No scientist is an island, not even a great scientist like you. A good network of professional contacts is as essential to your career as hard work at the bench.

This is because your network can open many doors that no amount of good bench work could. Access to unpublished information, collaborations and job opportunities are just some of the benefits. So it makes good sense to spend a some time and effort on nurturing your professional network.

We’ve talked about online networking before. But in this article I want to cover good old face-to-face networking (yes, talking to REAL people! Argh!).

How Not to Network

Most scientists are aware of the need to build a network, but few give much thought to how they go about building one.

They’ll turn up at a conference and wander round the mixer session randomly chatting to people and handing out their business cards. Or worse, they’ll hang about in the corner feeling self-conscious, maybe talking to a few people they already know.

Over the years it is possible to make some sort of network in this way only because science is a small world so you will tend to meet the same people year on year.

A Networking Protocol

But with a little forward planning, and some courage, you can accelerate the formation of your professional network, get ahead of the curve and reap the benefits.

So here I’ll lay out an approach to networking for scientists. I’ll say up front that these are not all my own ideas, but a strategy adapted from an excellent book “The Jelly Effect: How to Make Your Communication Stick” by Andy Bounds.

As the title suggests this book primarily details an approach to effective communication. It’s one of those books that cuts straight through the problems that many people have with communication and makes you wonder why you didn’t think of that approach yourself.

A great thing about this book is that after going through the basics, Bounds shows how to apply his communication strategies to various situations, one of these being networking.

What he has come up with is basically a protocol for networking. We all know how to use protocols, right?

The Basic Idea

Bounds’ approach to networking is to the point. He likens networking to a fishing expedition, saying that at any networking event there will be three types of people

  • Big Fish (people you really want to connect with)
  • Tiddlers (people it would be useful for you to connect with)
  • Boots (people who are of no use to you in a networking sense)

This makes your goal at any networking even crystal clear; to meet as many big fish as possible and perhaps catch a few tiddlers on the way.

But for me the simple genius of Bounds’ book is that through a subtle, and completely logical, change of focus he increases the chances of reeling in a big fish dramatically.

The change is in the goal you set yourself.

Rather aiming to have a chat and swap business cards, the simple change is to set out to arrange to have a cup of coffee with your big fish(es) at a later time. This means that if all goes well, you will come out of a networking event with one or a few follow up meetings arranged with specific people, in which you can talk about your common interest and establish a firm connection.

That’s infinitely better than coming away with some half-remembered conversations and 20 business cards from people who you might never meet again.

So that is the basis of the approach.

Now here is the protocol:

1. Identify your Big Fish. Before the networking event (which can be your Department’s weekly get together or a poster session at a major conference, or anything in between) decide on the sort of people you’d like to make contacts with. This could be eminent scientists in your field, potential collaborators, peers in your field with whom a bond could develop into a useful mutual relationship over the years or anyone else you can think of.

Your Big Fish list can contain general descriptions (e.g. “someone who works on the same receptor as me, or “a mathematical modeler”) and/or specific individuals. An event’s program can be a useful tool in identifying interesting attendees.

2. Set yourself an achievable goal. e.g. To speak to 5 strangers, establish whether they are one of your Big Fish (or a Tiddler) then arrange to meet them later for a coffee. If there are any specific people you identified from the guest list then you could specifically include meeting them in your goal too.

A goal like this is both achievable and within your control, so makes your task infinitely less daunting than arriving with no plan at all in a room full of people.

3. Don’t feel self-concious.
It’s easy, and entirely natural, to feel that everyone else in the room knows what they are doing and you are the only one out on a limb. But don’t assume that because everyone looks ok on the outside that they are not nervous on the inside! It is probable that most people are feeling pretty much the same way as you.

4. Bring the essentials. You need to bring three things:

  • Your business cards (or if you don’t have any, a notepad with removable sheets)
  • A pen
  • A name badge

The name badge is very important. If your event doesn’t provide a name badge then make one. All you need on it is your first name and a few words describing you and what you do. (e.g. PhD Student, cAMP receptors in Dictyostelium). If you are supplied with a name badge and it doesn’t contain this info then add it, and use a highlighter pen to highlight your first name.

