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Early in my doctoral program, I was advised to attend every career development event, to talk to everyone I met, to start planning my career now and to start networking yesterday. As a fresh Ph.D. candidate, I found that the future after graduate school seemed distant and finishing the next lab experiment felt much more pressing. But I pushed myself to attend career-related mixers and events.

As a self-proclaimed introvert, small talk with strangers and vying for attention was not something I readily welcomed, making such events not especially enjoyable or productive. It felt as if I was just one of hundreds of other students in a sea of faces in front of an overwhelmed professional. Looking back, I can now see that the problem was not that networking was a necessary evil. It was that I didn’t have enough clarity in my approach to networking or realistic expectations as to what I hoped to gain from the experience.

Ultimately, networking is about establishing a group of people who will support your career growth and, in turn, you will support theirs. Yet networking has a bad reputation. I came to networking with the faulty mind-set that I had to know what I want to do with my career (even though I had just started my Ph.D. and, in fact, had no clue) and that the people I was superficially introduced to would make or break my future prospects.

While many articles offer some good suggestions for how to structure your network and build relationships with people, the challenge I found in graduate school was knowing when and how to implement that advice in the context and timeline of a degree program. I also found I was coming up against three common misconceptions.

  • Networking is an activity you do for a short period of time to get a job, and then you’re done. I know that I had this mind-set of attending X number of events to make X number of connections and then check “networking” off the list. But establishing meaningful relationships doesn’t happen overnight.
  • To network you must attend structured career panels or sanctioned events with “networking” in the title. Yet forging relationships and creating connections can happen in a multitude of locations, environments and scenarios. Additionally, informal sources of networking are invaluable.
  • All types of networking activities are equally useful at all stages of your graduate journey. The truth is that how you interact with people may change depending on where you are in your career and the type of support you need.

Now that I’ve recognized those misconceptions for what they are, I’m proposing a framework to approach networking in three more long-term phases.

Phase 1: Exposure

It’s your first or second year of graduate school (or your postdoc position), and you’re overwhelmed with information about career options and unsure what you want to do in the future. Don’t become stressed about meeting every person and forging an extensive network immediately; this initial phase is about collecting information, so focus on that.

Career panels and seminars can be great ways to gain exposure to different career fields. These shouldn’t be stressful events where you feel you must talk with every panelist afterward and try to add to your roster of affiliations. Use these career panels and seminars as a launching point for discovering the wide range of jobs available to someone with your experience or educational background.

I will be the first to admit that I was lucky to be at a well-resourced institution that continuously hosted various types of events for students. I was additionally privileged to be in a position where I had the time to attend career panels and seminars to explore my options. I know this isn’t always the case. But especially in recent years with events being virtual, if you have the opportunity to listen in on a career or alumni panel, I would recommend it as a starting point to spark your interest. Again, this work is about exposure to options, not about making connections.

After attending panels and listening to the career journeys of alumni, a couple of fields stood out and caught my attention. As that started happening, I began shifting to the next phase.

Phase 2: Immersion

Colleges and universities are built for exploration. Outside the formal structures of degree programs, you can find a web of student organizations, clubs and alumni groups that offer learning opportunities. Once you have identified potential career fields, find ways to get involved in the ones that relate to those fields. Testing out different fields can give you valuable information about what career paths might be right for you. Instead of listening to a medical writer at an event, volunteer for your department newsletter. Rather than hearing a management consultant explain their job, take on a consulting case and work as a team to solve an organization’s business challenge.

For example, during my fourth year of graduate school, I became intrigued about the idea of working in the pharmaceutical industry. I participated in a case study where I took on the role of a medical science liaison, or MSL, and talked with leaders in the field about a new therapy. That provided an opportunity to work with a real MSL and interview real doctors about real products.

I know attending a panel and listening to an MSL explain their job would never have been as meaningful as trying out the role for myself. Participating in programs, committees and clubs can open your eyes to many different perspectives and people. As you become involved, you will ask questions, observe what people in the field do, actively engage and work with professionals, and produce tangible outputs—all while creating a strong network.

The follow-up to this story is that I found I didn’t want a job as a medical science liaison and wasn’t as interested in the field as I had initially thought. By participating in the case study, however, I became involved with the student organization hosting the program. And a few years later, I was organizing that program and actively working with professionals in the pharmaceutical industry and career development fields. By following my interests and contributing to a portfolio of projects, I organically became connected with people who were active players in those realms, which led to future opportunities.

Phase 3: Connecting

Volunteering and becoming involved is a natural way to foster those coveted network nodes. Engagement can be small (doing a demonstration at a public event) or large (organizing a conference), but in any case, you won’t be doing such activities alone. If you volunteer to run a departmental retreat, professors and administrators will see you in action and know you are reliable. If you organize a career panel for other students, the professionals you contact will know how you communicate.

I volunteered on a departmental trainee committee and helped recruit guest speakers, which required communication with the department’s program manager. After establishing a rapport by organizing a small seminar series, the program manager knew firsthand what I was capable of when I volunteered to help with the department retreat; he knew he could trust me with larger tasks. It’s always better to show, not tell, and everyone has something to give. Actively helping others, asking, “What can I do for you?” and solving people’s pressing challenges are ways to demonstrate your abilities while also building relationships.

It is also important to remember that your network consists of not only superiors but also peers. As a student, I often would forget my fellow classmates and colleagues were part of my network and that I could reach out to them for advice and help. But the fact is that the people I have volunteered with have consistently supported my career growth. Additionally, I am able to assist them as they progress in their careers. Having the shared experience of working on a team is extremely helpful when developing a meaningful relationship.

Ultimately, you do need connections as you move from higher education to the real world. Whether you are leaving academe or going on to do a postdoc, connections help you find jobs. As I finished my Ph.D., I was able to look back at the extracurricular activities I did and reflect on what engaged me the most. I was easily able to reach out to people I had worked with along the way and seek out informational interviews to learn more about their roles and responsibilities. Having interacted or worked with many of them beforehand, they had direct knowledge of my skills and were able to give tailored advice and confidently recommend other people to reach out to. This process allowed me to strengthen my professional ties and get to know new people. I also came to those new contacts with a portfolio of past experiences and past teammates that I could tap into and, in some cases, reciprocate the help they gave me.

Reframing networking as a phased approach may help alleviate the stress of trying to meet everyone all at once. Instead, use your time to explore different career paths, become involved in the areas that interest you and connect with the professionals and peers you meet along the way.

There are many ways to create a network, but I hope colleges and universities will shift away from focusing on traditional mixers as ways to foster professional affiliations and instead encourage students to become involved—be it through pro bono consulting clubs, job simulation programs, leadership positions in student organizations, public engagement activities, student mentoring or departmental committees. Networking isn’t a one-and-done activity. It’s about building ties, exploring new career options and using your skills to give back.

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