When I’m out talking to grad students and postdocs about the ins and outs of making the jump to the business world, one of the discussions that always gets going is about networking. Networking is clearly one of those topics that generates a lot of interest, misinformation, and fear. So let’s talk a bit about what is, and is not, a good network.
One of the most common myths is that your network should only consist of people who would hire you. That is just wrong. While it is certainly useful to have people in your profession in your network, limiting yourself to just people in your field largely defeats the purpose of having a network in the first place.
The main criteria for considering someone part of your network is that you know them on a personal basis, and they would be likely to pick up the phone if you called or return an email. From this perspective, it is usually useful to break down the people you know into a few different categories.
Sure, business colleagues are one category, but so are people you know from the dog park. Or people you know from previous schools. Or people that you’ve worked with in a volunteer group, or a religious organization. Or your softball/soccer/swim/volleyball team. If you play in a band, those people are part of your network.
Starting to get the picture? The good news is that your network is probably a lot bigger than you thought it was. The trick is not to get too carried away. Remember, the main criteria for considering someone as part of your network is that they actually know you and would talk to you. Having a ton of distant acquaintances as a network doesn’t really do you a whole lot of good.
Now that you’ve got a network, how do you use it? This is where people in general, and scientists in particular, usually get very nervous and the palms start to sweat because this involves a lot of communication about things that aren’t science. The thing to remember is that since a big chunk of your network can’t hire you, the pressure is off about asking them for a job. Instead, what you’ll do is simply let them know that you’re looking for a job in a particular field. That’s it.
All you’re really trying to do is let your network know that you’re looking for a position and that if they hear anything, please pass it back to you. What you’re hoping will happen is that someone in your network knows someone else who might be hiring someone with your skills, and that you’ll hear about it through personal contact, not an ad.
So does it work? Generally yes. Not immediately, and not every time, but given that in the business world, referrals are one of the biggest ways of filling positions, you need to have your network referring you.
Here is an example that recently happened to me. I was out walking my dog, and bumped into one of my neighbors who thinks my dog is really cute and likes to play with her. We got to talking about things and my neighbor asked how my consulting business was going. I told her it was fine, but jobs had certainly gotten a lot harder to find. She looked at me and asked, “What do you do again?” After I gave her the 30-second talk, she said “I know someone who is putting together a team in that field and might need someone like you.” Have we gotten the job? Not yet, but walking the dog sure got us the opportunity.
So, have you worked on your network today?