When you’re looking for that first job in science, or a summer vacation placement, networking can be the hidden factor that makes all the difference. But what is networking, and how do you do it? We’ve put together 5 top tips for people at the start of your science career.
1. Be prepared and stay focused.
If you know there are going to be networking opportunities wherever you are going, take a few minutes to think about your objectives.
Are there specific people you want to speak to (politely ask for an attendee list if you are not given one and/or ask the organisers to help if you can’t find the person you are looking for)? If you are looking for a placement or work experience, practice a succinct pitch introducing who you are and what you are seeking.
Don’t grab a massive plate of food if you need to traverse a room and don’t glug too much alcohol – it’s a work event not a party and these people might be your future employers/supervisors.
Do get some ‘business cards’ created (they don’t have to be pretentious, just smart and informative) and take a stack wherever you go. It’s such a quick and easy way to give your contact details to someone, and it usually guarantees a reciprocation!
2. Start conversations with a pleasantry or an observation, but don’t stay there.
It’s OK to start conversations with strangers with a bit of small talk (“What a great spread! Did you have any problems getting here in this weather?”) or a general observation (“Wasn’t that a great talk!) but move swiftly to business. If this makes you feel awkward, remember that the person you are talking to may also be on a mission and and will appreciate you getting to the point. It also means they can be honest if they can’t help you, and you are then able to move on.
If you feel shy starting a conversation with your own opinion (“I think this poster represents some very innovative research.”) then ask what your companion thinks. Almost everyone likes someone being interested in them (“What struck you most about that presentation? What research are you involved in? Did you find that last session as stimulating as I did?”).
Again, if you are networking with potential supervisors think about the kind of questions you can ask to find out more about what they do (“What specific area of x do you work on? What sort of results are you getting? Has anything surprised you so far? What are you hoping to find? What sorts of problems are you encountering? Would you recommend any papers which I could read to find out more?”).
3. Deploy teamwork.
It’s a good idea to go to networking events with a friend, but DON’T stay together as it’s too tempting to get into a huddle and chat about what’s on TV. Instead, agree to spend 10 minutes talking to others in the room, starting at opposite ends.
If you find someone really interesting, go get your friend and introduce them. This what it’s all about and why it’s called ‘networking’. If you haven’t met anyone interesting in 10 minutes, chances are you friend will have, and will rescue you. If neither of you strike gold you can excuse yourself from whoever you are with after with 10 minutes with the legitimate excuse that you have arranged to meet a colleague.
4. End conversations with a warm smile and a thank you.
It’s very common to feel uncomfortable about ending a conversation you’ve just begun because you’ve realised there are more useful people to talk to. But it’s all about finishing on a positive note, whether it’s after 30 seconds or 30 minutes. It’s perfectly acceptable to leave a conversation because you have seen someone you really want to talk to before they leave the room. Even if you don’t, and you’ve realised you probably need to work the room a little more, wait until the current topic of conversation lulls a little, look your companion in the eye, tell them it’s been a real pleasure to have spoken to them and you hope they enjoy the rest of the event. Shake hands if you have genuinely enjoyed the interaction, and always proffer a business card if there has been any remote suggestion that you might be useful to each other at some point in the future.
5. Always follow-up promptly.
While dating etiquette might dictate waiting a few days, if someone has given you their contact details at a networking event, follow up the next day (NOT later that evening), otherwise they may forget their conversation with you.
Email is the best way to follow-up a contact as it minimally demanding. Merely tell your contact that it was a pleasure to meet them, and that they were kind enough to suggest that they might be able to give you a contact/provide further information/send you a paper and that you are very grateful for any time they are able to spend on this. Then leave it for a couple of weeks.
If they haven’t responded, you are entitled to remind them (“Just wondered if you’d had a chance to ….?”). If they still don’t respond, leave it. But make sure you keep all their contact details for future reference if needed.
If you meet them again at an event in the future, NEVER remind them that they never got back in touch after the last tie. It will start you off on completely the wrong foot. Treat it like a new acquaintance and make a better impression this time! If/when someone does get back to you, use their time sparingly and always consider using the phone rather than sending a string of emails with lots of little questions as this can be quite tedious for a busy person.
Always be appreciative even if they give you very little, and be ready to give back whenever you can.