“Network, network, network!” Networking is often touted as the most important thing that graduate students and young researchers should do, even early in their careers. While it’s easy for people to say over and over again how important it is and to generally understand its importance for professional development, what’s not as clear is how networking in scientific research actually works, and how you should go about networking effectively.
How exactly do I network? is a pressing question for students putting together the final touches on their dissertation and for post-docs and entry-level researchers who are running short of days on their contract. The elusive nature of networking can become readily apparent while attending a conference at during one of these crucial times, seeking out potential employers and setting yourself up for the next stage of your career while navigating through the busy crowds at poster socials. While some people seem to be natural at attracting collaborators and colleagues, for other it’s not as easy. For most of us, collaborators and potential employers won’t just appear from thin air, and networking is not always something that comes naturally, especially for those of us that prefer to keep to ourselves or who feel more out of place when interacting with groups of people (e.g. introverts, myself included!).
Before we think further on how to network, we should first think about what networking is. Instead of rushing off to Webster, though, let’s turn to something that’s been pretty successful with its networking, by definition: the Internet. In addition to being many a source of most of the information we consume each day, with an array of activities ranging from productivity to procrastination, the Internet is also the perfect model for professional networking. The infrastructure used by telecommunication systems are designed with communication in mind, with the end goal of making purposeful connections between people and places. As nerdy as it may sound, we can actually use the infrastructure of Open Systems Interconnection models (OSI; more nerdy stuff here) to get a better picture of what networking is, and give us a road map of how we can actually go about doing this important yet somewhat nebulous professional task.
1. Physical layer
In the OSI model, a physical connection corresponds to the medium that allows the message to be transmitted, in this case electricity flowing through an Ethernet cable or the electromagnetic waves of wifi. For the wifi example, while there isn’t a solid physical connection, your computer has to be using the correct frequency and within range in order to get any signal. In professional networking, the physical connection is any sort of connection between you and another person, a connection that allows for mutual interaction and for being in their presence. It doesn’t have to be a physical or in-person interaction at first, the medium can be LinkedIn, a quick wave at a conference or workshop, or the fact that you have their email address in your contacts list since you were on the same email exchange about another project. The key is that this layer allows you to interact with the other person and to begin the next steps towards networking more fully.
2. Data link layer
This layer relates to a reliable transmission of data between two nodes. It’s the same progression as with networking: you may have had a quick handshake at a conference dinner, but can you say you’ve really met them? For professional networking, this step means taking your connection further by reaching out to them with a bit more than just a ‘hello’ or a handshake. The key with this layer is to begin the process of active communication, with the goal of speaking the same ‘language’ and being on the same page. Whether it’s collaboration, a job, or career advice, this is the stage where you introduce yourself and start making a connection between yourself, your goals, and how the other person can transmit and receive back to you more reliably. Another key with this step is not expecting too much too early: don’t expect that a person you’ve never had an actual conversation with to hand you a post-doc. If you are interested in learning more about their group, present your goals and intentions but ask if you can talk or meet in person to learn more about their research, and for them to learn more about you, before you can expect much else more out of the networking relationship.
3. Network layer
This is where things get more complicated in the OSI model: it becomes managing multiple nodes of information and routing information to and from the right places. After the initial contact, there will be a lot of back and forth about your problem and where to go forward. At this stage you probably won’t get a direct answer to your question or request, but may instead hear things like “Oh, so have you worked with Professor Smith?” “Did you read the paper by Smith et al 2014 on this topic?” The key here is to use your information and your connections to further expand your base network and increase your knowledge of potential contacts, focusing on suggestions and connections suggested by other colleagues.
4. Transport layer
Once you’ve established a larger base network in step 3, you can have a more reliable movement of requests/data/information between yourself and your base network. You can then reach out to people and get more specific information on how to do what you are setting out to do and who you should be talking to. At this stage you’ll also have better luck with expanding your network further and for requesting more things like jobs or ongoing collaborations, because once people have established trust with you they are more likely to pass on your messages and requests, or forward along contact information to other colleagues, if they have some knowledge of you and your goals. The goal here is to establish a trusted connection between you and your contacts by demonstrating that you are a trustworthy, connected, and reliable person. This will enable you to take off in the next steps to grow these relationships even further.
5. Session layer
With a set of trusted contacts in mind, you can now arrange a purposeful communication session: schedule a meeting on skype or at a conference to discuss research, draft a proposal for a grant, or ask about a research position. As in the OSI model, this will involve a lot of information exchange back and forth, so be ready to manage a lot of input coming in as well as meaning output being sent to them. With this step, you should be ready for a purposeful discussion that will lead you to your goal, and while the actual meeting doesn’t have to be 100% focused on the topic at hand, you should strive to achieve a result from this interaction by setting out with a goal and purpose for the meeting.
