• April 19, 2014

How Do I Create a Professional Network?

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Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

Question: I'm a science Ph.D. looking to make a transition out of bench research once I finish my postdoc. I've talked with a career counselor in my institution's postdoc office, and, on his advice, done a few informational interviews. But I can't figure out what comes next. How do I create a network? How will that help me find a job? Why does networking feel so artificial and awkward to me sometimes?

Question: I'm a social-science Ph.D. who's finishing soon. I know I'm supposed to have a network, but sometimes it's hard to figure out exactly who that is, beyond my friends from graduate school, most of whom are not in my subfield. I'm also not sure what to do to maintain this network. It seems exhausting in addition to everything else I have to do to succeed in my research and teaching.

Jenny: The prospect of networking challenges many, if not most of us. First, it is never a linear process. Simply meeting Person A is never a guarantee of Result B. Second, it takes time and effort. For some academics, connecting with people comes naturally. For others—like me—it's a skill, one I've had to learn, and continually work on.

Julie: I, on the other hand, enjoy networking and do it regularly on behalf of the students I serve, my own kids, and, sometimes, myself. I really enjoy meeting people and learning about them and then connecting them to other people. My colleagues and I try to bring in a variety of speakers to meet with graduate students, and many of those speakers are folks from my network.

Jenny: Our first reader mentions informational interviews as a way to jump-start your network. Such interviews are an important part of any job search, whether you're simply looking for a new position or planning on a radical career change. For those who aren't familiar with the term "informational interview," we wrote about this topic a while back. It's simply the process of seeking out people who are willing to provide you with information about an industry, a job function, or a particular company or organization. It's a great way to learn about new opportunities, particularly if you're not sure what your next career move will be. It's also a great way to start building a professional network.

Julie: Informational interviewing takes effort and, most important, patience. The people you speak with may end up being valuable contacts—or you may only speak with them once. It's nearly impossible to know in advance who will be helpful and who will not. That can be frustrating if you're a job seeker looking for an immediate result in the form of a job interview.

But building a network takes time, especially if you're starting from scratch in a new field. Being persistent, keeping careful records of your contacts (some people even keep spreadsheets), and updating your contacts on your progress will help in your efforts. Always ask the people you interview to suggest names of others you might speak with. That will help you broaden your network.

Jenny: It's keeping people updated on your progress that often challenges job seekers and network builders alike. It's hard to know exactly when to follow up after an informational interview with someone—two weeks later, six weeks later, or only when you have new information to share.

The short answer: Following up with an immediate thank-you note is always important. Beyond that, there are no precise rules for when and how to follow up with a contact. Therein lies one of the challenges of maintaining a network.

Julie: And that maintenance is important. When I find out that someone I know has had a recent, interesting accomplishment, I send them a note of congratulations. If I'm thinking of organizing a program for students on a particular career field, I contact people in that field and let them know; often they provide suggestions of resources and even offer to act as speakers.

Maintaining your own network as a graduate student or recent Ph.D. can mean letting your contacts know that you have just published a new article or have recently given a talk on a topic of mutual interest. E-mail makes maintaining your network easy. The important thing is building and maintaining your network early on—ideally before you actually need a job.

Jenny: A big part of successful networking is simply having good manners. That means being respectful of people's time. If someone offers to talk with you about their job for 15 minutes, begin to close the conversations as you approach 14 minutes. If they want to talk longer, it should be their decision.

Having good manners also means saying "thank you" for any interaction or information provided. When you get a job, let the people with whom you first networked know your good news. And thank them again.

Julie: Job candidates often ask us whether to send a handwritten note or an e-mail as a way of thanking someone for an informational interview. One is just as good as the other. In fact, e-mail is better because it can be received soon after the interaction and it's easy for the recipient to get back to you, should that person so desire.

Jenny: Speaking of e-mail, let's talk about some of the social-media platforms that come in handy for networking and informational interviewing—LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and the like. They can be great for introductions. LinkedIn, in particular, makes it easy to see who your friends and contacts know and to whom you might ask to be introduced.

And of course, social media are terrific for keeping up with people. When you are meeting someone for the first time, however, talking in person has much more of an impact. Telephone and Skype can also help you make a good impression with someone who's far away. The back-and-forth conversation you can have with someone in person or over the phone is much richer than any e-mail exchange.

Julie: Let's turn to group situations, which offer many opportunities for networking, particularly in academe. Walking into a room full of people you don't know well, or at all, is intimidating. In our experience, the keys to successful networking at an event are remaining upbeat (without seeming fake) and listening to what others have to say (while sharing your own experience).

Have a short practiced spiel ready to explain your own research and interests (some call it an "elevator speech"). Introduce yourself. And reintroduce yourself to anyone who may not remember you. That is as easy as saying, "I think we may have met before, my name is ... and I think we know each other from XYZ event." Listen attentively to what others have to say and ask questions. That will help the person you're speaking with remember you as the smart person who asked good questions.

Jenny: Recently, I was at a party with a woman who was just completing her Ph.D. in French. She was lamenting to a group of people the unfairness of being condemned to a life of "working in a terrible job [outside of academe] for $30,000 a year." Even though her concerns were valid, her statement did not help to connect her with her listeners, many of whom worked in interesting, creative places outside of academe.

Vent to your partner, your family, and close friends, but project an air of confidence in settings where you might make contacts. After all, if you don't think what you have to offer is worthwhile, no one else will, either.

Julie: Networking does require you to display some confidence in yourself at a time or place where you might not feel all that confident. If approaching strangers at a conference sounds intimidating, you might "start small" with someone you have a slight acquaintance with and then move on to people you do not know.

Doing an informational interview with a friend of a friend could be the place to start. If you're planning a career as an academic, start with someone who graduated a few years ahead of you in your field. As you talk with that person you may find that you have something to share, as well—perhaps a useful resource, a contact, an article or book. That is networking. It doesn't always have to be specifically career or job-related.

Decide that you are going to connect with someone new every other week or on some schedule that works for you. Keep track of your conversations and get back to each person with a thank-you note and some follow-up information, such as, "I looked at the article on science writing in ScienceCareers that you suggested and want to let you know that I found it to be very helpful. As a result of reading it I have gone through the Web site of the National Association of Science Writers and am planning to participate in a webinar on careers in science writing that the association is offering. Thank you for the suggestion." A follow-up e-mail like that could help the recipient think of you when a colleague indicates a need for a short-term science writer.

Jenny: I am a big believer in networking, even though it doesn't come naturally to me. When I first looked for a nonacademic position, I found two temporary jobs through networking—one via an informational interview and one via a networking event. Although the jobs were only part time, the people I worked with in both positions have served as my references and helped me springboard to other positions.

At the same time, I could also list many networking contacts whom I spoke to once, and never again. That's OK, though. Networking (like applying for jobs) is a game of numbers—the more you reach out, the more likely it is you'll make a strong connection with someone.

Julie: Making a career transition is always going to leave you feeling overwhelmed and/or exhausted on occasion. So often, students and postdocs will say to me, with an air of surprise, "I never realized that looking for a job was a full-time job!" It involves so much more than just submitting your CV to position announcements. Networking is one part of that process, but it's the part you have to keep doing once you've found a position.

Julie Miller Vick is senior associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania, and Jennifer S. Furlong is associate director of New York University's Office of Faculty Resources. They are the authors of "The Academic Job Search Handbook" (University of Pennsylvania Press). If you have questions for the Career Talk columnists, send them to careertalk@chronicle.com.

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