Network Your Way Into the New Year

Networking is simply an authentic conversation about a topic of mutual interest, writes Rebekah Layton, who challenges readers to build their network using informational interviews this holiday season.

December 16, 2019
( Stavnichuk)

Ugh, networking -- do I have to? Yes, you do! The word “networking” often brings to mind something that feels like a sales pitch, boring small talk or attempts to impress others. This can feel scary, overwhelming and anxiety provoking for many people -- especially for graduate students who are taught to become experts in their fields. Asking something about unknown topics such as new career paths can feel intimidating.

And yet networking is simply an authentic conversation about a topic of mutual interest. So why does it feel so difficult, and what strategies can help overcome this feeling of reticence to network?

Taking a lesson from a coaching framework, one way to address this issue is to converse with curiosity. When you let your conversation flow from a place of curiosity, there are no right or wrong questions, nor right or wrong answers. That has the added benefit of feeling authentic and allowing you to connect with your conversation partner in a personal and engaging way. No matter where the discussion turns, you can depend on authentic curiosity to lead the way. Especially when you might feel intimidated or impressed by the person you are seeking to connect with or learn from, who may be a personal role model or who may feel like your professional variation on superhero, connecting with them as a person rather than as an accomplished professional can make them feel more accessible.

For instance, the first time I met one of my personal research superheroes was at a conference where she delivered an inspiring and heartfelt talk about her career. I immediately rushed the stage to gush about what a huge fan I was. Afterward I was mortified to reflect back upon what was neither a very memorable nor interesting way to connect. Later in my professional life, I had a chance at a do-over at another conference where we crossed paths. Did we talk about our mutual research interests, professional collaboration prospects or how impressive my CV was? No, we did not. Rather, we had an impromptu lunch conversation about our family upbringings and compared views on spiritual approaches to life -- which was indelibly more memorable, unique and interesting. Because of that authentic personal connection, I later felt empowered to reach out to connect, ask advice about grants and continue to build our authentic conversation into a professional one.

You can connect over common shared personal identities, like how to handle toddler tantrums if you are a parent, or less common identity groups you may share, like those immortalized by Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah song. You can bond over personal interests or hobbies like rowing, marathon running, Broadway musicals or even your favorite kind of pets. Whatever the case, if you can find a topic of authentic, mutual interest to build an interesting conversation and connection, you are networking. And when the conversation turns to professional interests, career advice or higher-stakes conversations like job opportunities either now or in the future, you become two connected human beings building a relationship -- rather than engaging in what may otherwise feel like a transactional process of trying to prove your immediate value to someone of greater experience or stature.

Similarly, you can use shared identities from your past to revitalize your network through existing connections. If you plan to travel home for the holidays, that can be a good excuse to reconnect with old networks from your hometown, high school, undergraduate institutions and old jobs, as well as former mentors or even family members or friends in other career paths. If you are not travelling, perhaps consider using the holiday season or new year as an excuse to touch base with annual updates via email or LinkedIn to those who are already important to you (read more about nurturing your network) -- especially with those who serve, or could potentially serve, as career mentors or on your personal board of directors. Regardless of where you are physically, the pause generated by the holiday season is great opportunity to build and renew your network connections. Think about what steps you might take over the coming weeks leading into the new year (and a new decade -- but no pressure!) to develop your network.

Networking still sound intimidating? Try informational interviews. No matter what you call them -- informational interviews, coffee chats or career mentoring sessions -- don’t wait to start having these conversations. They are a great way to start to learn about others’ career pathways. Further, don’t stop having such conversations even after you are established in your career. It is valuable to continue to connect with people at and above your professional level, especially those who have branched out into different specialties you might find interesting. Informational interviews are a great way to learn about skills, training and/or market niche areas that you might want to consider one day.

As you evolve professionally, your career interests and needs may also evolve and change. So it’s helpful to be open to and curious about others’ career progression to expose yourself to different opportunities that you might eventually want to pursue, even if now is not the time.