One other thing about your name badge: Wear it as high on your body as possible so that it is close to people’s eyeline and easy for them to see. Don’t wear it on your belt buckle… no one wants to look down there to see your name.

5.  Know who to approach.
One essential skill that helps make you feel less self-concious, as well as preventing you from acting with bad manners is to know who to approach. No matter what the event you are attending, people are people and will always act the same. So here’s how to spot the people that it is ok for you to talk to.

In an event like this, people will either be standing:
a. Alone
b. In an open group (three or more people standing in an open circle, or two people not facing each other square on i.e. leaving an obvious place for a newcomer to join)
c. In a closed group (three or more people standing in a closed circle, or two people facing each other square on i.e. there is nowhere for a newcomer to join the circle)

Click here for further explanation, with illustrations, of open and closed groups.

Basically, you can approach anyone in situation a or b. Don’t try to butt into a closed group! Knowing this simple rule makes things a lot easier, so should help with the nerves.

6.  Start a conversation.
The easy way is the best way… “Hello, I’m Nick” (but obviously use your own name 🙂 ) If you are approaching a group, be sure to ask something like “Mind if I join you” first. It’s all just about having good manners.

Continue the conversation by asking about them. Don’t start a talking about yourself – that’s bad manners, and it won’t help you work out whether this is a good person for you to network with. Ask them who they are, what they are working on, what their interests are.

It is essential to be interested, not interesting. People will enjoy talking about themselves if you are interested in what they have to say. This shouldn’t be an interrogation, just a quick chat, and need not even last more than one or two minutes.

During the conversation you have to establish whether this person is one of your Big Fish, a Tiddler or a Boot. If they are the latter then you should go to step 9.

Otherwise you should wait to be invited to talk about yourself (as you invariably will be). Don’t talk about the work you do for more than 30 seconds… its better to say too little than too much, they can ask for more info if needed, but it is essential that you don’t bore them.

Next, chat about something non work related for a minute or two to establish a more personal rapport. If this feels uncomfortable, then it will help if you arm yourself with some conversation topic ideas (e.g. about the venue, a news event, one of the talks you have seen today) before you go into the networking event.

7. Get their business card or contact details.
Easy, just ask them if you can have their business card. Be sure to read it when they give it to you… that is only good manners.

Also ask them if they want one of your business cards. If they don’t have a business card, ask for their contact details and write them in your notebook. If this is a Tiddler and you don’t want to take the time to meet up with them later, then go to step 9.

8. Arrange to follow up.
If this is one of your Big Fish and you want to make a firm contact then invite the person to meet you at a later date for a coffee and a chat about your work/their work/whatever is appropriate.

Simply walking away with a business card (or nothing) is not enough for a Big Fish as a firm contact has not been established and this person is unlikely to become part of your network.

Ask them when and where would be best for you to meet up, and while you are with them, write it down on their business card or in your notepad – this shows you are listening and you are serious about meeting up.

9. Get out of the conversation nicely.
Don’t use a lame excuse or let the conversation slide into an awkward silence, like so many people do.

An easy way to finish the conversation is simply to say “I really have enjoyed talking to you”. Their response will inevitably be “Thanks, I have too”, to which you can respond with, “Good, enjoy the rest of your day/evening”, and then you can go your separate ways.

10. Now you can go back into the crowd and search for your next Big Fish.

This protocol certainly helps to clarify a few things for me about networking, and I hope you will find it useful too.

What do you think of these ideas? How do you approach networking?

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  1. Here’s a different suggestion–take a course. Usually hands-on laboratory courses at places like Woods Hole and CSHL are taught by the top researchers in a given field. You get to meet them, have one-on-one time with them in the lab and in the bar after work. You also become friends with your fellow classmates, which gives you an in with their labs and their colleagues. These folks may seem like “boots” now, but they’ll be the top scientists of the future.

    In some cases, you also get a connection to people who have taken the same course in previous years, as alumni are often very loyal to the courses that drove their careers.

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