Networking is a word that smacks of “management talk” and fills most people with trepidation. However, anyone who has spent any significant time in science will admit, at least in private, that networking is as powerful a tool for career development in science as it is in any other walk of life. This admission may be a little embarrassing for a profession that focuses most of its training on objectivity, but the sooner in your career that you realize how useful a network can be and start building one, the better.
No one is going to network for you so the onus is on you to go to lots of conferences, give talks, present posters, take part in discussions, and use every opportunity you have to talk to people. It takes courage to walk up to strangers and strike up a conversation when you’re not used to doing it, but if you want to begin making contacts, this is exactly what you’ll have to do.
We all know someone who seems like they can start a conversation with anyone, but the reality is that even for these people there are easy conversations, awkward conversations, and conversations that they wish they’d never started in the first place. This means that you shouldn’t be put off if the first few times you try talking to people, there are some awkward silences or the conversation doesn’t quite flow; this is normal. The truth is that a lot of people will actually be grateful to have someone to talk to in a conference coffee break because, if we’re honest with ourselves, no one wants to look as if they’re alone. Therefore, you might find you’re surprised at how easy it is to get a conversation going after the initial icebreaker.
The Personal Touch
After a while you’ll begin to feel more comfortable with bringing up the topics that people respond to well. One of the easiest ways to get people talking initially it is to ask them questions about their presentations or their work, because people love to talk about themselves! It’s also important not to think that just because you’re a student or a postdoc, Professor I. M. Famous won’t want to talk to you. Most of the time the opposite is true and professors love to talk to enthusiastic young scientists.
One useful method at conferences is to save your questions about a lecture until you can find the speaker in the next coffee break. Then you can introduce yourself and ask your question one-on-one. Introducing yourself is the key step that doesn’t happen in a lecture hall full of people, and this one-to-one contact is effective because it’s personal. You can also follow up with someone by email after a conference, particularly if you think of something relevant afterwards, such as a link to an internet site, or if you’ve promised to send them something, such as data. Honoring any commitments you make is the key to building trust and to building your own reputation as a reliable person. LinkedIn is a useful site for this type of post-meeting follow-up. Don’t get disheartened if you don’t get a reply because most people get a ton of email every day and simply don’t have time. Nevertheless, even in the absence of a reply you can be certain that with most people these small gestures don’t go unnoticed.
All for one
Another important thing to do at conferences is to meet your collaborators. In the email age, it’s easy to hide behind your computer screen instead of meeting someone face-to-face. However, a quick discussion about a joint project can make a huge difference to a collaboration, not least because the connection between co-workers will then be more personal, and you’ll begin to feel like you’re all in it together. Having met a collaborator in person is also useful for things like asking for professional references, which brings me to my next point.
On the Job Trail
If you know someone you’d like to work for is attending the same conference as you, then it is to your advantage to meet him/her in person. Even if you’ve already sent a job application through a website, you should consider giving a hard copy to your potential boss in person. This has several advantages, including the opportunity to introduce yourself and the peace of mind that your application has reached the most important person without being screened out by an HR department. It’s also a clever way to buy your application more time to be read because you’ve separated it out from the crowd right when your prospective boss may have more spare time than usual. Just think of how much a long flight home might influence the probability of your application being one of the few that gets read in detail.
Soft Skills with Hard Science
The key to good networking is to be open, friendly, show a genuine interest in the other person, and to avoid being overbearing. Another important point is that you could be the best scientist-networker in the world, but if you don’t have any of your own good science to go with it, you’ll only be known as the person who doesn’t do any good work! Networking alone will not get you to the top.
As you progress through your career, hopefully your good work will become synonymous with your name and eventually you’ll be the person that everyone is eager to talk to. When you do get there, you’d be wise to remember the kind folks who gave you your start on the career ladder and try to do the same for someone else. But before you get there, try to step outside of your comfort zone, start a conversation with a stranger, and you’ll be surprised how far showing a little bit of humanity can get you in the sciences.