Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Networking: the basics

WHAT is a network?

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.
Once you've done some preliminary digging, have a career path in mind, and are ready to look for specific opportunities, you will obviously need to focus in on the people who are most likely to be able to help you. This may mean finding new contacts in specific fields or geographical areas. The people from whom you acquired your initial information may be able to help you find these contacts, and even opportunities if you're really lucky - but if not, they probably know someone else who can help!

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.


EcoGeoFemme said...

I've been meaning to get myself some business cards, and your post is more evidence that I should get them now. I think academics (at least students, the very people most likely to be looking for jobs in the near future) think business cards are just for people in, well, business. But how great would it be to have a card handy when you meet that great contact in the airport?

The Mad Chemist said...

Great post!

There is a good book on networking if anyone is interested in further reading. I believe it is called The Networking Survival Guide. It had several good ideas as I recall.


If you are thinking of ordering some cards, I can vouch for Vistaprint.com. As a grad student and postdoc, I got my cards from them. Good quality but inexpensive.

science cog said...

Another excellent post CAE. You write very well.

maddox22 said...

Great post! Thanks!

Mad Hatter said...

Awesome post and great way to start the ball rolling on this topic. I'll have to start working on mine!

CAE said...

Thanks all!

I didn't get any business cards until I got into industry, and I felt like such a grown-up when exchanging them at conferences and meetings etc. I'd definitely recommend getting your own printed up, having had to give that head hunter a post-it with my name and email address on it! Not very professional.

Mermaid said...

I find that the Linked In database (web-based networking) is becoming really useful. I have tried to make contacts with many people from previous positions and grad school. I also have no problem looking at my contacts' contacts to see if there is anyone I want to be introduced to. Recently, I had a manager from a previous job in another country contact me via the website, and now there is a very good chance that we can work together professionally via our present positions.

CAE - I hope you don't mind me following you here. I love this new website, and have been searching for something like this for ages. As a fairly non-traditional scientist, I can relate to much of what has been posted so far.

CAE said...

Guest post! Guest post!

C'mon, you know you want to.

Did you have a look at my Marketing post at all? I'd be extremely interested in your thoughts, on or off this blog!

Pablo Achard said...

Wow, this blog is much too fast for me: it tackles important issues at an incredible pace!

I support CAE and mermaid about LinkedIn. I registered into it because a friend of mine asked me to do so and I didn't really understood its value... until the moment I was looking for a position outside academia.

With a few clicks I could search who, among the friends of my friends, was working in the location I was interested and in the field I was interested. That's very powerful! I would have never suspected my friend X to know the guy Y I wanted to meet. But once I figured it out, it was very easy to get an interview..

Additionally, LinkedIn ranks high in Google searches (see previous posts on this topic) and it's a good way to have factual, professional information about you easy to find.

Silas said...

But how great would it be to have a card handy when you meet that great contact in the airport?

This is an absolutely fantastic suggestion. They wouldn't let me order cards when I was a grad student (as a postdoc I got them) but I guess that's why Mad Chemist is suggesting you order them on your own. You should probably try to get official institutional ones first, though.

The Mad Chemist said...

You should probably try to get official institutional ones first, though.

Yeah, I guess I should clarify that. None of the institutions I worked at gave grads or postdocs cards.

I would never buy ones that were mocked up to look like the institutions' cards without their permission as I think it can imply a relationship that may not exist.

You can design your own (or use one of VistaPrint's templates) and they will still make an impressive impact. Most of my fellow job hunters during my last period of unemployment (grads and postdocs) didn't have them so they can help get you noticed. Many people commented positively when I handed them a card.

One tip I received from a person connected with my professional society was not to put grad student/postdoc as your title on the cards. Put something that describes what you do/want to do so in my case I put "synthetic organic chemist". That way when you hand a card to someone and they review it later, it can help jog their memory as to your interests.

brian said...

If you're interested in networking try http://www.scilink.com. It's the worlds largest professional network for scientists and clinicians. We also have a job board that gets posted to about once a week or more.


Brian Gilman

Founder & CEO
SciLink Inc.

EcoGeoFemme said...

I ordered business cards today from Staples.com. They had a far greater selection of templates than any of the other websites I found. I got 100 full color cards for $3.99 plus shipping.

Since I am at two institutions, I didn't actually want official institutional cards because I wanted the names of both places on them.