Scientists gotta network too! The untaught skill that’s crucial for your career

By Samantha Yammine (@SamanthaZY on Twitter)

This is the first of a two-part series on Networking, kindly sponsored by ThermoFisher Scientific/GIBCO to help scientists get the most out of their upcoming Stem Cell Roadshow in Toronto (click link to register for free, and connect with other attendees using #StemCellsOnTheRoad).

The number one top advice for career exploration we’ve all been told is, “the importance of networking cannot be stressed enough!!” And it’s no wonder — a 2015 study of new hires on LinkedIn showed that up to 28.3% of STEM companies tended to hire people referred by current employees!

But no matter how many times you’ve been told that networking is key, I bet the one thing you hear just as often is what we usually tell ourselves right afterwards: “ya of course it is, I will when I need to.”

Sound familiar?

To be fair, researching full-time as a post-doc or graduate student doesn’t really avail a lot of time for networking, let alone learning what it is or how to do it (since most people give the advice to network without necessarily advising how to do it successfully). It’s really no wonder so many of us put it off — whether intentionally or because we truly think it is not important until we’re just about to start applying for jobs.

But the truth is that it is never too early to start networking — and by that I mean it’s never too early to start finding out about new opportunities, building new relationships with people in other fields of interest, and expanding your pool of resources. All of these are necessary for figuring out job prospects, which a report from Berkeley suggested is the number one contributing factor to graduate student satisfaction and well-being.

So before I give you my favourite tips for making networking easier, less awkward, and FUN, I want to highlight some truths and myths about networking that I’ve learned over the years.

Erlenmeyer flasks in a lab. Taken by Samantha Yammine

MYTH: Networking is all about pitching yourself

While having an elevator pitch of yourself and your research can be helpful in some networking situations, networking isn’t all about selling yourself in a flash. It’s helpful to re-frame network as less of a sales pitch and more of communicating with others.

Some of the most fruitful connections I’ve made happened just because I was talking to someone (online on Twitter or in person!) about a shared interest, and we formed a friendship that ended up later to a professional opportunity. For example I connected with Doina Oncel, Founder of hEr VOLUTION, over our shared passion for uplifting women and marginalized groups in STEM. After we met, we started seeing each other at related events and connected on social media like LinkedIn and Twitter. A few months later she asked me to speak at an event she was organizing, and upon meeting a TV producer recommended me as a guest for a science show on TVO Kids.

I wouldn’t have known to ask for these opportunities (they didn’t even exist when we first met), but by forming a friendship and being transparent about my passions and goals, she connected me with them.

Samantha on the set of “When I Grow Up” on TVO Kids, which was a result of building new friendships through networking online.

MYTH: You need to be super confident and outgoing to network

While it helps to enjoy talking to strangers when having to network at events in-person, it’s not a requirement to network successfully. In the next post I’ll share some tips for breaking the ice if you’re uncomfortable in social settings, plus talk about my favourite tips for networking from the comfort of your own home.

I personally really enjoy talking to new people, but still sometimes get awkward or nervous — especially when the stakes are high. My friend Elliann Fairbarn, Founder of SciCommTO, suggested practising in low stakes social situations, like waiting in line at a coffee shop or making small talk in an elevator. You can start off doing this in places where you’ll never see the person again, work your way up to acquaintances or colleagues in unimportant situations, strangers at networking events, then eventually the people you really really want to network with.

While this comes easier to some than others, it’s worth giving this type of exposure therapy a shot if you can. Networking is really just a form of improvisation, and even the best improv professionals spend hours practising, succeeding and, of course, failing.

At the same time, it’s important academic institutions support students in their career exploration and so opportunities to learn and practise networking skills should be made accessible to all trainees and post-docs.

TRUTH: Tell the people what you want!

I was telling my labmate Ken Grisé that I thought I might like to try out a career in science communication, but that I wasn’t entirely sure so I didn’t want to tell anyone yet in case I changed my mind. That’s when he replied to me, “let people know what you want so they can help you get it.” This made some sense to me so I decided to try it out.

The people I shared this interest with gave me advice, introduced me to other people succeeding in this field, and would randomly start to send me opportunities as they came across them from their network. This meant I was starting to learn more about this prospective career without doing much more than talking, plus getting opportunities in my inbox without having to look.

This helped me try on different aspects of science communicator for size, and made me more and more comfortable embracing it as a future career option, and just having a path to start wandering down can be a big sigh of relief for many.

MYTH: Networking only involves meeting new people

Part of why networking seems so intimidating is because we think it means we need to be meeting new people and staying in contact with them all the time — a big task to ask already busy people!

But some of the most productive networking can happen with people you already know. These people you already have relationships with can be incredibly valuable since they know you and your work ethic and that history means they may be more likely to recommend you to others.

Also remember that each person in your network has their own network as well, and you can know who someone knows until you ask. Many graduate students shy away from talking about their futures with their peers because the comparison anxiety can be very real. But by having that conversation with friends you trust and mentors who care about your future, you can further yourself relatively easily, especially if you consider that whole “6 degrees of separation rule” that suggests anyone you want to meet is only a few friends away. While LinkedIn makes it easier than ever to see who in your network might be helpful to introducing you to a future colleague, it likely underreports the utility of your network since many people don’t have LinkedIn or don’t connect with everyone they know on the platform.

Culturing cells in the lab, taken by Samantha Yammine.

TRUTH: You don’t always need to network with a goal

I think reframing networking in this way takes off a lot of the pressure and let’s us just be ourselves, and in my experience people tend to enjoy (and remember) conversations more when they’re natural. You don’t need to only talk about science or about yourself — ask people how they are, make small talk about the event, ask questions about their job or the path they took to it. Many people love talking about themselves so this is often a good way to establish rapport and get face time, then afterwards or in follow-ups when you’re more comfortable you can tell them more about yourself.

I attended a talk recently where the speaker described the purpose of these types of casual conversations as creating an environment of “planned happenstance.” The goal of networking isn’t always a specific outcome, but rather an opportunity for a seemingly serendipitous opportunity in the future.

TRUTH: networking can be awkward.

Yep! Of course it is — it’s pretty uncomfortable to put yourself out there and have to tell people what you want and sometimes even ask for their help.

But that discomfort is normal, and sometimes necessary to pursue our passions and try something new. And it is definitely worth reducing the anxiety and uncertainty when answering that question most dread, “what are you doing after your PhD?”

Stay tuned for another blog post on my top 10 tips for networking, and make sure to register for the GIBCO Stem Cell Roadshow in your city to practise what you learn! And check out #StemCellsOnTheRoad to connect with other Roadshow attendees.