Corina White: The cliché of networking

The PhD/Postdoc blog series features scientists at different stages of career development as they explore and plan for their next steps. Over the course of six months, Edward van Opstal, Ruchi Masand, Corina White, and Darcie Cook will give monthly updates on their progress. Check back every Wednesday for new blog posts!

Current position: 5th year PhD candidate in Biomedical Engineering
Program start date: 2012
Institution: Rutgers University

I know I can’t be the only one who feels like applying to jobs online is one of the most futile tasks in the world. While I realize it’s necessary as many companies use online applications as an equal opportunity platform, doesn’t it feel as though you are just sending your resume into a black hole, never to be seen again? It can be so extremely discouraging when you are taking the time to search for these jobs, tailor your resume and cover letter to the specific job or company, and then waiting and waiting for a response. Even a rejection would be better than no closure at all. Yet, this is the path many people take when searching for industry jobs: apply online, cross your fingers, and wait…and wait…and wait.

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Image from: justjobs.com

Surely there must be a better way. Everyone – and I mean practically everyone on planet Earth – will tell you that you must network. It’s become such cliché advice and, for many people I know in PhD programs, the most dreaded advice. I’ve found that many PhD students have a generally negative attitude towards networking. The most common feelings I have found amongst my fellow students are: 1) I have so much on my plate, now I’m supposed to carve out time for networking too; 2) I am clearly qualified for these jobs, I am an expert in x,y,and z – why do I have to convince other people of this?; and 3) I don’t like small talk, I don’t like talking to strangers, networking is my nightmare.

I understand where these thoughts of my fellow students come from but I wholeheartedly reject them. Whether you feel like you have no time or that you’re a qualified expert or you hate small talk, I cannot understate the importance of networking in a job search. I have interviewed with three different companies thus far and all of them came through me reaching out and networking.

Everyone has his or her own strategies for successful networking. Below are the approaches that I have found effective in my own job search.

  1. Reach out to your program alumni and friends. As you’re ramping up your job search, reach out to students from your program who have recently graduated and obtained jobs in industry. Most companies have referral programs or their employees are the first to know when they are hiring. Send an email or make a phone call expressing your interest in the company and asking for their experiences – what do they like or dislike? Ask if they know of any opportunities. I reached out to alumni from my program and within 30 minutes of her referring my resume to her HR department, they asked to schedule a phone interview. At the very least, by reaching out to these people, you will be able to receive feedback on the company and on your resume.
  1. Utilize LinkedIn. There are many ways in which I’ve utilized LinkedIn during my job search. First, find companies you are interested on LinkedIn and figure out if you have anyone in your network that work there. If not, you may have second or third degree contacts. You should connect with the employees, and if you have contacts in common, send them a note that says, “Hi, I saw we both know John Smith. I am really interested in Company X and was wondering if we could talk about your experiences there. Thank you!” I have never had someone say no to me when I’ve used this approach. I’ve even used it with people I don’t know in which I’ve said, “Hi, I see we have similar backgrounds with your PhD in Tissue Engineering. I am getting ready to defend my thesis and currently job searching. Would you mind having a short informational interview so I can learn about your company and your transition into industry? Thanks!” Approaching a stranger has worked less but this did help me land an interview and is definitely worth trying. The second way to utilize LinkedIn is to find HR representative or members of a company’s Talent Acquisition department. If, like me, you feel like your resume falls into a black hole when you submit an online application, try to rescue it by reaching out to HR on LinkedIn. You can connect with them and send a message saying “Hi, I’m very interesting in Company X and have recently applied online for position Y. I hope to hear back from you soon if that position might be a good fit for me or if one of your other roles might be better. Thank you for your time.” Using this approach, I have connected with many HR representatives and they have been very honest about my qualifications in the context of a certain position, they have flat out rejected me, and they have brought me in for an interview. This strategy shows that you are proactive and, though it may result in rejection, it gets someone looking at your resume, which is the biggest barrier to get past.
  1. Do your research and go to career fairs and networking events. I am lucky enough to have to Rutgers iJOBS program here that hosts many career panels, career fairs, and networking events. In the past year especially, I have made it a priority to attend these events particularly when I know someone from a specific company or my field of interest is going to be there. The key to making an event like this worth it is to do your research. The last thing you want to do is put your foot in your mouth because negative interactions are just as memorable as positive interactions. For example, if a company manufactures generics – don’t try to discuss R&D positions with them; if a company solely uses contract manufacturing organization – don’t talk about working in a manufacturing setting; if the company focuses on regulatory writing – don’t talk about medical marketing. You should know what a company does, where they are located, if they’ve had any big recent news or announcements, if they have products in the clinical trial pipeline, and what positions you have interest in. You can find a lot of information on the company’s LinkedIn or Wikipedia page, on the company’s website, and recently I started looking at the Form 10-K and annual reports, financial statements required for all publicly traded companies outlining their business, risks, and outlook. Use these resources to come up with questions, conversation points, and reasons why you fit into specific roles within the company. Also this information should help you express why you would be excited to work for that company and what you think you can offer them.

As the end of your graduate work approaches, it is important to prioritize networking.While these strategies may seem like they take a lot of time and energy, two of them can be done completely online. Put on your favorite TV show, break out your laptop and network from the comfort of your own couch. Your proficiency at PCR or mass spec, your list of publications, and your fellowships and awards are important and impressive but they are meaningless unless your resume gets into the right hands. You need to right people to read your resume and connect your qualifications with your proactive, hard-working spirit. This is something that can only accomplished through networking.

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