Networking: A skill to develop

 In PhD/Postdoc Blog

Networking: A skill to develop

Caitlin Suire, Ph.D.
Student & GPS-BIOMED program member at UC Irvine

I recently was talking to an alumna from the University of California Irvine, discussing my concerns about figuring out what career would best suit me, and how to find a job. She told me that the best way to find a connection and a career path was to continue exactly what I was doing: networking and talking people in a variety of careers. Though networking can be intimidating, draining and time-consuming, it has been by far the most recommended activity when I ask for advice moving forward with my career. From LinkedIn connections to networking events to informational interviews, there are numerous avenues to create new connections. However, networking is typically not an innate ability; rather, it is a skill that must regularly be studied and practiced. When I first began trying to network, I felt like I was floundering. However, a networking series put on by UCI’s NIH-BEST funded program, Graduate Professional Success in the Biomedical Sciences GPS-BIOMED), gave me the skills and confidence I needed to enhance my performance and confidence. This series was developed to cover the variety of components that go into networking including starting a conversation, maintaining a conversation by keeping the other person engaged, the best time to exchange business cards and how to end the conversation to network with everyone around.

In the first part of the series, Networking 101, Bri McWhorter, an amazing public speaking coach (for more information, check out Activate to Captivate!) came in to give some pointers on the very basics of networking. First impressions can cover everything from attire, to posture, to the conversation. Attire should be professional but comfortable and potentially capable of being adapted for a variety of temperatures. In terms of posture, there are always a few people carrying themselves in a manner that suggests they would rather not be seen or heard. Standing straight, walking with purpose, and making eye contact are great ways to set yourself up in a positive light before you even start talking. While you should definitely look and act professionally, that shouldn’t get in the way of having fun and/or meaningful conversations with the people you meet. This can be of particular importance if you struggle with how to enter into a conversation or how to leave one. It can be the small conversations that matter the most, and really things moving! Some of my best connections have happened during a chat in the line for the food, for the bathroom, or for a taxi. You never know what could happen! It is always good to have a few small lines prepared when you go to a networking event (Elevator Pitch). Practice some opening questions such as “Can you tell me a little bit about what your job entails” or “What brings you here tonight?”. Even if you have nothing else in common, you are at the same event! It is also a good idea to prepare a few versions of your elevator pitch, going from a two-sentence summary up to a few minutes of description. This will ensure you are prepared no matter the level of interest of the person you are talking to. An additional tip Bri McWhorter discussed was how to use business cards to enhance your first impression. You always want a clean and clear business card, that easily gives people your name and contact information. However, if you want to up the ante you can write a personal note on the back, reminding your new contacts of where and when they met you! I recommend doing the same on the business cards you receive, otherwise, it can quite hard to keep track of where you met someone if you attend a lot of events.

My favorite tips from this session:

  • Bring key items that fit you, such as TidetoGo if you happen to be a messy eater or deodorant!
  • Try to find a standing table if possible. This will allow you to have food, a drink, be able to shake hands, give out business cards, and leave if necessary!
  • I personally enjoyed the tag-team networking approach, in which you and a partner separately approach a person of interest. This way, one person can introduce the other into conversation making an easy ice breaker and can similarly allow their partner an easy exit.

The next session was all about online presence and the vast array of tools you can find by using websites like LinkedIn and ResearchGate. These professional development websites can be used in a fashion similar to Facebook, where you can make and react to posts, have a biography and mark your interests. However, keeping your profile up to date, and staying relevant in the feeds of your connections requires some finesse. Posting too regularly, or about seemingly irrelevant things can make people lose interest in the image you are offering. Use these websites to develop your own brand. You should think about this before you make a profile. What would you want colleagues and potential employers to think about and gain from your profile? Do you post links to blogs (like this one!) or just update everyone on your newest publication? Do you focus solely on your own activity or do you try and connect people within your online network? Use your posts and your likes to shape the image everyone has of you. LinkedIn also has handy features such as Job Seeking options and Groups with specific foci. You can let recruiters know that you are looking for a new position by simply checking a box, and this can be narrowed down to specific companies by selecting a company of interest for job alerts! Even if you are not looking to posting information about yourself, posts from companies or connections can give you specific topics to discuss during a networking event or an informational interview. Though I tend to limit the posts I make, I do try to keep my profile updated, and regularly look at what other are posting to stay informed!

The last two parts of the series were perhaps the most useful. It started with a panel of alumni, giving advice on how to network. For me, it was a chance to ask questions about balance, particularly with maintaining relationships after the initial interaction. Should I update them, even if nothing has changed? How regularly is too regularly to contact? Is it best to use an online resource such as LinkedIn or email, or is it acceptable to ask for a phone call or coffee meet up? For the most part, all of the answers were the same: “It varies!” Each connection will require a different approach, and while that does not make things easier, at least it means that confusion is totally normal. I know of people that send email updates every 3 to 6 months. However, I think I am not quite close enough to the end of my degree to warrant that. At this point, I make semi-regular posts on my LinkedIn, and tag or send items to connections that are relevant to discussions that we had. The second portion of this session was a networking event, in which alumni, both from academic and industry settings came in to talk to all the graduate students and post-doctoral fellows. As I stated in the beginning, networking is a skill. I circled the room, practicing entrances and exits, how to hold food and shake hands at the same time, and how to request a follow-up when you are in a circle of other eager people. I’d like to list the pieces of information I learned there, but that is something everyone has to learn by doing! I highly recommend similar programs at other institutions. However, if that is not something that is available, check to see if your school offers practice interviews! Many of the same skills can be transferred from networking to interviews and back.

To conclude, no matter how busy you are, I think everyone should take some time on a weekly basis to work on the skills necessary for networking. Whether it is a conscious choice to work on your posture or handshake, or simply sitting down with someone in a neighboring lab and working on your elevator pitch, it’s all vital to being successful in a networking setting!

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