Lydia Morris: More Notes on Networking

 In networking, PhD/Postdoc Blog

The PhD/Postdoc blog series features two scientists at different stages of career development as they explore and plan for their next steps.  Over the course of six months, Lydia Morris and Divya Shiroor will give monthly updates on their progress. Check back every 2nd and 4th Wednesday of the month for new posts.

Current position: Postdoctoral research trainee with a Ph.D. in Genetics and Molecular Biology
Postdoc start date: January 2013
Institution: University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (affectionately referred to as UNC)

In previous posts, I’ve spoken briefly about different aspects of networking. To recap, two things that I think have made the biggest impact on my career path are networking within my social group and the opportunity to network with human resources/hiring managers. Through social networking (not the Facebook or Twitter kind), I learned about a ton of different job opportunities and resources. By talking to hiring managers, I learned how to present a more polished resume and put my best foot forward during interviews.  I’d like to revisit networking this month, focusing on a few more nuggets of networking advice I’ve picked up on this career journey.

The single most valuable tool I’ve taken with me to various networking has been preparing an elevator pitch. As the article in the link states, your pitch is a brief summary of your skills, experience, and interests. If you’re networking to find a job, your interest will include the types of positions you’re pursuing. As someone who gets nervous when put on the spot or in new social situations, this tool has been my saving grace. You can read more about how to develop your elevator pitch and when to use it at the link above. Here, I want to share one of the best pieces of advice I received about making an impact with your spiel.

At a networking event a few weeks back, Susan Lankford, Director of Science Technology and Development of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center gave the following advice regarding the elevator pitch: “Don’t just list job titles, be specific (yet succinct) about the activities you do or have done at your job.” This advice works because job titles, such as product manager or genetics postdoc, are pretty vague and don’t say much about what you actually do. Also, it’s possible that different companies have different terms to describe the same job. Describing your work builds intrigue, saves time, and helps eliminate ambiguity.

At another recent networking event the participants went around the room, giving our elevator pitches one at a time. Using the above advice, instead of saying “I just finished a postdoctoral fellowship”, I’d say “I did fruit fly research in DNA repair.” Likewise, instead of saying “I’m a volunteer at the Lineberger Cancer center at UNC,” I’d say, “I am assisting a clinical research associate with data entry at the Lineberger Cancer center at UNC”. Afterward, several people approached me to speak more about my experiences and a few people even followed up via email and phone call. Being both prepared and specific can go a long way in building your professional network.

Because it’s so common to find a job via professional contacts, it’s easy to think of networking as synonymous with finding a job. As this article on reciprocity in the networking process points out, networking should be mutually beneficial.

Though the article is full of practical advice (and I strongly encourage you to read it), I want to comment on a particular point the author makes: “…[find] out what you can do for them.” Not only does this strengthen the relationship, but I think it’s the best way to show gratitude for the advice, leads, etc. the new contact gives you.

If you are someone who is new to the field or industry you’re on the job market for, it can seem like you have nothing to offer. I think it might be a little awkward to come right out and say “can I do anything for you?”. But, I think listening intently during the conversation in search for ways your skills or background could benefit the other person is a good start.

One of the easiest ways I can think of is offering to introduce the person you’re talking to with a colleague who could be a beneficial contact for them. I have offered to edit for people I’ve met who mention how difficult a writing project has been for them. I think the bottom line is finding common ground and going from there.

I just want to touch briefly on how scary it can be to go into a networking event where you do not know anyone and aren’t quite sure what to say when you do enter a conversation. Of course, being prepared helps, but when the nerves come, sometimes there’s nothing you can do about a shaky voice or forgetful stammering. Thankfully, there are organizations that host networking events that are more structured and activity based.

For example, the networking event I mentioned above at the NC Biotech Center was a speed-networking session, much like speed dating. I basically got to practice my elevator pitch about six times in a row, make some valuable connections, and glean from other networkers how to advertise my skills in a confident and proud manner. Along with preparing a solid elevator pitch and having something to offer those I spoke with, I walked away with new connections and empowered to keep pursuing my medical writing aspirations.

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