Three Simple Steps to Networking Success

10. July 2014

Arlene Smith

I want to address a topic that is almost essential for career progression but can strike fear in an introvert’s heart: networking. Although it may feel like you’re the only one who gets nervous in networking situations, you’re not alone. Everyone fears rejection or embarrassment, but you don’t need to be afraid!

If speaking with your optics idol or asking a question makes you queasy, the following approach can quell your fears. I urge you to try it out.

1. Make your approach
The first step is deciding how to approach someone and begin a conversation with him or her. If you are in a panel session, approach a speaker and say, "I have a question and I would like to hear your thoughts." This shows the panelist that you value his or her opinion.

 If you are in an informal networking situation, try approaching a group and simply asking, "May I join you?" Remember, networking is about meeting new people. They want to meet you, too.

When deciding who to approach and how, ask yourself, "What’s the worst thing that could happen?" The very worst possibility is that the panelist or group isn't friendly, in which case you just move on. A better question to ask is, "What’s the BEST thing that could happen?" If you don’t put in the effort, you could miss out on great opportunities.

2. Have a conversation
After introducing yourself to someone and exchanging basic information, start asking him or her questions. I estimate that 90 percent of networking is showing interest in other people, so be sure to focus on the person to whom you’re speaking. Sometimes conversation flows naturally, but other times it might take more effort. Here are some good questions to get a dialog started: 

What are you currently working on?
• What result do you expect to see?
• What has challenged you?
• What has been your biggest success?
• Is there anyone here you hope to meet?

3. Follow up
When it is time to move on, exit the conversation by simply saying, "It was nice to speak with you. May I have your business cards/emails? I need to see a few more people today, but we should get in touch." Make sure to follow up:

• Write down a relevant detail from the conversation as soon as possible. This will help you remember the conversation and reconnect with that person later.
• Within two days, make contact and mention a specific point that you discussed. If you meet a lot of people, prioritize your list and contact the individuals you deem most likely to be helpful first. Contact the others at a later time.
• Make an effort to keep in contact with important people. Don't let them forget about you.

Arlene Smith (arlsmith@umich.edu) is a research fellow in the department of internal medicine at the University of Michigan, U.S.A.

 

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A Woman's Place Is in the Lab

1. April 2014

Arlene Smith

As a female engineer, one becomes accustomed to being a minority: in the lecture theatre, in the graduate lab and in the workplace. We have come a long way from the days when women scientists were an anomaly, but the number of women choosing STEM courses and careers still lags behind our male counterparts. Increasing female representation in STEM, from the classroom to leadership roles, requires increased support not just within the research and education communities, but also from hiring managers in industry.

 A recent study carried out by U.S. business school professors at Columbia University, Northwestern University and the University of Chicago found that a gender bias is still present at the hiring level for STEM roles. Hiring managers, both male and female, were asked to rate candidates based on their completion of simple mathematical tasks. When the managers were provided with no information other than appearance, men were twice as likely to be hired for a mathematical task then women. If a woman’s performance on the task was equal to that of a man, the man was still 1.5 times more likely to be hired for the role. The authors also concluded that, in an interview scenario, males tend to overestimate future performance, whereas women underestimate. Employers do not appreciate the extent of this bias, nor do they compensate for it at the point of hire.

In February 2014, the AIP Statistical Research Center released the results of a survey of U.S.-based Ph.D. graduates. The year 2012 saw an increase of 131 percent in the number of women completing Ph.Ds. in physics, compared with 2001. However, this accounts for just 20 percent of the total physics Ph.D. graduates in 2012. While this trend is encouraging, it’s clear that women are still underrepresented in the field and thus the graduate job market.

To increase female participation, there is an onus on women in the field to foster change, to take action and become involved. We need to communicate more, both with each other and with our male colleagues. This can mean outreach to middle and high schools, or staffing an industry booth at a career fair. You can show your support through mentoring programs and local and national societies and networks. Involvement is not limited to women— you don’t have to be female to recognize the advantages of a diverse workforce and support equality in the workplace. If women no longer fear that they will have to struggle against unfair prejudice in a STEM career, then more women will choose to study those subjects.

Luckily, we are not starting from scratch. Minorities and Women in OSA and SPIE Women in Optics provide seminars and networking opportunities for female scientists and engineers in optics. Connecting Women in Science, Technology and Entrepreneurship (WiSTEE Connect), established in 2013, provides an opportunity for connectivity and mentorship among women in science and engineering. I encourage you to educate yourself on these groups, as well as others on your campus or in your workplace, and support their efforts in building a more diverse and equal optics community.

What does it mean to be a female optical scientist today? For me, it means being part of an established, vibrant and growing community. What will it be like tomorrow? The trajectory will likely have its peaks and valleys, but we have every reason to be optimistic about the future—because it is ours to shape.

Arlene Smith (arlsmith@umich.edu) is a research fellow in the department of internal medicine at the University of Michigan, U.S.A.

 

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