Seven Steps to Successful Networking
Beer in hand, I roamed the NY Catalysis Society meeting, as I had done every month since the start of my graduate career. These precious 30 minutes, just before the dinner and talk, were for chatting to people that I had known for years, and striking up conversations with people that I have never met. It never occurred to me that this was a form of networking, but then again, networking is at its best when we are having fun and not forcing it. I never would have guessed that those 30 minutes of pre-presentation chatting would alter the course of my career.
Step one: Be kind, network without an agenda. One evening, roaming the meeting, I spotted an unfamiliar man standing by himself and welcomed him to the society of which I had grown so fond. The conversation turned to my stressful search for post-PhD jobs, he asked where I had applied and I rattled off a few places. To which he said, “I have a friend who works there and has worked with the researcher whom you just mentioned—would you like me to put you in contact?” I was blown away: I had expected merely to welcome this man into the present, but he in turn had welcomed me to the future. The contact he introduced me to, and with the guidance of another connection from graduate school, proved to be crucial allies in building confidence that I needed to apply for a prestigious research fellowship in the nation’s capital.
Step two: Cast your net wide but verify to prevent scope creep. When I moved to DC for that research position, I again made short work of networking by joining local scientific society chapters and community programs, and attending every public session about the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship (STPF) program. I had heard about STPF at an American Chemical Society conference a few years before. I was intrigued by the idea of an engineer working in science policy, but I often throw my net too wide and become overwhelmed, so I made a concerted effort to make sure that I had not been bitten by the policy bug living in DC. By networking with various science and policy programs in the area, I was able to determine that I truly had a passion for science policy, and thus should apply.
Step three: Don’t turn down a ‘coffee,’ ‘drink’ or ‘call’ if offered. Once I decided the itch was real, I began my AAAS STPF application—and soon surprised myself with more accidental networking. When I mentioned to my coworkers that I was applying, several of them revealed that their spouses either had been or knew STPF fellows. They offered to introduce me, and I took many up on the offer and met with their spouses- many I had never spoken to before (that can be awkward, but I strongly suggest any who are provided with the opportunity to do so).
Step four: Minimize ‘intentional networking.’ It is still amazing to me how much networking I’ve done behind my own back…and perhaps that’s how it should be. When we go into a situation saying, “I’m going to network because I want to get something out of it,” we excrete desperation and reek of an agenda. It’s like stumbling into the gym to “sweat off” a hangover: everyone else can smell the acrid sweat, and it’s not pleasant. I minimize the stench of intentional networking as best I can by combining my unconscious networking with some conscious steering. When symbiotic, everyone’s day is better after that interaction; no one leaves feeling used. This is how I suggest people to network.
Step five: Volunteer! Volunteer for whatever strikes your interest or is easy for you. Some options include non-academic volunteer opportunities such as your local garden, library, animal shelter, soup kitchen, Big Brothers Big Sisters, YMCA, etc. Academic options include organizations such as your alma mater’s mentorship program, the local chapter of your scientific society, or AAAS STPF as an Affinity Group Chair!
Attention current fellows: STPF offers you the ability inspire future fellows and to present about the fellowship at conferences or volunteer in the Future Fellow Campaign. If you are a potential fellow and receive a call from someone on the Future Fellows Campaign, try talking with them, get their thoughts— network!
Volunteering can teach you so many things: how to talk to people; who to talk to; how long to talk; when to exit the conversation (very important!); how to deal with people who either don’t want to talk or just won’t listen; and—my personal favorite—how to organize a long-lasting connection that either party can activate to share an opportunity or request.
Step six: Be courteous and follow up. Show up on time and thank whoever you are meeting. Their time, like yours, is precious. Do this whether you are meeting with the intent to mentor or be mentored, whether you’re networking up, down, or sideways. Time is the one thing that none of us can ever get back. Understanding the value of people’s time both shows consideration, can open doors, and increases your state of gratitude. After your meeting, follow up! Don’t let the budding relationship go cold. At one of my first STPF professional development seminars, I met a fellow-fellow and we decided to stay in touch. Almost eight months later– after rescheduling attempts, endless COVID variants, and various pandemic woes– we finally met outdoors, and have continued to connect throughout the years. Not only was this connection much needed for our psychological and social health, but we also realized that with our shared interest in environmental remediation we could grow a symbiotic relationship that may be beneficial for our career paths.
Step seven: Repeat. You repeat the above steps throughout your career. When you “repeat” make sure you take lessons learned from what worked (ex: an attitude of gratitude) and what didn’t (ex: forgetting about/canceling the meeting). On each repeat, look not only to network up, but network in all directions. Realize and thank those who gave you advice, information, and abilities to get where you are and please pass those on!