Being able to use connections is vital in getting access to opportunities that may otherwise slip by unnoticed, says Rachel Harris.
Guest contributor Rachel Harris
As a science undergraduate I always assumed networking was for other people in different careers. Scientists spend a lot of time working independently, so I wondered why we would need business cards and contacts. I, like many others before me, was naïve. Now as a PhD student, I know it’s about who you know, not (entirely) what you know. Being able to use connections is vital in getting access to opportunities that may otherwise slip by unnoticed.
Though a little slow on the uptake I have completely woken up to the power of building a network. This all happened when I attended the British Neuroscience Association 2015: Festival of Neuroscience, without knowing anyone else. After warming up and having a few conversations, I realised that I genuinely enjoy meeting new people and having a good talk. I spoke to several PhD students in my research area, editors and industry supervisors, and reconnected with researchers from my previous institutions. This made the conference a much more interesting and productive experience than if I had only attended the academic talks.
Making long-lasting connections with everyone you meet is going to be difficult, but by starting a conversation you’re not going to lose anything either. Coupled with the relative ease of keeping in contact, even after long periods, making new connections is simpler than ever. Based on my experience at the Festival of Neuroscience, and others I’ve had over the last few years, I thought it would be useful to share some networking tips I’ve collected along the way.
Tackle the fear
The largest barrier to networking is overcoming ‘the fear’ of breaking away from the people you already know and introducing yourself to someone new. I always go up to other delegates I see standing alone. Both parties are happy to have someone else to talk to and opportunity to learn about some different work. I have never met anyone, no matter what stage of their career they’re at, who will ignore or turn away someone who makes an effort to start conversation – people are nice!
Run symposia, sit on committees and join societies you’re interested in. This provides a platform to build working relationships and the reward of seeing events come to life. Doing this has made me feel much more a part of the research community at my university and all these things help expose you to new people from your institution, city and beyond.
Make it count
Many conferences produce a list of those who attended, so remind yourself of who you spoke to at the end of the day and perhaps jot down their contact details and research area. This is where business cards can come in very handy, so don’t be afraid to get some printed and start using them.
Stay in touch
If you want to follow up with a potential employer or PI, be proactive and give them an email the following day so you both have the best chance of remembering your meeting. It only takes a few minutes and can enforce that you’re serious about talking or taking an application further. As conferences can be a bit of a whirlwind, don’t be afraid to follow this up after the event and can keep yourself fresh in their mind.
There are several good reasons to be on social media. LinkedIn provides a more formal way to solidify a connection and particularly useful when on the hunt for a new position. Twitter offers an excellent way to get connected with other early career researchers at conferences and in your field in a more informal setting. I’ve had PhD students come up to me during events and tell me that they know me from Twitter and I’ve made new connections with others live tweeting and heading to the same socials and symposia sessions.
One of my favourite aspects of working in science is learning something new. The more people you speak to, the more insight can be gained into research and careers that are open to you. By implementing some of these tips hopefully you’ll enjoy the experience of making new connections and discovering new opportunities.
Rachel is a runner up in the 2015 London Naturejobs Career Expo journalism competition. She is also a PhD student at University of Bristol studying the role of blood flow in dementia. When not in the lab she enjoys getting involved with science outreach and writing and hopes to continue working in academia and communicating research.