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, no...it'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:
- Tell your contact who you are
- Tell your contact how you know each other and/or how you obtained her contact information
- Explain why you are contacting her
- Politely ask for what you want
- Thank your contact for her time and help
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:
- Why are you leaving academia/science?
- Why are you interested in Career X?
- What skills/experiences do you have that would make you good at Career X?
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.