Science Networking Made Easy

20. February 2013

Marcius Extavour

Most scientists I know would do almost anything to avoid “networking.” They think of it as a horrible, shallow ritual that takes place at cocktail parties and sales meetings, and is anathema to the intellectual and meritocratic pursuit of science. Right?

Not so fast. I would argue that most productive researchers are actually great networkers, but many people have a misconception of what networking actually is. Networking is sharing your ideas and passion, listening to your colleagues as they do the same and introducing people to one another to make ideas and projects grow. In other words, all the conversations in the halls at CLEO, FiO or the AAAS annual meeting could fall into this category. Many scientists network without even realizing it.

For young scientists trying to launch their careers or seasoned professionals looking to move in a new direction, honing networking skills is a must. Here are a few methods that have served me well.

Be open and honest
The “sliminess” of networking comes from the feeling that you are being exploited. No one wants to feel used, nor is it pleasant to try to manipulate an acquaintance or colleague. To avoid this discomfort, be open and honest about your intentions. If you approach someone for advice, a favor, or an introduction to a third party, you should avoid trying to “game” that person. Instead, be straightforward about your request. This is the surest way to build trust and get the help that you need.

Offer to help
Networking is a two-way street. Sharing, give and take, and reciprocity are all basic networking principles. If all parties benefit from the relationship, then no one feels used or manipulated. Think about what you have to share that might help or interest a new acquaintance, not just about what he or she can give you. People are much more likely to respond positively if you start by offering help or value rather than just asking for something.

Network during low-stress times
We usually think of networking when we are job-hunting or looking for resources at a critical point in a project. Not surprisingly, it is much tougher to be open and natural when under that type of stress, and easier to come off as desperate or needy. A better time to build relationships is when you are confident and relaxed. Try to meet new people during the quiet periods after giving a conference presentation, submitting applications, or completing a major project. You can talk about your recent application or project as a lead-in, and then learn about new ideas from your acquaintances.

Use online tools
There are many resources available about networking online, including Bright Futures blog posts on using LinkedIn and other social media. I would also add that these online social networks can be especially useful for making contacts in fields peripheral to your own. Asking a LinkedIn contact to introduce you to someone who works in a completely different area can be a great avenue into that new direction.

Exchange business cards
Some say that the use of printed business cards is dying out, but I have found them to be more valuable than I ever expected. If nothing else, they can be a handy way to start a conversation with someone new. Keep in mind that different people and countries have their own business card styles, so be flexible. For example, in Asia the exchange of cards can be very formal, with each party taking time to carefully study the card as it is presented to them, while in the United States cards are passed out freely and widely with little ceremony.

Go slow
Walking up to a stranger and asking for a job takes huge nerve, and in my experience, almost never works. Instead, try taking a step back and committing to the relationship itself before going for the “big ask.” Offering more modest support or asking for a smaller favor – e.g. an introduction, an informational interview, or feedback on a piece of writing or project – are good ways to get to know someone, build trust, and establish a working relationship.

Marcius Extavour (marcius.extavour@utoronto.ca) is the Director of Corporate Partnerships at the faculty of applied science & engineering, University of Toronto, Canada.

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Understanding and Overcoming Scientist Stereotypes in the Workplace

8. March 2012

By Marcius Extavour

Culture shock can be at once the thrill and the bane of international travel. We must adapt to local culture, learn the language, and deal with stereotypes and others’ perceptions—or misperceptions—of who we are. These same lessons apply to professional “travel” and “relocation,” by which I mean working outside of one’s “home” profession—perhaps as an advisor to policymakers, for example, or in a managerial capacity at a company.

Scientists face a series of stubborn and pervasive personal stereotypes in outside work and study environments. This post outlines some of the most common caricatures and some suggestions for educating people about who scientists really are.

