“Networking” is NOT a Dirty Word

Merriam-Webster defines networking as “the cultivation of productive relationships for employment or business”. Less formally, networking is actively communicating with the other people you know (mostly scientists, in our case) for career advice and job openings, in addition to utilizing opportunities to meet new people for the same purpose.

This is a core activity of the business world, but many academic scientists view it with disdain. I think this attitude largely arises from misconceptions about what networking is and isn’t, and by the time many academics figure it out, it is too late to make full use of networking to help land their first PhD-level job. Here I’ll attempt to clear up some of these misconceptions.

Misconception #1: Networking is Foreign

By ‘foreign’, I’m not talking about nationality, but profession. Many academic scientists seem to think that networking is something MBAs, lawyers, and politicians do, but not them. The reality is that academic scientists at all levels network all the time, just to a slightly different end. Have you ever gone to a labmate to ask for a protocol? Have you ever gone down the hall to another lab to ask if you could use their piece of equipment? Have you ever helped someone from another lab master a technique? Have you ever gone to a conference and chatted with other labs in your field, or sparked up a collaboration with a lab with a complementary approach? This was networking, just for science rather than explicitly for career considerations. Each one of these activities is directly analogous to classic business-oriented networking. Viewed through this lens, there is practically no other purpose to a scientific conference other than networking!

This doesn’t mean that we are all good at networking – I’ve seen more than a few scientists who would rather re-invent the wheel than walk down the hall to ask for advice – but it does mean that at the core of things, you do understand what networking is, and that there is no question that sharing information with others is better for everybody involved. It also shows you that networking isn’t only for the scientist that is leaving the academic path, but the principles behind it can be applied for other purposes.

Misconception #2: Networking is Cheating

There are some academics that believe that getting a job interview through networking is “cheating”. I’ve encountered this perspective a couple of times, and it always surprises me. I think it comes from the fact that most grad students and postdocs have always existed in the academic environment, where life is, from one perspective, one contest after another. The goal of any contest is to determine who is the best at something in particular, and it is tied to a set of rules to ensure that all the contestants are judged by the same criteria, and nobody has an advantage outside of the judged aspects. This is the basis of scholarships, entrance exams (for college and graduate school), and fellowships. It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that many grad students and postdocs view job interviews the same way.

The reality is that a job is not the prize in a “who can format the best resume” contest. An open job is an unfulfilled need, and the hiring process is the employer’s stab at finding a person that can fulfill that need. From the employer’s perspective, it only makes sense to interview the people that been recommended by someone that knows what they are looking for, someone that is already in the industry, if not already in the company. Not only do they know the details of the position beyond the one or two paragraphs in the job announcement (if there even is a job announcement), but they also know the kind of personality that fits in well with the industry setting in general and the company in particular. Networking is the most efficient way for employers to put a successful employee in an empty office.

Misconceptions #3, 4, and 5: Networking is “Begging strangers for a job”

This quote came directly from a friend of mine, although given the context I assume he prefers I not cite him. Within it are several troublesome assumptions. The first of which is that utilizing a network is akin to begging for a job. Utilizing your scientific network to find a great job is not conceding some kind of defeat or personal shortcoming. The majority of the jobs at this level aren’t even publically listed, with many estimating that fewer than 20% of jobs are even advertised! Even if the job is advertised, as I outlined above, trying to find a great employee from a pile of cover letters and resumes is not an easy task, and if a company has four qualified candidates with internal recommendations, then the odds that you are going to get an interview without one are obviously greatly diminished. These recommendations are so valuable to companies that they often offer cash bonuses to current employees that recommend a candidate that ultimately gets hired. So I reiterate: companies love networking, and are actively using their current employees to fill empty positions. Refusing to use your network isn’t a sign of independence, but rather an indication that you don’t know how industrial hiring works.

The second wayward assumption is that networking is conducted through strangers. While you can gain some valuable information and advice from people that you don’t know very well, networking starts with the people who know you the best (professionally speaking) – your past and current colleagues. These are the people that you start networking with and the people that will help you the most. Once you have a good dialog with this core part of your network, then you can move on to friends of friends and even cold-calling strangers or networking with people at conferences or networking events. But some of the best results are likely to come from the people closest to you.

Perhaps the biggest misconception here is that networking is a completely selfish task, executed by extroverted, smarmy business types. I think this idea is the biggest problem academic scientists have with networking. I myself had a shade of this view until five years ago when I stayed at a friend’s house. The guest bedroom doubled as the library, and one book that caught my eye was “Never Eat Alone” by Keith Ferrazzi. One of the things that surprised me when I read this book was that the author heavily emphasized that most important aspect of networking to execute is helping the members of your network whenever and however you can. At this point I stopped viewing networking as a way for me to use others to get a job, and started viewing it as a way I could help my friends, even if they never expressly asked for that help. If you approach networking from a purely selfish perspective, most smart people will pick up on this and all you’ll be left with is the illusion of a network.

From this standpoint, as well as other factors, it is very important to start networking (long) before you need a job. This is particularly important if you start networking with people you don’t know personally, as they are likely to be more receptive to the relationship if it is clear that you are aren’t simply trying to use them for leads.

Misconception #6: Networking is LinkedIn

LinkedIn is a great site and I use it, but the one downside to it is that it made some academics feel like they were networking just because they had an account. I, and I think many other people, use the site as a self-updating rolodex for my network rather than networking itself. It works great for allowing me to be able to keep up to date and get in touch with members of my network, but simply the act of connecting people to my account is not networking, in my humble opinion. To build a strong network, you need to communicate with people. You need to find out what they might need so you can help them, and they need to have a clear idea what you are doing and might be looking for in order to help you.

You might have noticed that this article has been very light on advice about how to network, and that is intentional. My goal here is convince you that networking is a legitimate aspect of your career development, not to try to tell you how to do it. There are a great number of books and other advice out there about how to network, including our next webinar here on Bitesize Bio: Not Networking 101: Building Relationships for Success, by Joanne Kamens of Addgene.

I think you need to watch the webinar, survey the other available advice out there, and figure out what approaches are compatible with your personality. I don’t think there is a ‘one size fits all’ approach for this, particularly for a group as socially diverse as scientists.

Are there any other misconceptions about networking that you’ve encountered? Let us know in the comments!

1 Comment

  1. Emily Crow on December 13, 2011 at 6:59 pm

    Thanks for this article, Jode! It is timely for me, and a lot of your points resonate – especially how smarmy the whole experience can feel. I think scientists in particular need to re-learn how to connect with colleagues in a meaningful way.

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