How to do the Networking Dance

At every science career development event you go to and every person you speak to, it is likely that the resounding theme to their ability to land their dream job is networking. This is unsurprising given that the US Bureau of Labor estimates approximately 70% of all new hires landed their job due to networking (with 40% of these jobs not even advertised!). Unfortunately to many people, “networking” is going to events, shaking lots of hands and throwing out your business card like it was confetti. This IS NOT productive networking!

No-one is going to offer you a job on the basis of a 5 minute conversation whilst trying to eat cold appetizers and trying to avoid the semi-drunk guy pestering everyone. Networking is utilizing your network to meet people strategically for your career goal. You should use this as a tool to identify the best position and company for you and make yourself known to people in positions of hiring power, so that when a job does come up, they think of you. Even if you don’t know someone in a position of power, intra-company referrals are a very powerful way of putting your resume at the top of a hiring manager’s pile.

So, how to best network?

1. Identify & expand your network:

photo credit: via photopin (license)

Your network does not strictly have to be limited to professional colleagues! Your neighbours, the parents at the park or your friends’ friends could all be valuable sources to your network. They know you quite well and can be great advocates for you. Even if they don’t work in your profession, they could have other friends and connections that you could use! Do not be afraid to talk about your career and what you want as people tend to speak up if they know you are looking for people in a certain area! I actually just met someone while waiting for a conference bus, they were going to a completely different conference but knew a biotech recruiter in my area that they were happy to connect me with! No-one else at the table was talking to each other and I was able to talk to some really interesting people AND make a connection in the space of 30 minutes!

Another way to expand your networks is to join a group or society that meets regularly and go to their events. I have listed the few that I know in the Career Resources section, but there are a ton more depending on your area! If you become a regular face at these events, you will meet a lot of people and get fairly well acquainted with them. This then opens your connections to their connections and expand your network further. Do not discount the value of your institutional organizations and events! Postdoctoral Association and student clubs at most Universities regularly run great networking and career events where you can not only meet and network with your fellow students and postdocs (who are in themselves valuable) but you can also network with career professionals!

2. Prepare yourself when you go to an event!

Here are a few tips for when you actually go to an event:

Have a good elevator pitch/spiel.

The most common question you will get asked at ANY event will be “So, what do you do?” You should be prepared to answer this question in a quick and concise way. Although this seems easy – it can be quite difficult. You want to give an answer based on the audience you are in. Are you at a general biotech networking event? You could be talking to a non-scientist or someone not in your field so you need a jargon free, simple yet relatable sentence. If you are at a conference in your field, where most people will be very familiar with the terminology you can then launch into a more “expert” explanation. Either way, it should always be short, under 1 minute. If they are interested in what you said, they will ASK you questions. The key is to keep it conversational and light. You are not lecturing them, you are prompting a discussion.

One common method is the And But Therefore method by Randy Olsen (his Ted talk explains it very well), where you set the scene with the AND, establish the problem you are trying to solve with the BUT and give how you are fixing the problem with the THEREFORE. Mine is something like this:

“Breast cancer affects 1 in 8 women in the USA AND we do not have great tools to diagnose and treat it. We know that when disrupted, normal mammary cells give rise to breast cancer BUT we do not know how this happens. THEREFORE, my work is trying to identify which cells give risk to particular types of breast cancers and how they do so”.

Easy, exciting and relatable. I have heard some great ones comparing how a protein aggregates to train platforms during commute delays and once used the Incredible Hulk as an example as to how tumorigenesis progresses!

Dress and play the part.

After attending many events, I realized one key secret that not many people discuss. If you come to an event looking like a student or postdoc – in jeans and a t-shirt whereas other people may be in business casual, the magnetic powers of like are fairly strong. All of the business people migrate to each other whereas all the students and postdocs are stuck together. If you dress a little more business casual, you will find it much easier to break into conversations with other business people and feel more comfortable doing so!

The other biggest thing is your energy. People don’t want to talk to a Debbie downer. I get it, you’ve spent the whole day in the lab/at work and you are exhausted and not very social. Try to break out of it, have a quiet drink beforehand to get yourself in the zone and alleviate your nervousness a little. The vast majority of people at the event would have also come from work and are tired, but they are there! Take the effort to talk to people and it will reap dividends!

Have business cards!!!

It is very important that once you have made a connection, you can easily give your contact information so you can connect again. The easiest way to do this is through your business card. If your school or workplace doesn’t print them for you – design your own and print it with a service like Vistaprint. They are relatively cheap and will come in handy all the time. I always have a handful of cards on hand (and have even run out at an event!). Try to keep it simple yet informative. One cool tip is to use the back of the card, which many people keep blank so people can write notes, to have an image relating to your work that you can use as a talking point. Some people do or don’t like this, so it is very much a personal preference.

When you leave the event, try to jot down some notes about each of the people you met so that you can use that information to follow up with them and remind you of what you found interesting in them.

e.g. Sarah works on assay development and has 2 dogs which she is doing agility training with.

The little personal reminders are important in keeping a pleasant repertoire with a person and if they were happy to talk about it, they will appreciate that you remembered it.

3. Follow up and Keep up

Once you have made your connection, the most important thing to do is follow up. If you can schedule a lunch or a drink right there and then - that is the most ideal situation as you then you already have plans. I suggest sending a quick email the next day, just to thank them for the great conversation and if you want to, you can ask them for a coffee or lunch.

The best way to keep in touch with someone is to check in regularly, once a month or two. One tactic for this would be to follow some of the biotech news sites like Fierce Biotech or BioSpace and shoot them a quick congratulatory email or LinkedIn message when something happens at the company they work for – like they get crucial FDA approval or secure capital funding. That shows them that you are keeping track of the industry and are interested in their work! You should also invite them out for coffee every once in a while to catch up and touch base. What do you talk about? Ask them about their career, their industry, get advice for your own career and companies you are interested in. People are usually happy to give advice!

4. Rome wasn’t built in a day!

Building a meaningful relationship and a great network takes time and effort! This is why it is suggested that finding a job could take over a year as you need to build up the critical networks and contacts to be able to land the job you deserve and should be in!

Understand that you won’t necessarily make connections with most people that you meet – there are many factors that will prevent you: lack of interest, differences in personalities and busy schedules are just some of many. The goal is to make hopefully a few connections that you can use for meaningful advice and information, which is no easy feat. However there will be a handful people that you will make GREAT connections with that could vastly help you in your professional journey. You just need to go out and network and try to make connections to begin with!!!

Good luck and Keep Calm and Network!!!

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