An Undergraduate’s Guide To Virtual Networking

When I was first introduced to the term ‘networking’ in my second year, the whole process seemed daunting. As someone who was happy in her comfort zone, the process of putting myself out there, of making connections with experts, professors, and whatnot, seemed like a recipe for disaster. And a disaster it was — until I started getting the hang of it.

In the last two and half years, from sending out messages with wrong names to not bothering to reply, I have made all the mistakes networking experts warn you about. And you sure don’t need to make any of those to get better. Therefore, I compiled a series of pointers that I continue to rely upon to virtually network and connect.

Photo by GDJ via Pixabay

Know why you want to network!

This is the first thing you need to ask yourself. Why do you want to reach out to specific people? Is it because you want a job or are you interested in finding a research opportunity? Next, you must convey it in your communications.

Having a concrete sense of ‘the why’ is crucial because it helps make a great first impression. It also increases your chances of hearing back and having more fruitful conversations.

However, it’s not a crime to reach out even when you don’t have anything to ask. Great relationships are built on natural interactions, not transactions (giving or taking).

Find people that can help you achieve that goal.

Once you have identified your goal of networking, it’s time to make a list of people who can help you get there. For example, if you wish to enroll in a higher studies program, you should contact alumni of that program. Talking to an alumnus about their experiences could help you determine whether or not the program is for you. Moreover, current students and alumni can aid you in writing applications and inform you of future prospects.

If you are looking for internship opportunities in research labs, you should contact professors. After all, they’re the ones who will host you. Sometimes, talking to the lab members (PhD students and Post-docs) is a good idea too. It can help you understand the lab environment and whether you’d enjoy your time there.

If you wish to gain industry experience, you should single out employees of your target company. Here, try and find people who are actively mentoring/hiring. They are more likely to respond to your requests.

Once you know who you want to reach, find the best medium to interact with them.

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Meet people where they are

With the internet almost taking over our lives, there are a lot of platforms you can use to network. Each platform has its own use and I will briefly discuss some of them.

The legendary way: Email

Email is a very effective way to reach out to senior people such as professors who use it regularly to communicate. If your email is carefully crafted, your chances of receiving a response become higher (unless your email was somehow marked as Spam).

Whenever you’re writing emails, remember, the best emails are short and sweet. An effective email should clearly outline your purpose for reaching out while also giving important background.

For example, if you’re emailing a professor/industry professional for a virtual chat, be sure to describe what you expect from the meeting. If you’re inviting executives as speakers for an event, be sure to include the details of the event — the date, time and the target audience.

If you’re writing an emailing someone about their work, show them that you’re curious. And if you’re emailing a professor about an open position, be sure to describe your achievements and why they make you the best candidate for the role.

Not everybody would be interested in reading a 400-word email invitation to a virtual chat. Apart from being precise, you also need to do your homework and research the person you’re emailing. Remember that professors, industry experts, and directors you want to reach out to already receive dozens of generic emails. So if you’re not specific, your email will likely end up in trash without a second look.

Need help writing an email? Below are some resources that cover all important grounds.

How to Email a Professor — UC San Diego

How to cold email a Professor — UC Berkeley

TEDx — How to invite a speaker (a fantastic resource for anyone inviting guests over email)

Although these resources are fantastic, they do not guarantee that you will get a response.

Social media: where everyone is!

Social media platforms are a wonderful place to meet people where they are at and network.

Photo by jmexclusives via Pixabay

Twitter: Academic Twitter is a wonderful place for you whether you’re interested in research or entrepreneurship. I haven’t used it extensively, however, it’s an excellent way to stay informed of the latest developments in your field. Moreover, professors usually post about new opportunities in their labs on Twitter. Government funding agencies, like BIRAC or DST, also post about the latest funding opportunities there.

Instagram: Instagram is very under-rated when it comes to reaching out to professionally network, but you’re sure to find those from your niche. For example, there’s an excellent community of science communicators and biology grad students on Instagram. They are very open about their work and vulnerable about their struggles in academia. And, you can start interacting with them just by engaging on their stories.

LinkedIn: LinkedIn is a literal goldmine in terms of opportunities. It is how I got offered my first research internship and also how I got to write this piece. But, like with all the good things in the world, getting opportunities from LinkedIn takes time.

