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Human beings are inherently social. In typical situations, social interaction could mean spending time with family members, friends, your significant other, your pets, or even just being in a social environment and not necessarily engaging, such as sitting on a bench in the middle of a busy park. With COVID-19-mediated restrictions over the last year, limited social contact has become the norm. It has led to significant challenges in terms of maximizing personal wellness and navigating a tumultuous job market.

Social interactions can serve multiple purposes; in addition to being a stress buster and forming friendships, they can also be starting points for expanding our professional network. For many of us, engaging in conversation provides a much-needed respite from long days of teaching, writing, reading and research and builds a sense of camaraderie with our peers. With a pandemic in our midst, how do we form meaningful social and professional connections?

After completing a postdoctoral fellowship in the fall of 2019, I moved to a new city to pursue a senior research associate position. It was also a smaller city, one that offered limited opportunities for in-person networking events. Right when I thought I had made headway in creating social and professional contacts, COVID-19 hit. Everything shut down, and I found myself in a situation in which a combination of anxiety and isolation set in.

After some reflection, I sought to find ways to network virtually and make new contacts. I’d like to share some actions that I identified that have helped me to be more productive during COVID-19 and form new connections that have benefited my career.

Remember to reach out. First and foremost is reaching out to friends and family. Checking in with a classmate from my undergraduate days gave me great comfort during COVID-19. I also learned about her transition from academe to the drug safety field after relocating to a new country. By reconnecting with her, I learned how to pivot to a new career.

Take time for your favorite hobbies. All of us have a creative side that can get sidelined with work and other more pressing priorities. While working on a manuscript during quarantine, I found that taking short breaks to sketch or sing helped raise my productivity. I was able to better focus on my writing when interspersed with these hobbies.

Hobbies are also a great way to network. Often, social connections made through common interests can lead you to a person who can provide a stepping-stone to a new career. Through a tennis friends' network, I guided a high school student in the very early stages of applying for a research project. That experience reinforced my passion for career development. The enjoyment I received from this interaction made me reach out to career development professionals to educate myself about the field.

Seek out virtual social communities. When the pandemic started, traveling to network was out of the question, yet living in a small city, I was struggling to find opportunities to meet people outside my institution. I stumbled upon an East Coast virtual happy hour announcement on STEMPeers -- a career development and peer mentoring platform. COVID-19 offered the perfect opportunity for us to share our personal experiences of coping with the pandemic.

Through the friendships I formed through those conversations, I have grown professionally and given back. I offered my insights on being a postdoctoral trainee to a senior graduate student and helped them practice how to conduct informational interviews. I also got more involved in organizing the happy hours, which led to an opportunity to co-present a webinar on navigating immigration and employment issues. This topic was helpful to many members of the group. Organizing that event improved my visibility and facilitated several new professional connections.

Sign up for career and professional development courses. A few months ago, I took a virtual edX course, The Postdoc Academy: Succeeding as a Postdoc. Through it, I connected with postdoctoral trainees in different fields, including the social sciences, medicine and law. In our virtual discussion sessions, we gained valuable professional and career insights from each other that transcended our disciplines. We were able to share individual career struggles and our various perspectives on a diverse range of topics, including work-life balance, professional development at our respective institutions and effective ways to apply for funding opportunities. Our conversations pushed me to reconnect with a colleague and facilitate a career development event at my institution. They also inspired me to create other similar networking spaces for people.

Attend networking events. The pandemic has forced most of us to work more virtually. It has also opened the doors for virtual conferences and networking events sponsored by professional organizations. Remember to take advantage of such events -- they are now often heavily discounted or even free.

It is also an excellent time to contact professionals in your field to see if they are willing to participate in informational interviews virtually. I connected with the Carpe Careers writing group of the Graduate Career Consortium that way -- had it not been for those interviews, this article would not have come to fruition. I also had the opportunity to co-facilitate nationwide discussions on coaching and mentoring with colleagues in the consortium and the Graduate and Postdoctoral Development Network as a result of contacts I made using informational interviews.

All that said, while virtual networking is a boon, too much of it can lead to burnout. Here are some tips I've found helpful to prevent virtual meeting fatigue and maximize your networking efforts.

  • Limit the number of informational interviews and virtual networking events that you do in a week. It's important to give yourself time to process the information you've gathered from your meetings.
  • Balancing work and networking can get overwhelming; find a system that works for you and gives you enough time to destress. For example, I allowed myself an hour every day to network after work and four to six hours on the weekend, leaving enough time for exercise throughout the week.

Volunteer your services. If you have some free time, consider volunteering for relevant opportunities that will further your career. With several events going online, you’ll find plenty of options for donating your time to help organize events or write or edit materials -- and make new connections in the process.

Isolation due to COVID does not mean shutting yourself off from the world. While we restructure and rethink our work environment, we also need to seek out and respond to opportunities to interact and foster connections with other people. Through such opportunities, we may not only broaden our career horizons but also develop meaningful relationships that become lifelong support systems. It can start with a simple Google search for virtual networking events or sending out a well-crafted personalized LinkedIn invitation for an informational interview -- and ultimately lead to a genuinely transformative social and professional experience.

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