Five Networking Tips for Graduate Students and Postdocs

Metazoan signaling network

These are not the only networks (Korcsmaros, et al., PLoS ONE, 2011)

As PhDs prepare to leave the hallowed halls of academia, most are immediately confronted with the glaring fact that they have absolutely no idea how to find a job. We were told it’s all about the network, but we didn’t need to network, we were busy for the last five to ten years building all these amazing skills and now industry is going to fall over itself to recruit us, right? Perhaps, but it will be a slow fall that takes many months and a lot of pushing.

There are clear reasons for this lag that may not be obvious to the academic. First, most of your skills were developed using the cheapest, most MacGyver-ed method possible that your PI perfected 30 years ago. These methods are probably carried out on the the same equipment he used, too. This is because he refuses to admit someone developed something better in the intervening decades and he has one R01 for 15 trainees. Second, you chose your project, (insert crazy-specific thesis title that only you, your PI, and maybe one other person cares about), based on your passions and not on developing the skills that industry needs.

My thesis on IMC proteins in Toxoplasma gondii

A little casual reading…

There was no reason to consider industry, though, because you were going to be a PI, just like the 60 other students who started grad school with you and the thousands across the globe. Third, you know no one outside of academia and have no “real world” experience (pre-grad school counts very little). Even those PhDs lucky enough (or prescient enough) to work with current generation equipment and the most up-to-date methods in the sexiest fields may have trouble overcoming the lack of experience. Finally, get ready to fight the stereotype. Employers have assumptions about the PhD personality and the ability of PhDs to assimilate into cooperate culture.

PhDs increase while the number of academic positions stay the same

There are more PhDs for a stagnant number of academic positions (Schillebeeckx , et al., Nature Biotechnology, 2013)

Based on my observations, postdocs are averaging a year or more to find their first industry position. Under- or unemployment for more than a year is common. Here in the San Francisco area, many PhDs go to startups that are willing to take a risk and then find themselves jobless again within a year or two.

However, this is a hopefully and encouraging blog post! There are simple things graduate students and postdocs can do to expedite the future job search, protect against fluctuations in industry, and show themselves to be more than the stereotype. The most important is networking. It takes time, but it’s an investment that will pay off.

Increasing number of life science PhDs unemployed

The red line is on the rise. (Jordan Weissmann, The Atlantic, 2013)

Below are my top five networking tips, from one PhD to another.

  1. Attend networking events outside your comfort zone and network

Conferences and meeting in your field of expertise are important, but will not suffice. You must leave your comfort zone and diversify your connections. Start by taking a tour of events, attending several types of events hosted by different groups. Try happy hours, talks, and short courses by societies, meetups, and companies. Pick the ones that you enjoy and are most productive for your goals and then become a regular. People should start to recognize you.

In general, the events you pay for are higher quality and will bring in more people from industry. Free events draw people on a budget, i.e. graduate students, postdocs, and the unemployed. You can make great connections at these events but remember, investing in your network is investing in your future so pony up the registration fee.

At first it is ok to just show up. This is a tough first step for most people. After a few, though, don’t just grab a drink and try to blend into the wall. People are all at these events to mingle so pick a group and introduce yourself.

If this is particularly difficult, considering volunteering with a professional organization. It will provide a purpose for your interactions, will not feel like shallow small talk, and will give other members a sense of what you are like to work with, which is important for future recommendations and introductions.

  1. Talk to everyone

When out and about, make an effort to strike up conversations. You never know who is on the yoga mat next to you or in line behind you at the grocery store. This has the added benefit of making you more open and your conversational manner more natural at professional events.

For the same reasons, accept all networking meetings that your schedule and energy will allow. Prepare for meetings and come with an agenda. Be ready with enough information to engage in deeper conversations and to make efficient use of everyone’s time. At the end, “get to the next person” by asking for specific introductions to expand your network.

  1. Don’t over do it

You are now attending events and meeting with contacts and it is very easy to get overwhelmed. When I started building my network I was attending events and taking meetings everyday and sometimes twice a day. The burnout was quick and defeating. I learned my magic number is three career-building activities per week. It forces me to prioritize and allows me take full advantage of the most productive activities.

  1. Build a brand 

In order to increase networking efficiency, you need something accessible where contacts can get a sense of who you are before they meet you. It should also allow potential connections to evaluate if you are worth their time (it’s harsh but true). It’s an added bonus if this presence brings people to you.

LinkedIn is the most common first step for professional brand building, but it’s more stagnant and dry than Twitter and Facebook (see Belle Beth Cooper’s Fast Company article here).

Social media use statistics

The majority of LinkedIn users are inactive (Belle Beth Cooper, Fast Company, 2013)

To build a brand, start tweeting and making public Facebook posts based on your passions. Focus on the field you plan to build your career in and maybe a hobby or two. For example, I’m a molecular biologist interested in infectious disease, microbiomics, and next-generation sequencing, so my tweets and public posts are focused on industry news, research findings, and media related to these areas. To prove I’m still human, I toss in yoga and fitness tidbits, as well.

Blogs are an excellent tool, too. They come in all flavors and can be as focused as you desire. I use this blog to record my professional growth and share my current professional interests and thoughts. However, do keep personal and professional blogs separate. Updates on your toddler’s potty training show your humanity but do little to promote future employment.

  1. Follow up

This is the most important tip: follow up on every discussion. Your network will cease to grow if the people that make up your nodes do not feel appreciated or respected. After every event, reach out to the people you met; LinkedIn connections are the easiest. Try to include some reference to your discussion to show you were invested and not just collecting business cards.

After meetings send thoughtful thank you’s. Again, include something that shows you were engaged and internalized the conversation. Provide any additional information discussed during the meeting and ask for introductions to the next person or people.

Networking is a skill and it takes practice to get comfortable, efficient, and effective. Even if you stay in academia, with academic-industry collaborations becoming the standard a diverse network is priceless. Furthermore, the interpersonal skills you exercise through networking will translate into your personal and everyday life.

It’s a win-win investment so get out there and meet people.

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