Contributor Gary McDowell, Tufts University Postdoctoral Association President
Graduate students and postdocs tend to spend the majority of their time at the bench, believing that this is the only path towards getting a job. The reality is that in the current job climate, most jobs are found through the networks that we build and the people we meet; up to 80% of the jobs people get are not publicly advertised. Many institutions and science organizations now regularly include networking events as part of meeting and conference schedules.
At Tufts University, our Postdoctoral Association recently tried a variation on this which is becoming more common in the business world: “Speed Networking”.
For those with experience of the cultural phenomenon of “speed dating”, the premise will be familiar. 35 postdocs and grad students were divided up into groups “dating” 15 professionals at themed tables: academia; industry; patent law; journal editing; regulatory affairs; business development; and administration. For 10 minutes, questions and conversations were exchanged to give students and postdocs an idea of some of the work involved in different careers and areas where they could build relevant experience for a particular role. Then, appropriately, a lab timer would beep and each group of postdocs and grad students would get up and rotate to another table. After everyone had met, there was time and space for more one-on-one networking. Contact details were made freely available afterwards to attendees, to get in touch and connect with professionals who most engaged them in discussing career aspirations.
All students and postdocs involved found the session extremely useful not only to talk about careers they were interested in, but also to develop necessary skills for the job search. Here are some of the things they learned from the networking session.
The Elevator pitch
Everyone in attendance at the event found it useful to try their “elevator pitch”; a 2-minute synthesis of their research and interests for a variety of different audiences. Lab meetings and seminars give researchers an opportunity to communicate their science to a knowledgeable audience and occasionally there is the opportunity for teaching material to a group of students. However there is often little opportunity to explain, in a professional setting, what your research is and in particular, how that research should be of interest to the person talking to you.
What is exciting to see is when researchers realize there is an aspect of their work that they particularly enjoy, that can relate to an entire career they maybe didn’t even know existed.
Career awareness and preparedness
Researchers often take the view that they can simply move into different career paths if they are unsuccessful in securing an academic job, but unfortunately these other careers are just as competitive. Being able to meet professionals in different careers raised awareness of the possible careers that are available. The skills that are required for different professions were also identified and it is surprising how many of these were already practiced by attendees. Some more focus and training on these skills would give researchers a competitive edge in applying for non-academic jobs.
The idea for this event was originally seeded by Dan Jay, the faculty member responsible for Postdoctoral Scholars at Tufts, but the organization was carried out by an enthusiastic team of postdocs. When postdocs are doing it for themselves, and others, not only is attendance at a career development event a training exercise, but so is its organization. Contacts in various professions were sought out using both the existing networks of postdocs and the assistance of the university in contacting alumni and in dealing with the organization of the event. Therefore not only do postdocs attending such an event gain from working on their career development, but those organizing it also are able to practice skills in management, organization and professional networking which, whilst useful for all careers – including academia – are rarely given exercise in a lab setting.
Although institutions can do more to provide training to their graduate students and postdocs, young researchers can also organize events themselves and when everyone at an institution is able to share resources and training events, the work is divided and the rewards even greater. Postdocs and grad students: get out there and start your training for yourselves!