Erin Gallagher-Networking Conundrums

 In networking, PhD/Postdoc Blog

Networking is scary. The internet is helpful, but nothing beats experience.

I think it is fair to begin by sharing a little bit about myself. I am approaching the end of my doctorate, meaning that my boss and I have at least discussed graduation dates. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. The problem is, I have no idea what that light looks like besides a vague feeling that I want to help the world by working in either government or industry.

To begin dipping my toes in the proverbial water, I attended an Alumni speed networking event. There are tons of blogs on how to properly network, what to look for, and how to use LinkedIn. So, I figured I would A) compile the tidbits I found most useful from the interwebs and B) tell you what worked and did not work for me.

Networking is awkward

What I found on the internet was useful and reassuring for the most part. A recurring theme was, networking can be inherently awkward, especially if you are a lowly graduate student who feels like they have little to offer. To begin, remind yourself that this is not true. If nothing else, as a Ph.D. student you have the expertise gained from the immense amount of literature searches you have done. You may have a useful paper or solution to suggest. Second, do not approach it with an attitude of ‘I need something from you.’ Approach it as, ‘Hi person, let us talk and see if we have mutually beneficial interests.’ If you use the latter method, you at least have had a pleasant conversation. Perhaps do not use that exact language unless you are networking with aliens. Last, do not fear looking silly. It will happen at some point and it is part of being human. As a shy introvert and type A researcher, this is a hard one to remember.

People like talking about themselves

Ask a lot of questions. For me, this has resulted in better conversations.  Have you ever seen someone light up about a project they love? Research has even shown that people have a better opinion of you if you ask them questions. Ask questions about how they got into the field. Ask what they wished they had known going into their first job. Expand your questions into the personal. What do they do for fun? I found a good biking spot from talking to an alumnus at a networking night. Now if I want to reach out to him, I have a conversation starter about the recommended bike trail.

I wish I had gone up and introduced myself to more Alumni (re: fear of looking silly). Sometimes the scariest part of a conversation is saying ‘Hello, my name is…” Once I introduced myself, most people were quite receptive and wanted to help me. It is just getting up the gumption to go over and talk to someone.

Things to bring

I wish I had brought my resume. One person was a hiring manager type and was helping to edit resumes, which I did not expect. I did bring business cards, because I figured this was less awkward then having someone enter my email into their phone. The business cards were useful, but for every card I handed out, I received one. I ended up with a ton. Keeping track of business cards is hard. The advantage is they are small, so they fit in the tiny lady pockets that festoon most women’s business clothes. The problem is they are tiny and can run away. The tracking strategy I have found most useful is snapping a picture into a notetaking app. There are also apps that will enter the business card into a phones contacts for you.  I like the notetaking app because I can record where and when I made the contact. I can also record what the person was like and tidbits of info about that person, which makes reengaging with them easier. This way the business cards are not eaten by the paper monster that lives on my desk.

Take home message

Most people are kind and helpful, and you are going to be pleasantly surprised when networking.


Current Position: 6th year Ph.D. Candidate, Materials Science and Engineering
Program Start Date: August 2012
Institution: Johns Hopkins University

If you’ve found this helpful, please share it with another soon-to-be gainfully employed friend and watch @NIHBEST on Twitter for more from my lovely colleges and me.

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