What's Holding You Back?

Ph.D. students should take advantage of “starter conversation” opportunities to interact with alumni and experienced professionals, Natalie Lundsteen advises.

August 3, 2020
 
 
istock.com/reneer

For some reason, many Ph.D.s seem reticent to take advantage of networking and career informational opportunities. Is it fear, is it awkwardness or is it a lack of understanding of how important it is to do this? It might be all three, but with the way the world is going for the foreseeable future, I'm here today to remind Ph.D.s once again that making human connections is crucial to your career development.

During the looming recession, when jobs of all kinds will be competitive, the key to making your next career move will be having as much information as possible, including knowing people in your chosen occupation or organization. Very simply: you must network, and you must get to know new people to advance your career. If your reaction to starting a conversation with strangers is one of aversion, then taking very small steps and gaining comfort with networking activities may be the best way to get started.

I had a conversation recently with a Ph.D. neuroscientist working in life science venture capital, a person who is extremely generous with her time and advice. She casually mentioned that at the close of every talk she gives to graduate students and postdocs, she offers to have one-on-one conversations with anyone who is interested in learning more about her career area or who wants to talk about career transitions and development. Rarely, she says, do people follow up. That was both surprising and not surprising to me. I could imagine our trainees not believing she really means it's OK to contact her, and I could also imagine them feeling uncertainty about how and when to reach out.

It's one thing to be given vague directions to “go out and network” and know you need to somehow make connections with strangers, learn about careers and get an inside edge for job applications -- that sounds overwhelming if you've never done those things before! But it's quite another thing to have a real live person invite you to get in touch. It's easy -- or at least easier than having to activate the process yourself.

So, why would you not schedule a chat with someone who has offered to help you? If a person offers you this kind of chance during an alumni career panel or any other event, take note and try to put your fears and feelings of discomfort aside. Seize the day, so to speak -- these offers are not made lightly and actually are rare. The people who make such offers are genuine, authentic and probably very nice. Make a commitment to yourself that you will take that alum up on their offer. (And my advice is to do so sooner rather than later.)

If the concept of informational interviewing is new to you, you probably won't feel comfortable contacting them right away. But when you eventually do get to a place of willingness to make contact, it's a sure bet that this person will be friendly and genuine and will listen to your perhaps-clumsy questions with interest and kindness. These are the absolute best people to have “starter” career exploration conversations with, because they have volunteered their time. They are usually willing to help you because they have been in your shoes and know how hard it is to take those first steps in reaching out to a stranger for a chat. And once you've had one starter career conversation, the next one will be much easier, and soon -- or at least a few conversations later -- you should be networking like a pro.

Creating Conversations

Last month, my institution participated in a pilot program designed to connect our postdocs and graduate students with alumni from our six University of Texas health science institutions. The University of Texas Career Exploration Networking program setup was simple: over three hourlong lunchtime sessions, postdocs and grad students spoke for 15 minutes with alumni, and a team of university staff coordinated the entire event. That “speed networking” situation allowed our trainees to have multiple structured starter conversations with Ph.D. graduates representing many different career paths and years of experience. The feedback from our trainees was overwhelmingly positive: many said they were incredibly nervous beforehand, but afterward they couldn't contain their enthusiasm about how much they enjoyed the experience.

I know the structured conversations helped make this program successful, because the trainees didn’t have to create the opportunity. The limited time also set boundaries, minimizing their nervousness about how and when to end the talk, or their fear of taking up too much of a busy professional's time. We prepped the grad students and postdocs ahead of time with a list of suggested questions (Top tip: ask questions that you can't get the answer to from reading someone's LinkedIn profile, such as, “What's your favorite thing about your work?” or “How did you make the decision to move into your current role?”)

Feedback from our alumni professionals was, of course, effusive. They loved the opportunity to share wisdom and knowledge, and many said they can remember their own feelings of uncertainty when reaching out to strangers and wanted to help mitigate that for younger scientists. They enjoyed helping trainees over the hurdle or mental block they know many of them had about how daunting networking conversations appear to be. (They really are not.) The positive experience helped all our Ph.D. and postdoc participants realize how simple and painless networking can be.

If your campus is not yet doing anything like this, see if you can't get it started either by suggesting it and working with a graduate career professional in a graduate school, academic program or campus career center -- or maybe through a professional-focused student/postdoc group like a biotech careers or consulting club. The use of virtual meeting platforms has opened up possibilities for interacting with alumni far and wide, and tools like Zoom breakout rooms can be easily used for speed networking. If you can't convince anyone to help you organize such a program through your graduate school, start simple: organize a “speed schmoozing” session with a group of friends and acquaintances just to practice introductions and get used to what it feels like to talk to someone you don’t know.

In order to talk about careers with people you don't know, you will need to find them first, and a great place to start is LinkedIn profiles. You can ease into the idea of reaching out to strangers, because the first step of this process is researching, something you should be familiar with as a graduate student or postdoc. Don't stress yet about having to talk to them -- that will come later. Looking for Ph.D. alumni, you will quickly find people similar to you and can see where they have gone in the world. Very likely, you will see online profiles from Ph.D. alumni that literally state, “I'm happy to help -- ask me for any advice.” Rarely do trainees reach out, or even recognize how cool it is that a stranger is advertising willingness to answer questions on social media.

I get it -- it's scary to initiate a conversation with a stranger, especially when there is a perceived power dynamic and you feel you have nothing to offer in return for their advice and information. But it's been said before, and I'll say it again: the worst that can happen when you reach out to someone for an informational interview is they will say no. They may not reply, and that's OK, too. (Don't take it personally!) But most likely, they will agree to meet with you because they remember what it was like to be in your shoes.

At universities across the country, my graduate career development colleagues and I are here to help with taking that first step in reaching out to alumni or others for informational chats. We can assist grad students and postdocs in writing the email requesting a conversation, and we are happy to help you practice asking questions in an informational interview. We might even already have a workshop or a resource to share with you, and we probably know the names of at least a few alumni who would be happy to have a great starter conversation.

Bio

Natalie Lundsteen is assistant dean for career and professional development at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. She is a member and currently serves as president of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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