For years, networking was a terrifying word to me. In the past, it meant going a mile out of my comfort zone to find the biggest bigwigs at a meeting or seminar and getting their attention somehow. And trying to force conversation that hard is just painful, and I would end up falling on my face. Often hearing in school that I “should” be networking to advance my career just made my stomach do flips. What I realize now is that I had a huge misconception about what that word really was, and the people promoting this idea never really stopped to explain it to me.
Thankfully, over the years, I have gained a much more profound understanding of what it is. My ideas about networking have gone through a beautiful evolution to the point that networking seems effortless, and I actually look forward to these opportunities. Net-building happens in ways you can’t always anticipate, and at times you don’t even know it is happening. It is fun for me to reflect back and try to see some of the webs that have been formed in my life, some of which have gotten me where I am today, and others that have perhaps influenced someone else’s path.
Allow me attempt to unpack what this formerly terrifying word really means to me, today.
Networking is NOT about only looking forward.
I am referring to the bigwigs here. Networking is more about looking around in all directions. It is important (in lots of ways) that interactions are with people at ALL stages of their career. When I reflect back on my own experiences, the people who I previously thought I was supposed to network with have been the least helpful in carving the path I took to where I am at. One misconception I had about networking was that it was only about what I could get out of the interaction.
I have gotten where I am by networking, but it wasn’t in ways that I thought. Often it was the lateral connections that have made the most impact on me, like: talking with other postdocs – sorting out the pros and cons of our goals, strengths and weaknesses, teaching with other people and having casual conversations about what they value and dislike about their current path, and talking with friends and former peers who are no longer in academia to see how their lives have changed. It was one of my friends who pointed out the opening for the government job I have now. While the numerous conversations I had with both my graduate school and postdoc mentor were insightful for one particular path, it was very limited in perspective.
And I like to think I have provided insight to those mentees I have worked with. I always go out of my way to get coffee or lunch with people who want to know more. I love following their career paths as they graduate and get their first and subsequent jobs. I find it very satisfying to participate in the bio sci mentor program as an alumnus.
This slightly ties into the larger issue of women in STEM in general. Often, younger female students don’t get enough exposure to the reality of working in STEM.
Currently, 36 percent of high school students within the United States are not ready for college-level sciences. Misha Malyshev, CEO of Teza Technologies works with nonprofits to curb that number. International Day of the Girl is a great time to celebrate the women in this field, and every field, and recognize the opportunities allowed to girls. This will take effort on our part as we progress in our career paths. There will always be girls that come after us, and we should step up to the responsibility of mentoring, even though we will never have it all figured out.
Networking is more effective if you express your genuine thoughts, ideas and questions.
Another one of the misconceptions I had about networking is that I had to have a crystal clear understanding of myself and what I wanted before I “networked” so that the superstar I was supposed to rub shoulders with could help get me to where I wanted to be. It gave me so much anxiety to think that I had to know where I wanted to be while I was still in high school and college, and even grad school. As a result, it was almost like I had to create a character for myself (who I thought I wanted to be in the future) and only interact within these bounds.
This had the unfortunate effect of preventing me from asking questions – questions that probably would have given me a lot more insight into figuring out who I wanted to be.
Referring to the women in STEM example I gave above, if younger women had a more real understanding of what STEM careers are really like, these numbers might be different.
Now, what networking means to me is having casual conversations with all kinds of people. What I have found to be most effective is trying to put myself in their shoes, a point that this article also makes. I try to understand their perspective on where they are at in their careers, or the interesting issues they are having to deal with at work. It has led to some fascinating conversations.
Knowing what I know now and being rather new to my field, I try to follow up with those contacts I have had a meaningful conversation with. I send an email about how much I enjoyed chatting with them, how they have added to my understanding of x,y, or z, and any offer to follow up on a,b, or c. I want people to remember who I am. I know I have a lot to learn, and I believe I have a lot to offer. I have no idea what opportunities will come my way in the future, but I want to be in the best position I can to tackle them, and be in the best position to offer meaningful insight to people who are searching!
I would love to hear other people’s networking successes and/or experiences to learn from.