An ever growing network can help you get insights and experiences in a chosen industry, says Michelle Reeve.
Contributor Michelle A. Reeve
In the last six weeks I’ve attended two long conferences and I’m networked out. Putting names to faces, faces to names, shaking a seemingly endless number of hands and forcing smiles until your face aches. It’s exhausting. It’s invaluable. From these conferences, and other previous experiences, I’ve created an ever-growing network of science communication contacts that have benefited, and will continue to benefit, my professional career.
We all know it’s not about what you know, it’s who you know. Of course, that’s not entirely true – you can’t get relevant jobs if you know nothing about your chosen career. You have to know stuff to progress.
I recently spent three months doing a PhD internship at The Royal Institution (Ri), working on their prestigious CHRISTMAS LECTURES®; this was a dream role for me. The only reason I got that position was through a chance meeting with a professor at my PhD interview over three years ago. Out of almost two hundred academics, I met with him, not knowing he’d presented the Lectures a few years previously. I subsequently ended up working with him on a short research project, often discussing science communication careers and his past experiences. When the time came for me to search for an internship, I turned to him for advice. He put me in touch with the Ri and I set up a meeting with them. Shortly after, the internship was confirmed. Had I not chosen him to meet with on that interview day I would never have been able to chase up this opportunity.
Chance encounters like this give us time to learn about people; their skills, interests and their own networks. It also gives us an insight into their career paths and how they might be able to help us (and how we might be able to help them!). However, networking can be tough, and getting the most out of it takes a bit of practice. Here are some tips that I’ve picked up along the way.
Be confident and enthusiastic when approaching new people, even if you feel nervous inside. If you’re talking to someone who’s a “really big deal” in your field, it’s natural to be over-critical of yourself, but just try to relax. They’re unlikely to notice your nerves. And in the end, they’re just another human being.
Introduce yourself if you’re in a group. This seems obvious but is easily overlooked, especially if you’re with someone who forgets to introduce you. It’s okay to stick your hand out mid-conversation with apologies for not having introduced yourself earlier – better than them leaving without knowing your name.
Be honest. If you don’t know much about what they’re talking about, ask! Don’t just nod along. Asking questions shows enthusiasm and engages people, so they’re more likely to remember you.
Be sociable. If people suggest discussing things further over dinner or a coffee, go with them! You may well bump into others on the way, especially if you’re at a conference. You’ll meet even more people and expand your network even further. (At this point you might start forgetting names – but it’s okay to ask them again! They’re probably feeling the same.)
Follow up contacts with an email or a tweet – just a little note to remind them who you were, what you talked about, and to thank them for their time. That way they’ll have your contact details, too.
Through that one chance contact I made at my PhD interview, I’ve met countless people in the science communication industry, many of whom will be really useful to know when the job hunt begins when I graduate. Through these contacts I’ve had the opportunity to attend a science communication conference (the BIG STEM Communicators Network event), and workshops and training days (BBSRC Media Training; Science Communication Workshop at the BBC), leading to more chance encounters and conversations. My network is growing.
You never know where that chance encounter could lead, or who it will connect you with. We can all learn from one another, regardless of age, status or career path. So I encourage you to get out there, share your passions and goals and meet as many people as you can. After all, what have you got to lose?
Michelle is a runner up in the 2015 London Naturejobs Career Expo journalism competition, and is a PhD student at The Royal Veterinary College, studying spider locomotion and robotics. In her spare time, she is usually found trying to persuade her arachnophobe friends that spiders are, in fact, quite lovely. She is regularly involved in science outreach activities, and is aiming for a career in science communication once she’s submitted her thesis.
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