Back to Back: Advancing Your Network
By Shannon Loelius, PhD Candidate and iBiology Intern, and E’Lissa Flores, PhD, URBEST aluma and Associate at Milken Institute
Last we spoke, we talked about the importance of establishing a network, and how to go about doing that. So, now that you have one, what do you do with it? We will be addressing that question on this edition of “Back-to-Back”. As before, two people with vastly different personalities (one entirely extroverted, the other introverted) will discuss their perspectives on the topic.
Figure 1. Mentoring Network Map, an organized way of determining who to go to for help with specific things.
Before talking about how to use your network, I want to be clear what I think a network is. When I was first told to network, I thought people were telling me to go out and talk to people with a motive of using them later. When you are looking at a connection strictly through the lens of “how is this person useful to me/how can I use them later on”, you feel disingenuous and lousy and will avoid networking.
That is not how you have to view networking.
Last year, when I was lamenting about how terrible networking is and how I didn’t know how to do it, my affable husband pointed out to me that networking is just getting to know people. That’s it. That is what your network is. It is literally just who you are connected to. It isn’t “who can I use” or anything of the sort. When networking, you are learning about people, first and foremost. Try to drop any pretenses and learn about the person.
If you ask them for help later, you don’t have to think of it as using them. Think about your friend group. I’m sure there is a person you’d ask advice from about one topic, and another friend who you’d consult about another. That is what you are doing when using your network, you are talking to a person you know who has particular insight.
A nice illustration of this is the mentor map in Figure 1. There are topics that you would ask different people/mentors for help with, and this map helps you be a bit more organized about it.
So! Now that I’ve waxed poetic about what a network is, how do you use it? How do you strengthen connections, rather than let them wither and die? I’m still learning how to do that, but here’s what I’ve figured out so far.
The first, critical step is to listen. When you first meet someone, try to remember at least one thing the person seems really interested in (research or otherwise). I have a terrible memory, so what I find helpful is either to jot down their name and a brief description in a notebook (after your conversation is over), or to do the same but with a business card! If they’ve given you a business card, when they leave you can write down a summary of what they do, who they are, or why and how you’d like to follow up.
Of course, then you must follow up with your new connection. If you are looking for a post-doc and met a PI with interesting research, don’t wait to be applying to the position to talk. Make sure to follow up ask them about their progress on that topic or for more information. This serves both to strengthen your connection and to determine what category this person fits into your network (if at all).
Ask for advice, information, or help. People like helping (by and large). It makes them feel valued and useful. If you have a connection with someone who works in your field, ask them a question you’ve been struggling with, or ask their thoughts on a topic you find interesting and that you would actually like to hear their thoughts on. Be genuine. This strengthens your network as you use it!
Coffee. Unfortunately, humans are social creatures and like face-to-face interactions. This means that one of the quickest ways to strengthen a connection is to meet in person. If you are like me, figuring out a reason to meet is difficult. Asking someone to catch up over coffee feels a lot friendlier and more genuine then setting up an appointment (though that is fine too).
My last thought (I’ve written too much already) is to tweet. For real, twitter has become a tool to network and strengthen your connections. You can find so many interesting people and connect with them. I’m currently blogging for a site I found on twitter. I am also working with an English teacher on making a fictional story about my research (his project is “A useful fiction”, making science research into fictional stories). I built the connection when I asked them about their projects because I was genuinely interested, and used that connection when I asked to join.
E’Lissa: Be professional, use your resources, and stay organized.
Step one to using your network, use your resources. Your network grants you access to resources, including science communication courses, Center of Professional Development workshops, and/or URBEST career seminars. Take advantage of URBEST events to be eligible for internships opportunities that available to all trainees! Also, while presenting at a conference, make time to attend career development workshops.
Mentors at all levels are another important resource. Developing relationships with senior mentors, other than your advisor, is essential. To build on this network, you can schedule meetings just to catch up, to go over goals, or to ask them for their opinions in trouble shooting. Building strong relationships aids in your growth as a trainee and as a professional, as well as fostering strong contact references needed for job applications. Peer mentoring is important at all stages in your career as well. You may be more comfortable venting, asking for advice, brainstorming ideas, and getting well needed proofreading/editing from a peer. I personally would not have stayed sane in graduate school without Shannon (Thanks!). You may also have more senior peers (like the grad student that recently graduated) who have already started their careers and developed professional networks. These super-peers may help you connect to others they may know. You can ask for such connections by maintaining the relationship and asking for help! If you are applying to a job, kindly ask them to look over your resume or cover letter and to help you prepare for interviews. The peer may have insight into what sort of questions you’ll be asked, especially if they have or have had a position like the one you want.
Of course, it is easier to strengthen connections if they have a strong foundation. We discussed previously how to network, but I wanted to reiterate a few points. As you would practice before giving a presentation, you should also prepare for networking events. Your elevator pitches should include your research and career interests, along with the why and how. Why are you interested in this field, and how will your skills translate into this career path (potentially with no experience)? Also, prepare multiple jargon-less dialogue, ranging from 1 - 6 minutes in length depending on the situation or person. When giving a condensed version of your elevator pitch always end with, “I can go into further detail if you would like,” and be prepared if they say yes. Lastly, be prepared to give your elevator pitch over and over and fine tuning it each time, as a person may connect you to someone in their network and so on.
Practice networking by doing. Find the courage to go up to the career seminar speakers or conference attendees and engage in a conversation. Develop the conversation around their research, career, or something they might find interesting before talking about yourself. And don’t be shy to ask them for their business card and/or hand them yours. Then, actually follow-up with an email (not asking for a job or opportunity directly unless they already mentioned it). Ask to set up an informational interview or meeting, preferably on the phone rather than an email. Over the phone allows for a more personal and casual interaction, and it is easier to convey enthusiasm for your interests or career goals. Then they might say, “Oh, I actually know someone in science policy at the NIH now, I can connect you to them if you like…” Reply, YES, please, and thank you!
A side note on the importance of email etiquette, as it is a thing and very essential in all fields. First, always present yourself professionally. When in doubt ask a friend to proofread your email. Second, avoid long lengthy emails. People have busy lives and want you to get to the point. Write a few sentences about your background and what you’re interested in, and mention you would like to know more about their career path.
As in every aspect of our lives, we strive to be well organized. Organization is also key in maintaining a professional network. Excel files are your friend. Use excel to help you organize when applying to jobs, internships, and keeping a log of your network contacts. Keep them up-to-date and label them with who, what, where, how. What conference did you meet them or what company do they work for, etc. It is hard to keep track of all those business cards and to remember the fine details at a later date. Future you will be much appreciative of your organization skills.
As a last note, remember your hustle when you make it. When you get an email later in your career asking for information, remember what sort of responses you valued the most and emulate those. Future you that’s in academia, industry, or nonprofit sector will eventually be established in your prospective field, as weird as it may seem.
When using your network, remember it is a two-way street. You do have something of value to provide the other person, whether it is ideas, advice, connecting them to someone you know, etc. If they contacted you asking for advice on something, you can help them. If you see something you think would be useful or interesting to them, you can send it to them.
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