Networking authentically - the road to success

How many times at a poster session or coffee break at a conference have you experienced that awkwardness and unease, knowing that you “need to network” but you don’t really know how to do it? I used to end up just feeling anxious and extremely self-conscious, welcoming with relief the time to go back to the talks.

We often perceive networking as an unpleasant task, involving awful small talk with strangers with the hope of trading favors to advance in our career. Seeing it in this light, we can’t help but feeling not authentic, needy or even guilty of exploiting people.

That’s because we got the meaning of networking completely wrong.

Networking is actually the most efficient way of getting a job, as 70% of professionals land their position through referrals or being informed of not advertised job openings by someone in their network, according to this LinkedIn survey.

But networking is not about asking favors to strangers or handing out CVs or business cards. The key is to build relationships and cultivate them over time. This means that it will require some time to establish your circle, and the strategy to achieve it is to keep in loose touch.

Illustration of Sara M. Ayala Mariscal

“The effect of loose touch is to put you into someone’s consciousness for a few minutes, and vice versa.”

- writes Karen Wickre, former Editorial Director of Twitter with almost 10 years of experience in Communications at Google.

She wrote an entire book on the art of keeping loose touch: “Taking the Work Out of Networking: An Introvert’s Guide to Making Connections That Count. And if you don’t want to read the entire book you can grasp the main concepts here.

If you want to be successful in your career, you better start understanding the importance of networking and how to do it efficiently.

With these few tips you can start today to develop your own, unique, networking style. You will discover that it’s much more fun than you expected!

Train yourself to connect with people

Like everything in life, to improve a skill you need practice. And the easiest way to start is taking small but consistent action in a setting where you are comfortable.

In the current situation it might be slightly more difficult to meet people due to social distancing measures, but things are slowly getting back to normal, allowing brief interactions in the working place. Say “Hi” when meeting people in the corridors, take a couple of minutes to ask “How is your project going? How are you dealing with home office and rearranging schedules?”. This will create a connection with people who are not your direct coworkers or collaborators, without taking a lot of time and effort and especially without wanting anything from them.

Asking questions will also shift the focus from you to the person you want to connect to. If you direct your genuine attention to the other person, you will have no time to concentrate on the impression you are making and to feel self-conscious.

Practicing it with other PhD students or postdocs in the institute will train you to control shyness or awkwardness when you have the chance to meet that big professor or the CEO of the company of your dreams. In this case though, you want to come prepared, doing some research and with some questions in mind.

To summarize briefly how to train to connect with people:

  • Practice everyday without other reason but connecting with people.

  • Ask questions to engage in conversation. It’s not about small talk but about curiosity: be curious about what people have to tell you!

  • Learn to listen. Networking is not about spamming people with your information. Only if you listen you can discover the common ground that is the foundation of a solid relationship.

Define a networking strategy

Once you understand that networking is all about connecting with people, you have to ask yourself why. The motivation will depend on your career stage and personal interests, and it’s important to have it clear in mind to design an efficient networking strategy.

Ask yourself:

  1. What’s my goal?

  2. How am I going to pursue it?

  3. When will I do it?

1. Your goal will determine which people you want to connect to. If you want to change field, you will look for people working in your field of interest. If you want to transition to a different career, you will approach professionals working in the job you are interested in, and so on.

2. The “how” will depend on your goal and will define the practical aspects that will allow you to achieve this goal. It could be attending networking events - maybe happening online for the time being -, using social media, engaging in committees at your institute or volunteering in associations of interest for you.

3. Last but not least, the “when” is extremely important. You need to schedule specific times for networking, otherwise it will always end up at the end of your to-do list and after months you will realise you didn’t make any progress. If the “how” you chose requires attending networking events at your university, mark them in your calendar and make it a point to attend! If you plan an online networking strategy, schedule some time every day to connect to new people, share content with your circle or follow up with your contacts.

And remember what Karen Wickre wrote:

“The whole point of loose touch is that it’s not a burden. [...] Just spending 10 minutes a day on loose touch can keep you connected with a lot of people.”

You can write down the answers to these three questions and keep your networking strategy up to date!

For example, when I started my PhD I just moved to a different country where I did not speak the language and I did not know anyone. At that time I didn’t think about networking in such a structured way, but subconsciously I answered to those questions:

  1. What? My goal was to meet people and understand how the academic system works in a different country (and at a different career stage such as in graduate school).

  2. How? I decided to get involved as a student representative to meet as many people as possible and to participate to define the structure of the graduate program.

  3. When? NOW and at every opportunity to organize and participate in events on the campus!

I can tell you after four and a half years, this strategy was very successful!

Now, at the end of the PhD, my networking strategy has to change.

Focus on adding value

Until now we discussed the purpose and methodology of networking, but what is the content that fills it with value?

Going back to the concept of relationship - not an utilitaristic way of getting favors from people - to be successful at networking you need to add value to the people you connect with.

The meaning of “adding value” was very difficult for me to understand, but in very simple words it’s to change the perspective from “what can I take from this person” to “what can I do for this person”. Here you can set free your creativity in finding ways to help people. If you do it for free, everyone will be happy to help you when the time comes.

Some examples to get you started:

  • Share relevant or interesting information and resources

  • Engage in discussion

  • Give feedback

  • Refer people in your network to other people in your network

  • Proactively propose initiatives

  • Lend reagents or equipment

Adding value can be the perfect way to showcase your skills and talents, building a strong Personal Brand. If you don’t know what I’m talking about and are curious to know more, read this article by Sara M Ayala Mariscal.

Use social media

During the pandemic, networking on social media is experiencing a huge expansion, as most of our current interactions are happening online.

For professionals, the number one platform is without doubt LinkedIn, with 650 million members all over the world. While it can be used to connect to people, share content and find jobs, one of its biggest strengths is that 95% of the recruiters are using this platform to identify candidates. If you are curious about more statistics and fun facts about LinkedIn you can find them in this article.

Another interesting platform you might want to consider to boost your Personal Brand and your career is Twitter. Many scientists are now using it to share their publications and keep up to date with the latest trends, here you can find some numbers and tips on how to use Twitter for professional development.

Prepare to run a marathon, not a sprint

Now that you are familiar with the main characteristics of authentic networking, you know that it will take time to build relationships. This means that it’s never too early to start, because you don’t want to find yourself under time pressure having to ask strangers for help.

“Loose touch may lead to an immediate in-person conversation, but it may not until much later (or at all).”

- says Karen Wickre.

Therefore, don’t forget two crucial steps:

  • Follow up. The whole point of loose touch is to remind people every now and then of your existence, adding value. Don’t forget to thank people after every interaction. This will immediately give a positive spin on the relationship.

  • Don't expect immediate return. It takes time to build your circle, some people will be busy and not reply to your messages, some connections you build now will not give you any result until much later. But that’s not the point! If you put effort in your network you will get benefits well beyond a job recommendation.

“It goes back to the basics of being a good person, being a good neighbor. You should always be looking out for your friends and former colleagues and neighbors. If you’re a good person, you are always ready to help them - and then it’s easy to receive or ask for help later.”

If you are ready to start networking but feel the need for more tips and resources, have a look at this collection of articles from Science Careers.

And if you are looking for a safe space to practice, learn more tools and receive feedback from a community of like-minded peers, join us in the Facebook group Career Booster for Science PhDs!

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