The Human Connection – Peer Networks

 In networking, PhD/Postdoc Blog

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: Postdoctoral Fellow studying obesity and fat metabolism at the Cardiovascular Research Institute; Chief Technology Officer for My Resolve Health, a bay area start-up.

Program start date: September 2015

Institution: University of California, San Francisco

Hey guys!

I have always found the everyday process of experimentation and bench work in the lab to be rather solitary. After all, I rarely have company as I toil away at the bench day after day trying to get that western blot just right! Science overall however is fundamentally not a solitary pursuit. Sharing is its cornerstone. And we talk about our science A LOT! With our mentor, collaborators, competitors, peers and even work-friends (these make up a significant chunk of our total friends due to the sheer number of hours we spend at work!). But most of us never really talk about interests, career paths or aspirations.

Now, I know there is a huge stigma around talking to mentors about career aspirations outside of academia. A lot of mentors consider leaving academia to be a failure. Some never discuss career goals or future avenues with their students and postdocs. Others just do not know enough about alternative careers to help. Whatever the case may be, it’s a whole other can of worms that I will perhaps leave for another day. Obviously, talking to collaborators or competitors about career goals outside academia would be rather odd, unless you have that kind of relationship. Which then leaves our peers and friends, most of who are in science, remember? So we should be able to talk to them, right? Turns out, hardly anyone ever does! Honestly, the first UCSF BEST MIND catalytic course was a bit of a revelation! So many familiar faces… And yet not one of them ever expressed the slightest desire to leave the bench, let alone discuss other interests and aspirations.

I think what people often overlook is the vast web of people that each and every one of these “work-friends” connects them to… And there in lies one of the largest reasons for the success of the MIND peer teams. It’s a truly simple concept – people know other people! And yet we overlook the power of that connection. It’s the kind of networking that one might not immediately hate. Don’t get me wrong; networking with people in the areas or industries you are interested in is absolutely essential to career advancement and future job prospects. In fact Corina posted an excellent piece on that subject last month, which a must read if you are currently in the job market or will be soon. What I am talking about though is a network that’s perhaps more subtle, that exists quietly in the background, but might surprise you in a serendipitous cascade of events.

It’s like the stories we hear about someone thinking another person they know of might be a good fit for a position a third person has been trying to fill for a while. Or how sometimes the person sitting next to you on a train or a plane are actually looking for someone with your exact skillset! (This actually happened to me once! True story!) I mentioned earlier that I am the chief scientific officer or a nutritional genomics startup called MyResolveHealth. This would actually be a very good example of peer networks at work. If it weren’t for a grad school friend, who knew someone at dance class who was working on a startup idea, was moving to San Francisco and was looking for someone with a background in genetics and metabolism, also in the bay area, I never would have met the current CEO of our company. The third person on our team also came aboard through a similar network. And we now have a fourth member on the team through our current combined networks. Of course, a lot of things had to fall in place for it to work, not to mention personalities and working styles. But in the end, it did all work out.

While I understand this may not help you in your immediate job search, I truly believe it can be an important source of hidden opportunities in the future. I know that most people, especially in science may not be able to chat up a fellow passenger on a bus or a plane. In fact a MIND exercise quantitatively demonstrated that introverts far out number the extroverts in science. And this is in a program for alternative career exploration, which selects for the more extroverted introverts to begin with!

So start small, with your work-friends. That person who works on the next bench, the one you always smile at in the kitchen, the one you bump into in the hallway every morning. And this time talk about more than just the science you do in the lab. Share a bit of yourself. Show interest in their future goals. You might learn something new. They may know someone you should talk to or vice versa. Point is, you never know what might click! And sometimes the opportunities that you least expect, that you weren’t even looking for, turn out to be the ones that were meant for you all along…

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