Developing the human connections critical to career success
Do you know what science is going on in the building next door—or even in the lab down the hall? Lab groups tend to operate as independent units that stay focused on highly specialized areas. This reality combined with the daily, high-intensity routine of laboratory life can make you feel isolated from the rest of the science community. At the same time, the trend in science is toward cross-disciplinary collaborations, which requires lab managers to maintain a presence outside the laboratory. Therefore, networking is critical to keep you connected to the people and resources you need to excel in your career and find new opportunities.
So what is networking?
Networking is not a competition to see who can collect the most business cards or LinkedIn connections—it’s the art of connecting and establishing relationships with people to mutually share resources, ideas, and information. There is a misconception that networking is just for people looking for a new job. While networking can lead to new career opportunities, it is also key to career advancement within a company, and to helping you find resources to do your job better. A diverse network represents a range of experts in different fields with whom you can collaborate on projects or ask advice.
How to build a professional network
The word “networking” may conjure up images of people awkwardly standing around a room carrying on fake conversations about the weather or self-indulgently bragging about a new promotion. However, the most successful networking strategies involve genuine interactions with other professionals through a number of different platforms, both in person and online.
Conferences. Research conferences are an efficient way to network with professionals across a breadth of disciplines. This platform provides opportunities to obtain invaluable feedback on projects, stay updated on the latest technology, and discover what science is being conducted outside your niche field. In addition, many conferences have apps with features that allow you to interact with attendees in real time and to archive contact information.
Major conferences can have overwhelmingly large numbers of attendees, but there are strategies you can use to get noticed among the crowd. One strategy guaranteed to work is to ask insightful questions during talks that demonstrate your knowledge and interest in the subject matter, which can lead to productive follow-on conversations with audience members and the speaker. To increase the visibility of your work, Alaina Levine, president of Quantum Success Solutions and author of “Networking for Nerds”1, offers this advice: “When presenting a poster or a talk at a conference, invite people in advance to attend by putting a sticker on the back of your business card with the date, time, location, and subject or title.”
For times when you’re away from your poster, Sonya Clarkson, research associate with Conagen, Inc., shares this tip: “Add a head shot picture to a research poster near the authorship line, so people can locate you outside your scheduled poster session time. You can also add a picture to a business card to help new contacts remember who you are.” However, you are not limited to networking at the conference itself. Jibonananda Sanyal, staff scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, suggests, “When traveling to a conference, contact someone and ask if the person would like to talk about his or her work. This opens the door for an invited talk at the contact’s institution and an additional networking opportunity outside the conference.”
Informational Interviews. It’s a fact: People like to talk about themselves. More so, people like to share their career stories to help other people succeed. An informational interview is an informal conversation with a professional about his or her career history in order to seek advice on how to transition into similar positions. As Edwin van Bloois, scientist R&D at IQ Products, explains, “Never ask for a job straightaway, but ask whether the person you contacted is willing to help you further (e.g., review your CV, share their story and experiences, as well as to think of potential opportunities). With regards to the latter, you can ask which companies in the field are expanding or who within the company can help you further.”
An informational interview is one of the most effective networking tools available when exploring new career paths, and it’s easy: Just invite a new contact to chat briefly about his or her career by phone or over a cup of coffee. Typical questions include what skills are required and the roles and responsibilities of the job. You should end the interview by asking for the name of another person in the field with whom you could speak.
Professional Groups. While most people understand that joining a professional group (e.g., Association of Laboratory Managers) is advantageous, many members don’t take advantage of all the potential networking benefits, such as volunteering on special committees to take an active role in the organization. You can contact the heads of committees and inquire about open positions, explaining why you are qualified to serve. In addition, professional groups often give out annual awards to members based on achievements or contributions. Levine emphasizes, “Apply for and nominate others for awards. Even if you don’t win, the selection committee gets to know your work. And when you nominate another person, he or she will appreciate it.”
