by Chengxun Su
For most scientists who are drawn to the pursuit of scientific questions, networking may not come naturally. If spending years in the laboratory with only machines and fellow socially awkward humans for company has left you with non-existent social skills, you may find networking a daunting task. “Why network?” you may ask. While a solitary existence performing experiments in the laboratory and publishing in scientific journals may be your idea of the good life, a successful career in science requires you to socialize; both with scientists and non-scientists. Unlike graduate school, where the selection criteria for the best and brightest are clear, a successful career path is rarely as straightforward. Career paths nowadays resemble a web rather than a ladder. Instead of climbing a straight ladder step by step, having the vision to connect with different people, seeking new opportunities and embracing them is oftentimes more crucial in advancing one’s career.
Why scientists should network
In this technology-centric era, it is important for scientists to be able to work in collaborative environments. Real problems are often multi and interdisciplinary, so combining areas of expertise and ways of approaching problems from various disciplines is required to achieve the shared objective of doing good science. For example, the exponential increase in computing power has redefined how cellular biologists investigate the ways in which variations in transcription factors influence cellular performance. Integration of cell biology with engineering approaches such as microfabrication and microfluidics has allowed for the development of micro-engineered models of human organ functional units, thus enabling a novel form of preclinical assay with greater predictive power. As a scientist, you will gain more insights from discussing with other scientists who have expertise from various backgrounds instead of shutting yourself in the laboratory to ponder research questions. Through meeting people from different backgrounds with different perspectives, you will learn about the latest developments in other fields and gain exposure to new ideas. This will stimulate you to think out of the box and solve problems differently. This process of exchanging thoughts and ideas is a crucial component of scientific innovation.
Scientists looking to join the industry will especially benefit from networking. In addition to having the right skills for the job, part of career success is being at the right place at the right time. It is estimated that up to 85% of open positions are not listed. Rather, these positions are filled via networking. Employers often value personal referrals above many other ways of finding suitable candidates, and this is especially important for candidates who are looking to switch fields. Being at the top of a great contact’s list will stand you in good stead for being considered for your dream job. In fact, 78% of recruiters said they found their best quality candidates through referrals. Hence, meeting people, impressing them and having them make a referral or connect you to a great contact can really make all the difference if you are looking to enter industry
The art of networking
Now that you have recognized the importance of networking, how do you do it effectively? The idea of being in a room full of strangers and striking up a well-crafted conversation can be intimidating for introverted scientists. If you are wondering if you have to become a social butterfly to network with others, the good news is you don’t have to. Contrary to popular belief, networking is not about schmoozing and gossiping over cheese cubes and wine. It is a process of cultivating professional relationships based on mutual interests. The trick to networking effectively is to be comfortable with your own personality and use your assets to the best advantage. Hence, being yourself and viewing networking as a chance to make friends with similar career interests will put you at ease at meeting new people.
The first step to networking successfully is meeting new people. To meet people, step out of the laboratory and be proactive. For scientists who are looking to expand their network, scientific meetings such as conferences and symposiums are great places to meet scientists from all over the world. Poster sessions are optimal because it is relatively easy to strike up a conversation with the poster presenters. Target posters presented by people in organizations that you would like to learn about, and perhaps, to work in. While large conferences can be intimidating, it may be more relaxing and easier to make connections in smaller groups meeting around a theme. It is important for you to step out of your comfort zone and converse with people you do not know in such occasions. Industry events and professional association meetings also present opportunities for you to meet people in the community, especially if you are looking to join the industry. You can join societies such as Biotech Connection Singapore to meet professionals in the medtech and biotechnology industries. If you are introverted, you may find that meeting people with an aim in mind (e.g. having a question on hand) may make the process less daunting. To get comfortable with meeting new people, volunteer to organize events at such societies. You should also build a compelling LinkedIn profile to build bridges to great contacts and showcase your skills. Social networking can lead to in-person networking. As Woody Allen once said “80% of success is showing up”. Building a great network is all about getting out there and meeting people.
Next, establish rapport with the person you have engaged. This can be achieved through positive body language. Friendly gestures such as handing over a plate or drink are the best icebreakers for shy people. If you are conversing with the presenter, make a positive comment and relate your own experience to the presentation. Checking occasionally to see if the other person’s face registers understanding, engagement, or a strong desire to ask a question is essential in establishing rapport. Good eye contact is crucial, as people who look others in the eye are perceived as friendly and welcoming. A trick for people who are too nervous to maintain eye contact is to look at another spot on their face instead. Offer a pleasant greeting which includes the person’s name. Mentioning somebody’s name is a good way to establish a personal relationship with the person. Lastly, look for similarities. The renowned psychologist Robert Cialdini stated that “we tend to like people who are similar to us, whether it is in the area of opinions, personality, background, or lifestyle.” Hence, seeking common ground is one of the easiest ways to establish rapport with people naturally.
