Erica Akhter- Fake it ‘til you make it: Networking by Developing Your Inner Extrovert
The PhD/Postdoc blog series features scientists at different stages of career development as they explore and plan for their next steps. Check back every Wednesday for new blog posts!
Current position: 4th Year Ph.D. Candidate, Neuroscience
Program start date: August 2014
Institution: Emory University
If you’ve been lucky enough to take some professional development classes, they’ve almost definitely covered three things: your CV, your public speaking skills, and the importance of networking. The first two are incredibly important. They’re also almost inevitable outcomes of being in academia. Networking—arguably the most uncomfortable practice for most people—is also the easiest to avoid. Unfortunately, it’s also the most important, especially if you’re thinking of leaving academia one day.
If you’re anything like me, or anything like 90% of my BEST cohort, it’s easy to slap the label of “introvert” on yourself to justify avoiding almost any potentially awkward social situation. It’s important to remember, though, that being an introvert just means you have to expend energy when around other people. Extroverts are charged by it. Introversion is different than shyness, an actual fear or aversion to those you don’t know. Introversion is a personality trait addressing what you prefer. It does not limit you. Shyness is a mannerism that you can train yourself out of. It can limit you.
I am an introvert. I used to be shy.
Last month I went to a conference, a huge conference, with over 30,000 attendees from all over the world. Ten years ago this would have been my nightmare but this year I found it incredibly encouraging and productive for my future career. It also clarified for me which things I’ve been doing successfully helped me enhance my networking chops and which skills I need to improve upon. Here are some things that have helped me build my networking chops:
Practice, practice, practice
This, for me, is painful. This was also the single most useful thing I did to get more comfortable explaining my science and my life goals. Training ourselves to talk to strangers was a large part of what we did during the first six months of the BEST program. We did “elevator talks” backwards and forwards. Literally. And we ran-through them from the middle and for different audiences and for different lengths of time and then backwards and forwards again.
It’s best to practice with a room full of strangers, but you can also do it with a friend or by yourself. Have the other person tell you these things just before you start. If you’re by yourself, draw them from a hat:
- Who is your audience? Potential colleagues, future bosses, and lay people. They will all require different levels of explanation
- Where to start? Did they ask you what you do? To tell them about yourself? What your future goals are?
- What are you trying to convey? Do you want a job? To explain your research? To gain a mentor?
If it helps, start off by writing some general talking points and a vague plan of what you want to say. When you’re practicing though, don’t allow yourself to read it. You need to be comfortable “flying blind” and you don’t want to sound like you rehearsed a speech. Real conversations don’t come with notecards.
Give yourself props
Have a drink or some hors d’oeuvres to keep yourself busy or give yourself time to pause and think in the middle of a conversation. In my moments of occasional awkwardness, I’ve found it’s useful to have something to hand the person to extend the conversation or suggest we keep in contact. Depending on the event, a CV or business card can be very useful in helping you be remembered. It gives you an opening to extend the conversation with people afterwards, especially if you tend to communicate better through emails or formalized meetings rather than spontaneous chats.
Go to events
Though “networking events” can feel cheesy, at the worst they give you the opportunity to practice your skills with people expecting you to approach them for networking. At the best, you meet valuable future connections. You also usually get free food! Especially great (both for meeting people and free food) are events for alumni or businesses at conferences, where you can connect with people who are also there to connect with you.
Ask questions & smile
Generally, just be engaging and nice. This can go much farther than you expect. Regardless of how nervous you feel, those you are talking to—those worth knowing anyway—are generally nice human beings too. Being open, honest, and showing your personality humanizes you to them as well.
STAY IN TOUCH
Finally, once you’ve made a connection, don’t be afraid to reach out. Shoot the person an email to thank them or follow up with a question. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people you used to know for advice, especially if you genuinely value their opinion