6. Presentation layer
In OSI, this is where data gets translated, and for you and your contact this is where you both can showcase your ideas, ambitions, and intentions. Aim for clarity in the discussion: be sure that you know exactly what you’re getting out of the exchange, whether it be a collaboration or grant application or job, and that your continued interactions with your contact are also clear from this step forward. Have a plan for what you want to say, listen closely to your contact, and define the means in which you’ll both move forward together.
7. Application layer
At this stage you’ve achieved high-level connectivity, and by doing so have achieved your original goal set out when you started your initial networking strategy. Whether this is a collaboration, a job, or a purposeful discussion about a paper with a new colleague, it’s the start of a continued deeper discussion between you and your new connection. The key with achieving your goal is to avoid skipping layers: you need to gain trust from connections beyond a quick handshake at a conference dinner, and you need to an appropriate venue and agreement on objectives and goals before you can pitch a grant proposal. Achieving the required trust, context, and clarity won’t get you a job or a paper 100% of the time, but it will certainly help. They key is to remember that you must build up a network of people who trust you and who understand you and what you’re doing, which is why it’s always recommended to do this earlier in your career rather than later.
So now that we’ve covered the networking framework, I’ll share a few practical tips to get you started. These tips and tricks have helped me, a natural introvert who shies away from crowds and speaking out loud to omuch, to gain a wide network of colleagues and collaborators that I’ve met through conferences, advisory councils, and late-night scientific cocktails. One advantage of introverts is that we are good listeners, and as you’ll learn when you start talking to others about science is that people love to talk about their work and themselves. So the first piece of advice: let them talk!
- Don’t be afraid to just say ‘hi’: Especially if you don’t know someone well, don’t feel like your first interaction has to be very formal or have some over-arching goal like a post-doc. If you have someone’s contact information, or bumped into each other at a workshop and didn’t have a chance to talk but you want to learn about the person more, don’t be afraid just to email them and say that you’re interested to learn more about what they do and who they are as a scientist.
- Plan ahead: Especially if you’re meeting someone at a large conference, set a date and time to catch up with them, even if it’s just a casual discussion. It will help you make sure the meeting actually happens, as with conferences people tend to get busy and pulled each and every way to talks or meetings with colleagues. If you want to keep it more informal, go for a coffee or a walk instead of a sit-down meal or a relaxed after-conference drink, since it gives you more flexibility in terms of scheduling and is less of a time commitment for both of you.
- Keep it casual but make sure you get to business when you need to: Especially when meeting someone more formally for the first time, don’t start the conversation too direct. Talk about the conference, the city, the latest loss/win of a local sports team etc., etc. Making connections is as much about getting someone to respect your work and your professional persona as much as it is having a person like you and feel comfortable around you. Break the ice as need be, then to avoid making the conversation too long-winded (especially for busy professionals) get straight down to the matter at hand in a clear yet un-rushed way.
- Ask good questions: People like to talk and to be listened to, so obviously asking questions is the best way to get people excited about a topic. At the same time, you’ll get to learn more about them, how they think, what is exciting for them in terms of research, etc. Knowing someone better by hearing their side of the story, and letting that person share their story, can make your relationship one built on trust and understanding, not just mutual scientific interest.
- Be ready: You may only get a short amount of time for your meeting, so be ready to say what you want and have a clear purpose or aim for your discussion. Obviously you shouldn’t bust out the notecards (might make it seem a bit too rehearsed), but prepare a couple of take-home sentences ready to fire off. This is especially good if you end up having to give a ‘elevator talk’, or telling a summary of what you do and what you want to do in a matter of 30 seconds or less. Being prepared will make your time count and your message stand out, even when the other person heads home after a busy week at the conference.
-S tart now, no matter what stage you’re at: Building a network and establishing trust will take time, so starting early in your academic career will make it easier when you are actually looking for a job. Get involved with your favorite scientific society, or outreach groups in your university, and start talking to everyone and everyone about your research and your goals. You never know where you’ll find the connection that will lead you to your next job, or how a quick conversation about rugby and mass spectrometry can lead you to landing your dream job. Start now and cast a wide net for the best results!
Apart from a lot of persistence and a dash of optimism, there is no perfect formula for networking. Some attempts will pan out, other connections will fade out quickly, and people you randomly talked to might surprise you by connecting you to someone with the golden ticket for your career. By thinking about how to build connections, using the Internet as an analogy, and approaching new colleagues and collaborators in an open, engaging, and well thought-out manner, you can build a network of trusted peers who will trust you back and help put you somewhere you’re aiming to be. So best of luck and happy networking, and for those of you heading to SETAC Salt Lake City, your first drink at the opening reception* is on me!
*Drinks at the opening are usually free at SETAC (and hopefully still are, otherwise I’m soon to go broke!)