The Nightmare of Networking

We live in a reality where getting a graduate degree does not mean you are automatically qualified for a job. In fact, according to a recent NSF study, 42.1% of 2014 PhD graduates reported no definite job commitments at the time of graduation. This number is a bit debated but we all know recent grads who sent out hundreds of applications and were forced to take whatever job they could get. Want a tenure track job? An industry position? A place in the government? You will send out tens if not hundreds of applications to these positions and hear nothing back, but it’s not necessarily because you are not qualified. Jobs like these are not a dime a dozen these days, and employers get so many applications that no matter how good your resume looks you are likely to get looked over. So how do you get your name to the top of the pile? You probably already know the answer: make yourself known. Network with the right people at the right time and make sure they remember you. You’ve heard it before, the proverbial “it’s all about who you know”. Easier said than done though.

Let’s face it, we scientists are an inherently awkward bunch. Many of us are shy, introverted, or just not comfortable with walking up to strangers and introducing ourselves. Even if you are an uncommon social butterfly, the idea of networking with potential employers can be daunting. As a second-year PhD student who has completed a master’s degree I have learned quite a bit about networking do’s and don’ts. I won’t claim to know everything, but I certainly feel a lot more confident about networking than I did as an undergraduate. In this post, I hope to share some of the tips and tricks I have picked up along the way that will hopefully help you turn the nightmare of networking into something a little less frightening.

Rule #1: Attend Conferences Whenever You Can

I recommend picking a conference that is specific to your field and is as big as you want your job search to be and attend it every year. Really want to stay local in the future? Maybe you have family in the area or your spouse has a great job. Pick a small state-specific conference. Not too picky about where you end up? Go national. Really want to broaden your horizons and get a post-doc somewhere abroad? Choose an international conference that is often located in other countries.
Now you may be thinking, conferences are expensive! Yes, they are but as a student you can easily go to at least one conference for free every year. Your department should have student travel funding you can apply for and the graduate school at your university may as well. These are likely small sums of money, like $200-300, but when you add them up they really help. Also, most conferences offer student travel grants or volunteer opportunities. You can usually volunteer for a few hours at the meeting and they will pay for your registration. If you are proactive about it, there is plenty of travel money to be found. And if you have a free ride to a conference, your advisor is not likely to keep you from going.

Rule #2: Don’t Just Attend a Conference, Be a Part of It

Whether you are almost finished your degree or just starting out, you should always present at any meeting. Even if you just have some vague project idea, put it on a poster. You never know what kind of advice you might get. If you are close to finishing and looking for a job, a poster is a great place for you to tack up business cards or a CV. If there is a session that is super relevant to what you are doing consider giving an oral presentation. That way you know most of the people interested in the topic will be there.

You don’t need to attend every single oral presentation; your brain won’t be able to handle it. But do make sure you go to every single social event. It may seem counter-productive to go out to the bar instead of practicing your talk or catching up on emails, but it is crucial. The best networking is always done in a relaxed, social atmosphere! On that note, make sure to get the people you do know to introduce you to the people you don’t. Your advisor and the postdocs and older graduate students in your lab probably know a good chunk of the people at the meeting. That whole seven degrees of separation thing? Chances are you know someone who knows someone who knows that super awesome scientist you’ve been dying to meet.

Rule #3: Follow Up With All the People You Meet

This is the part that I will admit I am not so great at. We tend to go to our conferences, meet all these awesome people, and then come home and forget all about them while we focus on our busy graduate student lives. But keeping in touch with people is super important. You never know who will be working for a company you are really interested in, or who might be hiring in the future. Imagine how awesome it would be if you could call one of those people up and say hey, we met at this meeting blah blah blah, I hear you are hiring?? The best way I’ve found to keep in touch with people is to get their business cards and then when you go home look them up on LinkedIn, Research Gate, twitter, etc. This is the age of social media after all so use it to your advantage! You might not feel comfortable emailing someone you met for 2 minutes to say hey, remember me! But, you can follow what they are doing, keep track of their publications, and if they follow you back you will pop up on their social media feeds. Win, win.            

Rule #4: Have Fun!!

For some reason networking is this super scary word that makes us want to run and hide. But it’s actually not that scary at all. Networking is really just making friends with people in your field. Making friends is fun! 

You might think meeting those two other graduate students from another institution doesn’t count as networking but it definitely does. You don’t just have to network up (with professors, professionals, etc.), networking across (with other grad students), or down (with undergraduates) is just as important. You never know where people will end up in 5-10 years and that intern that helped you with the boring lab work for your project may very well be the next Albert Einstein. Ok, maybe that’s a stretch but you get the picture. Take advantage of every opportunity to go to a conference or workshop and make the most of it. You may think you are too busy to take a week off from your project, but it will be more than worth it when it comes time to apply for jobs. In the words of an African Proverb I just found on the internet: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others.” 🌟


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