Many graduate students find informational interviews extremely effective when trying to determine what possible career pathways might be a good fit. (Read more on finding your plan A and plan A-prime.) Informational interviews taken collectively also have the added benefit of helping you identify the common skills and experiences you need to be competitive in your chosen career pathway, once identified, while you simultaneously build your professional network to call upon in the future.

With informational interviews, most people tend to fall into one of two camps: a) “I just want to talk to another human being to figure out where to even start on my career search!” or b) “I absolutely need to have read everything there is to know about any possible career of interest before I have a conversation with a human being about it!” Depending on where you fall on that spectrum, you might want to do a little reading up on a handful of careers of interest before getting started, but don’t feel you have to have a comprehensive understanding of the job market or career path before reaching out. For many people, the infinite career possibilities can feel overwhelming, while asking just one person, “Your job sounds really interesting -- can you tell me more about it and how you got there?” can seem like a more achievable task. You might use informational interviews to add possible career paths to your list or, if you have a long list of possibilities, you may want to start with those you are unsure of to remove those that are less good of a fit for you. Both results are equally valuable data points in your career search.

Not sure how to ask for an informational interview, or what questions to ask? Following your gut in a free-flowing conversation can sound horribly intimidating to some people. One way around that is to structure your conversations using preselected informational interview questions that answer your most burning questions about a person’s career path. For instance, it's common to ask things like how they got to their first (or current) position, what their day-to-day life is like and what skills or experiences they look for in applicants to their Ph.D.-appropriate, entry-level position. NextGenPhD has an outstanding chapter on informational interviews, if you’re still feeling stuck and looking for more ideas of who and what to ask. You can also read more on how to conduct informational interviews (and how not to) before getting started.

Still afraid you might be wasting someone’s time or concerned you’re placing a burden on them by asking? Take a moment to think about the last time someone asked you what it was like to be a scientist, researcher, graduate student, postdoc or any other career stage. How did it make you feel? Most people respond that it made them feel helpful, positive about giving back to the next generation and empowered or flattered that someone would ask them. When I ask, “Would you say yes if someone asked you to talk about your own path?” they usually answer, “Of course!” When I ask, “Do you see having that conversation as a burden?” most respond, “Of course not!”

If you feel hesitant, just think about how you feel when people ask you to share your experience, advice or expertise; remember how you have felt on the other side of the aisle. Know that if they don’t want to talk with you or are too busy, the most likely outcome will be that some may not respond. If they do respond, they probably will feel just like you would: glad to help.

Start with what -- and who -- you know. No matter what, starting with someone you know can be a great way to overcome any initial hesitation or reluctance. And if you have never done an informational interview, I have a challenge for you: pick a person to reach out to and do an informational interview in the coming month, heading into the new year. (Please feel free to adapt or modify this as appropriate if you’ve done some already.) If you’re in a lab, has a recent graduate or postdoc gone on to an industry position you might be interested in learning about? Does your aunt or uncle have a job at a company you’re interested in, even if in a totally different sector or role? Pick someone who feels low stakes to start with (e.g., someone you know already whom you won’t feel nervous speaking with and who you are pretty sure will say yes). Then plan a formal 15- to 30-minute conversation to ask your questions -- and voilà! You’ll have completed your first informational interview.

From there, you can build up slowly, expanding your informational interview network using snowball sampling effects. (After good conversations, ask for introductions to new contacts you can follow up with.) Or use your LinkedIn network (including the alumni networking tool) to reach out to new contacts and request to connect -- then follow up with an informational interview.

If you’ve already done informational interviews, consider setting a goal of a specific number of contacts to reach out to, or create a list of the top people and career paths you want to begin with. There’s no wrong way to get started. But do get started.

Don’t waste the great opportunity that comes but once a year. Use your holiday season and the new year as a time to take stock and kick off (or continue) your networking journey. I wish you many informational interviews and new connections in the year ahead!

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Rebekah Layton is the director of professional development programs in the Office of Graduate Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a member, and currently serves as the director for the southeast region, of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.


Rebekah Layton

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