Engaging in topics of mutual interest
The third step to networking is to have an engaging conversation on topics of mutual interest. The key is to be authentic, express genuine interest in the person and ask thoughtful questions. For those who do not excel at spontaneous conversation, it helps to do some research and prepare a list of questions before you meet the person. You can ask open-ended questions like “You have been in this industry for XX years, what got you started in that direction, and what do you like best about what you do?” People will usually talk about themselves if they are asked politely. As a scientist, use your most prominent traits – curiosity and inquisitiveness to your advantage. Your curiosity will lead to authentic conversations with responsive nodding and logical follow-up questions from the other person. Avoid monosyllabic answers when responding as they send the message that you would like to end the conversation, even if that may not be your intention.
Another way of having an engaging conversation is shifting the driving force of the conversation to the person in front of you. Exchange information and find ways to assist one another by asking questions such as “how can I be helpful?” A good networker should always keep in mind the principle of ‘Givers Gain’ – giving value and service to others without any thought of immediate return. It’s an excellent way to build the credibility and trust with a valuable networking partner. Ask others how you can assist them to reach their goals. Help others to also expand their network capacity by being a link to positive connections in your circle of influence. It is important to prepare an elevator speech to describe yourself. This short self-advertisement should be clear, concise, interesting, informative, friendly and pleasant. Always bear in mind that while you are giving a talk about yourself, this moment is also about the person you are speaking to. Think about what would be of interest to the person when giving this talk instead of giving a standard one size fits all answer to everyone you meet. A good self-introduction would include the following information: Who you are, what you do, why you’re meeting them and why they should care that they are meeting you. It is not about what you are looking for, but what you have and how it is relevant to the other person.
While having a conversation, there are two caveats that networkers should take note of. Firstly, don’t introduce yourself as a job-seeker and ask for job openings during the initial conversation. Instead, consider networking as an opportunity to gather information and start a professional relationship. Secondly, be cautious about excessive self-promotion. It is important to bear in mind that networking is an information gathering process, not a sales-pitch or a job interview.
Ending the conversation
Knowing how to end a conversation is as crucial as starting one. It is important to know how to leave a conversation on a positive note and move on to the next conversation gracefully. To make ending the conversation less awkward, you can ask for a business card. You can also pass your name card to the other person. Exchanging name cards is both an act of courtesy and a friendly gesture. If this is the person you want to talk to again, ask them what’s the best way to get in touch. Introducing the person to someone else is also a good way to transition out of the conversation and at the same time, help the person make another connection.
Nurturing the connection
The last component, and often the least recognized one, is nurturing the connection into a long-lasting relationship. Meeting the person and having an initial conversation is great, but what’s more important is to maintain this potentially valuable relationship. Follow up with prompt emails to thank and remind the person of your discussion. Depending on the availability of your new connection, you can also request for an informational interview. It is a good way to keep the conversation going and transforms the connection into a personal relationship. It is also the best way to learn more about how it is like to work in an industry you are interested in. Although information is readily available online, a personal connection will provide more insights into a certain profession, which will help you decide if that is your dream job. One common misconception about senior professionals is that they are too busy to respond to requests from others. However, if you ask, you will find that “Sure I’d love to have a chat with you” is a reply that comes far more often than you would expect. Many senior professionals like giving back to the community and do not mind speaking to an aspiring young person. If the informational interview goes well and you leave a positive impression on the interviewer, you might be one of the top candidates that comes to mind when a position is available.
Like any technique, networking is a skill which can be learned and honed with practice. The key to effective networking can be summarized in three phases – making connections, maintaining the connections and harvesting the fruits of your relationships. Having good networking etiquette and enhanced visibility in your profession will serve you well when meeting potential collaborators and employers. I wish you the very best in your networking adventures!
Featured image: Unsplash/rawpixel
About the Author
Chengxun is a student ambassador in BCS, and a PhD student in Biomedical Engineering, Nanyang Technological University.
She is interested in applying knowledge to innovations in the healthcare industry with a focus on entrepreneurship.