How to Be a Better Networker

It's about building relationships, writes Gaia Vasiliver-Shamis, and as such, you should do it all the time and be in it for the long run.

September 19, 2016
 
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When I bring up the topic of networking with scientists, I often feel like I just dared to say “Voldemort” out loud in Harry Potter’s world. Even though He Who Must Not Be Named is clearly a fictional character, networking is a real-life necessity for anyone who wishes to have a successful career.

It took Harry seven books and 10 years to get rid of his archenemy, but my ambitious goal is for you is to stop dreading the activity that must not be named, even by a little bit, by the end of this post by demystifying what networking entails. Here are my recommendations.

Recognize that networking opportunities are everywhere, all the time. Trainees often have a couple of common misconceptions about networking: 1) they think networking is something you only do when you are looking for a job and 2) they think that networking means going to networking events. To clarify, networking is about building relationships, and as such, you should do it all the time and be in it for the long run. That doesn’t mean you need to be best friends with everyone in your network, but it does mean that you should have some sort of a mutually beneficial relationships -- and relationships take time to build. From that perspective, it should be clear that attending networking events is not the only way, or even the most effective way, to expand your network.

Your network starts locally with the people know from your lab or office, the floor you are on, your department, the journal club you attend, the lunchroom and the like. Then, what do you do outside your training? Do you play a sport in a student league? Are you involved in a religious organization? Do you have kids and meet other parents through their care or activities?

Every conversation you have, in any of the above settings, can potentially be a networking opportunity. Since the elevator pitch you would use with a new CrossFit buddy in the gym should be different from the one you would use with a new faculty member in your department, you should have an elevator pitch that is tailored to different situations. (Check this column for more on the elevator pitch.)

It takes five seconds to make a first impression, and you’ll need eight subsequent positive ones to change a negative impression, so don’t ruin your opportunity. Also, be sure to have an elevator pitch that conveys the professional brand you would like to have. (And don’t forget your business cards.)

Do your rounds. A few weeks into the school year, my 5-year-old daughter asked my husband and me to drop her off at the “big kids” car pool, which was more convenient for us anyway. We then realized that this allowed her to do her “morning rounds” rather than go straight to her classroom, which is how she befriended the whole school staff.

While my little master networker is a social butterfly, if you are on the introverted side of things, it means you will need to get out of your shell a bit. But a little effort goes a long way, so say hello and have a quick chat with your lab neighbor, the presenters next to you at the next poster session or the person in the coffee line at the conference. For my daughter, her rounds resulted in her being able to borrow books even if it wasn’t library day. For you it might mean an internal referral or an important introduction one day. You never know!

Remember that it’s not all about you. Networking is about building mutually beneficial relationships. That means that it is not all about you. Whether you are networking at a conference with the most prominent investigator in your field, a colleague at happy hour or someone you just met at a networking event, don’t just talk about yourself. Be a good listener, show genuine interest, ask questions and be generous with compliments -- even the simplest one can go a long way.

Make an effort to meet the (or a) new person. Going back to my little master networker (who said you can’t learn from your kids?), it took 24 hours between when I received an email that our school had a new nurse and when I received a call from her saying my daughter wasn’t feeling well. My daughter quickly admitted that she just wanted to meet the new nurse.

Remember how it felt to be the newest person in your group? Then make the effort to make the new person feels welcome and help them get around and figure things out, like making sure they subscribe to the right Listservs or teaching them a new technique in the lab. Further, if you would like to expand your network one person at a time, informational interviews are a great way to go about it. You get to learn about a career path or what it is like to work for a certain company and meet someone new. (For more about informational interviews, check this series.)

Help someone. Trainees often feel that they don’t have anything to offer to someone who is already working in the real world, but this is often not true. How you can help them may not be that obvious. It might require some effort on your behalf, but you can be valuable to them. Help comes in many shapes and forms: it can be sending an new article to someone on the latest technology that you discussed in an informational interview or connecting people by introducing them to each other.

Help can also come in the form of gratitude: a heartfelt thank-you note can make your connection happy simply by knowing they made a positive impact on you. Your offer to help should be genuine, and you should not make promises you can’t keep. Otherwise, it will reflect badly on you in the long run (which defeats the purpose of networking).

There is a plenty of information on how helping others drive our success. Adam Grant’s book Give and Take is an excellent read about the topic, and research has shown it makes us happy. Hence, it is a win-win for everyone involved.

These are simple tweaks you can make to take advantage of everyday networking opportunities, and in the long run, to build more meaningful relationships and network. After all, remember that your network is your net worth.

Bio

Gaia Vasiliver-Shamis is director of career development in the office of postdoctoral education at the Emory University School of Medicine.

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