suddenly, I was having phone calls and meetings with people several times each week, and the people I was talking to all wanted to give advice, help me with my resume, and make me see my own skills and qualifications in a new light. I finally understood what all those career development seminars were talking about when they described networking! I haven’t landed that job yet, but I feel better prepared, and I definitely have a more polished resume to show for all my time spent networking.

Here are a few tips that I have learned, and I’d love to hear if you have any additional advice on networking that you’d like to share.

Tip #1: Don’t be shy. It’s weird, I know. Emailing or calling someone who you’ve never met, who you might never meet face-to-face, and who works in an area that is completely foreign to you. You can’t be afraid to reach out and make that connection. Although I have a small sample size, 100% of the people I have reached out to have gotten back to me and either scheduled a meeting or given me the name of someone else with whom I should speak. Think about it – has anyone ever reached out to you because of your expertise? Would you tell them no? Probably not. Everyone remembers being a student/recent grad/young and inexperienced, and they all had someone help them out. Someday, you’ll be in their shoes and will pay it forward, too.

Tip #2: Plan ahead. Understand the purpose and formality of your meeting. Is it a formal informational interview, or a friendly conversation over a cup of coffee? Dress accordingly. Did you do your background research on the person or company? An early mistake I made was going to speak with a biotech company scientist without having ever looked at the company’s website. I managed to not make too big an idiot of myself, but I realized that was rude of me not to give them the same time and courtesy they were showing me, and I have not repeated that mistake since. If the person sends you a website link, be sure to check it out! Visit their LinkedIn profile if they have one. Bone up on their experience. All of this will allow you to prepare a set of questions to ask, which I highly recommend. One of the skills from being a writer that transfers well to networking is the ability to craft a conversation around a structured set of questions. If you have 3-5 questions that you’ve thought of and prepared ahead of time, you’ll be off to a good start. Usually, you’ll think of more questions based on their responses and will end up getting a lot of information from your meeting. Also, plan ahead for your method of taking down the important information they give you: will you record the conversation (ask permission first!), or take notes? Pen and paper? Computer? Find what works best for you.

Tip #3: Follow up and keep your network updated. This is a crucial part of networking. You can’t take 30 minutes of someone’s time and never speak to them again. Write an email to say thank you, preferably the same or next day. It’s even ok to send it later (if you forget to right away, like I am apt to do), just remember to send it. Include any names or additional contacts/information they said they’d give you. You might have been taking notes, but they probably were not! They won’t be offended that you reminded them as long as you are polite. As time passes, keep them updated. Monitor their LinkedIn page and congratulate or comment on their achievements. Did you speak with someone they recommended to you? Let them know! Did you get a job? Let them know! One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was, “There is no statute of limitations on networking.” This means that it’s never too late to reach out to people, even if it’s just to say hi or send them an article or news story that reminded you of them. Keep that network going, and keep that network growing!

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