Irrespective of the platform you’re using, you should remember that:

  • Optimizing your profile for your purpose gives you authenticity.
  • The world doesn’t end if you don’t receive a reply.
  • Personalized messages are the way to go.
  • The bigger your network gets, the easier it is to network with the next person.
  • Don’t contact only when you need something. Take time to build a relationship first. (Except for email where you should be direct and concise).

Online communities: where the cool kids hang out

Virtual has become the new normal, and online communities — the newest places for connecting and collaborating. The two most popular platforms today are Slack and Discord.

At first, they may seem like nothing more than a collection of chat threads that also allow audio/video calls. But, they are so much more! Slack is now being used by several societies, firms, and clubs, while Discord has become home to millions of gamers, creatives, and students alike. The communities there offer excellent opportunities to meet people with shared interests. Additionally, you can also talk to them one-on-one via chats, audio, and video calls.

A side note: IBLoT also has a Slack workspace, which has several very talented folks from across biology domains and regularly hosts events that you would enjoy being a part of. Here is the invite form if you’re interested.

Networking Events all the way!

Networking events are an excellent place to forge relationships. Unfortunately, approaching someone in-person can be nerve-wracking. However, career and networking events are also the best place to find people who can help with your career. With the ongoing pandemic, several in-person events have shifted to an online mode, so here are some tips that are very relevant for virtual events.

Photo by Alexandra_Koch via Pixabay

Ask questions and engage.

When you join any Zoom webinar you signed up for, be a part of the discussion and engage meaningfully. If the speaker is open to questions and you find the subject fascinating, be sure to ask a direct question. Aside from questions, share your thoughts and comments only if you’re asked to. Don’t spam the chat or you may be kicked out.

Give feedback or say thank you!

If your questions went unanswered, don’t hesitate to write an email/message to the speaker with your questions. Additionally, be sure to mention what part of the talk you enjoyed. Likewise, if someone helped you with organizing or moderating, don’t hesitate to reach out and thank them after the event personally. Often, participating in the same events or thanking the organizers/speakers can help start a conversation.

Other things to remember:

Irrespective of the medium, following are some things you should remember:

You’re not an expert and it’s okay!

Reaching out to people for work, for opportunities can be daunting because you feel you’re the rookie nobody wants to listen to. This was one of the biggest reasons I feared reaching out to people. After all, I had almost zero experience in the field they had been working for years. But, my apprehensions disappeared once I realized how much a few hours of reading and researching can boost my confidence.

Begin with the alumni of your school.

As someone afraid of networking, I began by reaching out to my university’s alumni on LinkedIn. They have probably been where you are now and are very likely to respond if you have a nicely structured pitch.

Follow-up works — in more ways than you can imagine!

Following up with your emails and conversations will take you places just introductory conversations won’t. So, you didn’t hear from a leader who said they will get back, send them a follow-up email after a week or two. However, know when to fold as well. If you receive no response, accept it and move on.

First impressions are important, but they are not the last.

Every networking rulebook tells you that first impressions are the most important, but starting on the wrong foot can happen sometimes. In cases like that, it is alright if you’re honest about your mistake and you apologize.

These are some pointers that have helped me a lot. Yet, they are not a rule book, just things that worked for me. Remember, virtual networking is a fantastic way to help people remember you. It can open a world of opportunities you never thought were possible. But, it has its disadvantages, including the absence of immediate response.

When you meet someone in person, you can get immediate feedback and adapt. However, this isn’t possible when you’re sending emails or messaging someone online. Unfortunately, virtual events allow limited interaction. Virtual mediums also make holding attention harder, meaning you cannot go up to someone you want to chat with. But, these shouldn’t deter you for the benefits greatly outweigh the cons. Happy Networking!

Do you have any tips to add or discuss anything I mentioned here? Feel free to comment and let me know.

P. S. If you’re an awkward taco, Dasani’s guide to networking is for you:

About the Author:

I am a final-year Biotechnology undergraduate at Jaypee University of Information Technology, Solan. In addition, I am also training with the Systems and Precision Lab at the Institute of Cancer Research, UK. At my university, I currently head the Biology Club, Synapse, and have been involved in several student communities. I love to write, ask questions and occasionally go into random rabbit holes of research. Reach out to me on LinkedIn!

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Janki Insan

Janki Insan

Biotechnology undergraduate with an aspiration to work in translational medical sciences domain.