People. People connected to you and to each other. Even if your primary network is quite small, each person in it will connect you to others who you may never have met or even heard of.
WHY is my network important?
In the context of moving into an alternative career, I think there are two main reasons:
Gathering general information
If you're a typical academic scientist, or are just completing your undergraduate degree, you may not know very much about the day-to-day realities of most alternative careers. In the early stages of your career planning, you may therefore find it helpful to interact with people who actually do these jobs.
Finding specific job opportunities
Later, when you're ready to apply for specific positions, the same people may be able to point you towards appropriate openings. They say that only a minority of jobs are ever actually posted; to have a shot at the rest of them, you have to know someone with inside information.
WHO should be in my network?
While you never know who might be able to help you advance your career (I once met a biotech head hunter in a security line-up at LA airport), put most of your energy into building the most obvious and relevant contacts:
- Academics with a side-interest that matches your career aspirations, for example involvement in a spin-off biotech company, media relations, academic administration, science policy, etc.
- People who are established in the career(s) you're interested in - regardless of their field. Any business-to-business marketer will be able to tell you many of the same things I did in my last post. And you never know who they might know from all the marketing courses they've taken!
- Friends and family may be more useful than you expect, especially in the information gathering phase. My sister took a completely different career path to me, studying French and Italian at University, but ended up working in publishing. Through the course of our normal conversations and emails she's given me lots of insights into that industry that are surprisingly relevant to what I do. The same goes for friends who've gone into other careers.
HOW do I build my network?
This is the tough part. Networking doesn't come easily to many of us, but at some point you're going to have to start approaching people. Finding the right contacts might just be the most important thing you do to kickstart a new career, and well worth the effort and initial awkwardness.
Your approach will depend to some extent on how open you can be about your intentions, which is more of an issue when you start looking for specific opportunities than when you're just gathering information. In my postdoc position I could be completely honest with everyone, meaning that I could ask my PI and other colleagues for their contacts in addition to my own. In industry I had to keep everything on the down-low and preface all of my internal networking attempts with "don't tell [boss], but..." . The latter approach takes more work, but it can still be done.
Finding your contacts
As I said above, literally anyone you bump into could become a useful contact, but don't rely on talking to random people at airports! Start with the obvious, but keep your ears and your mind open...
- I got my chance in industry through an academic scientist who also owns a spin-off company; I went to him for information about writing careers in the biotech industry, and he set up a series of interviews for me. If you're interested in industry positions, try to find yourself a similar contact. They're more common than you might think, and your local technology transfer office may keep a list of spin-off companies started by academics at your institution.
- Alternatively, try talking to your local sales rep, or the people staffing the booths at conferences, even if you're not interested in a career in sales. My former company sends marketing, technical support, R&D, business development and management staff to work at conferences alongside the inevitable local sales reps. They've also hired several ex-customers who expressed an interest in working in industry, and I've passed on booth visitors' CVs to management if I thought they were a good match.
- Most biology conferences also attract journalists, staff from charitable foundations and other non-profits (check out the booths again), policy makers, NIH/CIHR employees or your national equivalent, etc. Talk to whoever you can, collect business cards, make yourself known.
- Look out for local science-related events such as Cafe Scientifique nights, seminars, local biotech organisation functions etc. I've been to a few LifeScience BC events and have met all kinds of interesting people, from venture capitalists to patent lawyers to bench scientists.
- Use the internet. Facebook is not the only social networking site out there - check out LinkedIn for business-orientated networking, or Nature Network for more of an academic science angle. Don't forget to link to your friends and family, and to look at your contacts' contacts! You might be surprised at who your high school friends know from university, and vice versa... not to mention your labmates and PI!
Using your contacts
If it's at all possible, be open with potential contacts about your career aspirations and any current job search. Don't be shy to tell anyone and everyone "I'm interested in careers in [x] and I'll probably be looking for a new job in that area in a year or so". Having said that though, don't start asking complete strangers if they can give you a job! I've basically told everyone except direct current supervisors that my ideal job is as a freelance science writer. So far, and without any actual begging, this has earned me one actual completed freelance project (unbloggable until later this year) and the potential of more - from my former company, from the publishing company my sister works for, from a video producer I worked with on one of my marketing projects.
- The most important thing to remember is that most people love talking about themselves. So get them talking. Whether it's over coffee, lunch, beer, or by email, let them know that you value their advice and are potentially interested in following in their footsteps. (This stuff isn't brown-nosing if it's true!) Ask them about their experiences.
- Leave it at that, for now. When you come back later looking for advice on how to find specific opportunities, people will be more likely to help you if you have an existing relationship.
- Stay in touch. Drop the occasional email. Invest in the occasional coffee date.
WHEN should I network?
NOW. Even if you're not looking for a job at the moment. Even if you're not looking for a job this year. As with updating your CV, the middle of a career crisis is the WRONG time, especially if you haven't quite figured out which careers you might be interested in. People will be more willing to help you if you don't seem like you're clutching at straws as your contract ends. Remember, you're looking for a new career, not just a new job.
Wow, that was a long one! I hope I haven't scooped any other authors working on a similar post. I'm very interested in hearing about other people's experiences and in adding to the lists I started above.