Social and Digital Media. You are living in the digital era, and having an online presence is now expected. Research shows that the use of social and digital media outlets can improve research productivity and metrics, facilitate professional networking, and increase science communications with the public.2
When it comes to social media, you have to choose which platform(s) will work best for you.3 LinkedIn is a good place to start if you are new to social media because it’s more professionally focused and easy to create an online resume. You can stay updated on your connections’ activities to congratulate them on accomplishments, and join LinkedIn groups to add value to discussions by sharing relevant articles and offering advice. In addition, there are science-specific online communities (e.g., Research Gate) where you can share publications and protocols with colleagues.
You can also increase your online profile without using social media. With the large number of free website platforms out there, you can create an online professional portfolio in minutes. Additionally, blogging is a good way to showcase your expertise and insight in your field, but it requires a little more time in content creation. Overall, the goals of using social and digital media are to establish yourself as a thought leader in your profession by sharing valuable content and advice, which will improve your visibility among the science community.
Whenever you go out in public, be prepared with an elevator pitch (i.e., two to three sentences on your background, skills, and interests) that can be tailored for different audiences. Frank Summerfield, scientific consultant, offers additional advice: “When giving a speech, say at least your name, field, and specialty. After [you have finished], say your name again. This identifies your name with what you’ve just said. Restating your name after giving your pitch is usually most effective in a networking circle, at a full table at a networking party, or at a conference or symposium.”
As an icebreaker, the best way to get people talking or to respond to an email is to find something in common, such as an alumni connection or hobby, because shared experiences are powerful connecters. In addition, peer networking is an effective (but often neglected) networking approach because people are more willing to talk to someone who has been validated by a peer. Always be a professional matchmaker for your colleagues, introducing them to people in your network whom they would benefit from meeting.
If you are looking to advance within your company, internal networking will be essential to stay visible to management and demonstrate your value. Barbara Blond, senior technical analyst of Biostatistics (Quality Management Tools) for the College of American Pathologists, suggests, “Volunteer for task forces and lab projects in your facility and, if in a multibranch organization, for multisite projects. You will get to know other members and learn at the same time. This helps build relationships and others will value your contributions and request your assistance or use you as a resource in the future.”
Most importantly, you must not let fear of the unknown stand in the way of networking. Caitlyn Scaggs, director of Communications and Marketing at Polymer Solutions, Inc., shares this wise advice she has learned from the company’s CEO, Jim Rancourt: “Give people the opportunity to say no. It gives you the courage to ask for what you want when your initial reaction would normally be to assume there is no way. By making that assumption you are the one who is saying no—not the other person.”
The follow up
When making a new connection, it is important to follow up within a few days by sending a thank-you email or a handwritten card for a personal touch. You can add the person to a contact database (e.g., spreadsheet or LinkedIn) with short notes on how you met the person and any information that needs to be followed up on. You can easily maintain an active professional network by periodically reviewing your contacts list and sending an email to just say hello or to forward an interesting article.
In addition, Jackson Were, principal laboratory technologist in charge of Laboratory Services for the Ministry of Health-Uganda at Mbarara Regional Referral Hospital, shares, “Respond to others’ challenges: there’s no better way to establish a business networking relationship than to contribute to the solution of your new contact’s pressing problem. If someone states a challenge he or she is facing, respond no later than the next morning with something of value that addresses his or her issue, with discretion and mindfulness.”
Between work and personal life, it may seem impossible to add in networking activities, but you can make time by creating a networking plan that includes manageable goals. For example, you could set personal goals to spend ten minutes a week on LinkedIn group discussion boards, meet one new contact a week, and attend one national conference a year. Also, conserve time by crossing people off your list who won’t respond to your emails (e.g., three strikes and they are out) or negative people who constantly criticize you. By being proactive in your networking approaches and setting achievable goals, you can build a professional network with mutually beneficial relationships for future career success.
1. Levine, Alaina, “Networking for Nerds.” http://tinyurl.com/Networking-ForNerdsAmazon
2. Bik, HM, Goldstein, MC, “An Introduction to Social Media for Scientists.” http://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.1001535
3. Sullivan, Bill, “Taming the Wild West: Social Media for Scientists.” http://thepostdocway.com/content/taming-wild-west-social-media-scientists