Friday, July 25, 2008

Networking Nuts And Bolts

I wanted to follow-up on the excellent networking posts by CAE and Bean-mom with a few more thoughts on the specifics of how to network. Professional society meetings and other organized scientific events like the ones CAE and Bean-mom describe are fantastic ways to get started in networking. But what if there are no such events near you, or the alternative career you're interested in isn't represented at such events? How do you approach and interact with people with whom you'd like to network?

I think the most important thing to keep in mind when networking is that your contacts are much more likely to help you if they like you. My personal philosophy on networking is this: when my networking contact turns on her computer and sees an email from me, I want her to click on the email thinking, "Hey, I remember Mad Hatter. I liked talking to her. I wonder what she's been up to?" What I don't want her to do is groan and think, "Oh,'s Mad Hatter again. What does she want now?" So with that in mind, here are some tips on networking that have worked for me.

First contact. How you approach your contact depends on your relationship with that person. If your contact is a friend or family member, it should be relatively easy to call or email her to discuss your career of interest. If you are contacting a professional acquaintance, someone you know through another person, or just someone you don't know very well, you can send an email with this general format:

  1. Tell your contact who you are

  2. Tell your contact how you know each other and/or how you obtained her contact information

  3. Explain why you are contacting her

  4. Politely ask for what you want

  5. Thank your contact for her time and help
Networking by contacting someone you don't know at all, and with whom you have no connections, is obviously the least likely to pay off. Even relatively tenuous links--you both graduated from the same school, you heard her give a talk somewhere, etc.--can help personalize your email and give her a reason to want to respond. This is not to say that contacting strangers won't work, just that it will likely be lower yield than contacting someone with whom you have a connection.

Email or phone? This is a matter of personal preference and field-specific culture. In my field, email is used for everything, but I've also networked in Maxwell's Demon's industry in which everyone wanted to communicate by phone. I usually prefer to initiate contact by email because it allows my contact to respond at her convenience. But if I were networking to gather information on Career X, I would ask if she would be willing to discuss this by phone since live conversations are more suited to this purpose than an email containing a long string of questions, or a back-and-forth Q&A email series.

Preparation. Before initiating contact, you should have given some serious thought to two important issues. First, what do you hope to gain from this networking experience? If you are gathering information, prepare a list of specific questions to ask rather than demand that your contact tell you "everything about Career X". If you are looking for a job, be prepared to discuss your work experience, qualifications, and career goals. Second, what will be your answers to key questions you will almost surely be asked? These questions include:

  1. Why are you leaving academia/science?

  2. Why are you interested in Career X?

  3. What skills/experiences do you have that would make you good at Career X?
There may not be a single "right" answer to each of these questions, but there are definitely wrong answers. Do not say you are leaving academia/science because you failed to get a tenure-track position or funding or tenure. Do not badmouth your current PI or employer. Do not say you are interested in Career X because you want an easier job than what you have now. And "I have no idea" is not a good answer to #3.

Asking for a job. Whether you should directly ask your contact for a job is a difficult question. Again, it probably depends on your relationship with your contact--your uncle may be perfectly happy for you to ask him for a job, but the VP of R&D at BigPharma, who was your thesis committee chair's former PI, may not appreciate a "So are you going to hire me or what?" question. I prefer to address the issue by including my resume, stating what kind of position I'm looking for, and asking if my contact would please let me know and/or forward my resume if she knows of any opportunities. In situations when I was applying for an advertised position at the company in which my contact worked, I submitted my application through the company's HR process and sent a separate email with my resume to my contact to let her know that I was interested in, and had applied for, the position.

Networking etiquette. It should be obvious that you should be on your best behavior when networking since your contacts may well know the people who will be interviewing and/or hiring you. First, remember that your contacts have their own full-time jobs, which are not to help you find a job. So be polite and considerate of their time. Second, be aware of differences in culture between your field and theirs. For example, some academic fields are very informal, with everyone from grad students to department chairs being on first-name basis with each other. But addressing someone by her first name may not be the norm in the field/industry to which you are applying. Finally, pay attention to the cues your contacts give you and adapt accordingly. For example, some contacts may prefer communications to be strictly about business, while others may prefer to have some chitchat before getting down to business. I generally let my contacts set the tone for the interaction and try to match them.

Managing expectations. While it's true that many people get their alternative positions through networking, it doesn't mean that once you start networking, job offers will fall from the sky. Networking can be a lot of work and, like investments, can take time to yield dividends. Some of your contacts will never respond to your emails or calls. Some may promise to call you, introduce you to other people, or forward your resume but not follow through. Some may simply not be very informative or helpful. So go in with realistic expectations and don't get all bent out of shape if you don't always get the reception you hope for. Your contacts aren't just people who can help you get jobs, they're also people with interesting experiences and perspectives. And when you find one with whom you hit it off, networking can actually be lots of fun.


maddox22 said...

Wow, great post. Thanks!

The bean-mom said...

Very nice nuts-and-bolts, Mad Hatter! Some of the best advice I've seen on the matter!

CAE said...

Good stuff!

I usually favour email for the reason you gave - the person can respond at their leisure and may be able to give you more time that way. I also like being able to proof and edit as I usually write better than I speak, and might be prone to say something silly on the phone!

And as far as the use of first names - I always address each new contact by their title and family name the first time I write to them. If I get an email back saying "dear C", rather than "dear Dr. E", then I switch to using their first name. I'm just glad that English doesn't make a distinction between the singular/informal and plural/formal versions of the word "you" - I could never get my head around when each version is appropriate in French and German!

Maxwell's Demon said...

Great post. Even in my field of management consulting, the best way to initiate contact is to send a brief email to your contact describing who you are, what you'd like to gain from a conversation with them, and request their time. Cold calls seldom come at the right times for the person you're reaching!

Mad Hatter said...

Thanks, everyone!

CAE--I agree about using email. Much easier to come up with something eloquent in writing than on-the-spot during a phone conversation! I also usually err on the side of being more formal and using people's titles until they indicate I can do otherwise. I figure I'm less likely to offend someone by calling him/her "Dr. ___" than by using his/her first name.

Maxwell's Demon--I didn't mean to imply that one should initiate contact with consultants by cold-calling them. But I just reread the paragraph and totally see how what I wrote can be interpreted that way. I suppose that's one of the hazards of writing late at night...sorry! I agree, an email to schedule a phone conversation is much better for all involved.

EcoGeoFemme said...

How do you all address people in emails when you don't know their title? For instance, if you don't know if someone has a PhD, do you write Dear Ms. So-and-so? If I were writing an email for job networking purposes, I'd find a way to find out if the contact was a Dr. or a Ms., but in more fleeting situations I write Dear Firstname Lastname, which is how people address me in emails sometimes. What do you think?

Mad Hatter said...

EGF--Sorry for the late reply! I guess if I had no idea whether the person I'm emailing has a PhD, I'd probably err on the side of caution and address him/her as Dr So-and-so. I've never known anyone without a PhD to be offended at being mistakenly called Dr, but I have met PhDs and MDs who definitely get offended if they are mistakenly addressed as Mr or Ms!