There’s a disconnect between students and employers when it comes to networking at the London Naturejobs Career Expo 2014
Contributor Samuel Brod
Wandering the booths at the Naturejobs Career expo held in London last September, I spent some time talking to the international exhibitors about the qualities they thought any aspiring scientist required for success. Replies varied across the nations:
“To think carefully about the questions you address and how you ask them”
– Professor Roberto M Cesar Jr. University of São Paulo, Brazil
“Well organised and good communicators”
– Bertram Welker. TU Berlin, Germany
“Dedication and motivation”
– Makoto Matsumoto. Otsuka Pharmaceuticals, Japan. (Translated by Olivia Simma)
“Originality and the drive to make a contribution to society”
-Selcen Gulsum Aslan Oszsahin. Tübitak, Turkey
“Curiosity, passion and Compassion. Everything else will come”
– Professor Lam Yee Cheong. Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
One point everyone agreed on was the importance of networking. As Professor Cesar, a computer scientist with over twenty years of research experience put it: “You cannot be a competitive researcher alone… Successful candidates have a multinational knowledge of their field and international connections.” To do this he suggested young scientists “take the opportunity to work abroad” and “be aware of the global perspective of their research”
These comments about networking matched the strong theme throughout the conference that day. And why were the exhibitors there if not to expand the networks of the companies they represented?
However, several attendees seemed uncomfortable with the practise of networking. Robert Allen, a final year PhD student from the University of London was highly aware of the need to network, “especially in science it seems that if you want to get a job, get papers or grants approved, you have to meet people, get on with them and people need to support you.”
Despite this he had made little attempt to network that day or at University, Allen admitted. “I don’t like selling myself and I feel that’s what networking is. It might be right it might be wrong but I’m not going to ‘big’ myself up and slip people my C.V. That’s not what I want to do.”
Perhaps this attitude is an example of those typically British ideals of reservation and modesty (most of the attendees I met were from the UK). However, as writer Adam Ruben, another scientist with an aversion to networking, suggests maybe it’s a product of our training.
“As scientists, we’re trained to take “I” out of the equation: The chemicals were mixed, and here’s what happened. We’re even encouraged to use the passive voice in our journal articles, because it’s our results, not some phony pitch, that matter.”
Is networking truly all about out handing out cards and forcing conversations? In a recent Forbes article Andrew Vest disputes this idea.
“True networking occurs when there’s an understanding that everyone in the room has equal value. In its purest form, it’s about people enjoying other people, communicating passions and connecting with others who share those passions.”
Fulvio D’Acquisto, Professor of immuno-pharmacology at Queen Mary University London, agreed and suggested people start off small. “Large networking events can feel impersonal; their size makes it hard to find like-minded people,” he says. “For me networking is an intimate thing. I send out my ideas to people and hope to seed relationships that will crystallize into something bigger. Good relationships need common interests and added value, that’s what I always try to offer.”
David Wright, a postdoc who’d recently taken a research position in Denmark, was acutely aware of the benefits networking can provide. “During my PhD in London and postdoc in the Netherlands the importance of networking has been well stressed,” he says. “In fact I moved from one to the other partly through networking at a conference.”
He also identified its challenges for those early in their careers and the importance of using more established colleagues as a route in. However it is much harder if you want to ‘cold network’ so to say, approach someone from another lab whose work you are interested in via email or a call. To overcome this hurdle Dr Wright suggested students and young researchers should “read up on people whose research is closest to yours. It’s surprising how small individual fields are, so getting to know your peers can help immensely with job opportunities, grant collaborations and writing papers.”
While their opinions may have differed, everyone I talked had good advice to offer on networking effectively.
Work widely. Taking a range of positions in your early career will allow you to develop a larger and more varied network. It will also grant a greater perspective of your own research’s value, making it easier for you to establish more diverse connections.
Know your peers. This will help identify those with parallel interests to yours and start a meaningful dialogue with them.
Use more senior colleague’s connections. Your lab head is likely aware of the majority of people working in his field. Make use of this knowledge.
Start small. Conferences can be daunting events. Initially focus on having smaller more personable interactions. Dr Wright mentioned: “All my real networking happened at the dinner table or in the pub.”
Build relationships not ‘contacts’. Shared values and mutual benefits should be your ethos when networking. No one likes to feel they’re being used.
Practice. Contrary to what some might believe, networking isn’t an innate talent gifted only for extroverts, but a skill that requires practice.
Be sincere. As Professor D’Acquisto put it: “Openness is the keystone of good science and the foundation of proper networking.” So be honest, it’s easier that way.
While few positions in science are permanent, the network of contacts you create can persist for a lifetime. These connections are an invaluable investment that will pay dividends across the span of your career. So start talking to people – from one introverted academic to another, I guarantee – it’s easier than you think.