The solo operator

An individual working alone at a desk or lab bench, late into the night. Do you recognize this image of the scientist from media and pop culture? I don’t mean to suggest that science is not done in this way, as much of it is. However, this is clearly not the only work style. Single author papers are rare. Research collaborations abound, and they are encouraged by funders. Research groups rely on teamwork and many moving parts.

Yet those working outside of mainstream science often believe that we have no experience with teamwork and management hierarchies. We may therefore be either passed over for work or confined to individual tasks.

To push back, we must emphasize the collaborative side of science and our ability to thrive in managed teams. Though research hierarchies may not be as developed as they are in government or large corporations, most science groups rely on seniority (summer students, research associates, postdocs, staff scientists, PIs), a range of experience (undergraduates, technicians, senior faculty), and institutional hierarchies (grant writers, administrators) to manage talent and work flow.

Narrow expertise

There is no question that science requires deep focus and attention to detail. Subject matter expertise is the foundation on  broader knowledge and skill in science are built. Yet our deep and narrow focus as scientists can work against us in the eyes of generalists. When working in a new area, for instance, the scientist is often asked how their work is relevant to the new field. This is a fair question, since clearly not all scientific knowledge is universally applicable. From my own work, for example, the Kramers-Kronig relations generally have nothing to do with solar PV markets.

But if we take a step back from the cutting edge of our individual fields, we may find that connections between our specialized research and outside topics may emerge. To continue the example, light absorption in solids is certainly connected to solar electricity economics through PV device performance.

The connections may be indirect, but the overlap need only be large enough to build upon. It is important that scientists look for these connections, emphasize them to colleagues, and use them to maximize contributions to new areas.

Rigid, deaf to nuance, uncreative

Pop culture and media reinforce the broad misconception that scientists lack creativity, and that they are too rigid to adapt to surroundings and circumstances. This would be a terrible personal reputation in any field of work! Scientists must remember, and gently remind our non-scientist colleagues, that science demands fluidity and adaptability. Old ideas are pushed aside by new ones in the face of evidence and experiment. Scientific knowledge and truth evolve, and we must all evolve with it.

Often the leaders of change are the most creative among us. They make the unimaginable seem obvious once the evidence is presented and the experiments completed. Of course there is dogmatism and rigidity in science (as in any field), but these are far from the prevailing themes. This applies equally well to individual scientists.

How to combat these stereotypes in the workplace?

Battling stereotypes is not quick or easy. Often, we are not even given the chance to fight back directly, since few people even recognize or feel comfortable talking about their personal biases. Still, being aware of the misconceptions puts us in a better position to recognize the stereotypes that may undermine our goals and address them in honest conversation.

Marcius Extavour (marcius.extavour@sciencepolicy.ca) holds a Ph.D. in atomic physics and quantum optics from the University of Toronto. He served as the 2010-2011 OSA/SPIE Guenther Congressional Science Policy Fellow, and he is an active consultant and organizer in clean energy and science policy in Toronto, Canada.

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Using Informational Interviews to Broaden Career Horizons

17. March 2011

By Marcius Extavour

Some job seekers are hesitant to ask a potential employer to give them an informational interview. Why would any busy person agree to such a request? And why should you bother?

Informational interviews are not just a means to an end—in other words, getting a job. They can be valuable tools that inform your career choices, help you to explore new paths, and introduce you to new people. This post highlights the benefits of informational interviews for early-career science professionals as well as people changing careers and those who are simply curious about another field. It also aims to help you feel less intimidated about requesting an interview.

If your goal is to get a job
This is the classic reason for doing an informational interview: You are a job seeker reaching out to a prospective employer to discuss the employer’s work and the organization in general, rather than responding to a specific, advertised vacancy. The goal is near-term employment, and the target has already been identified as someone or someplace you would like to work for.

To set up the interview, contact a manager or hiring director to explain your interest in their work and the organization, and be sure to submit a polished resume with your request. At the interview, ask about specific ongoing projects, any new developments or trends within the organization, and whether the organization has any current or near-future plans for hiring.

If you’re looking to explore a new field
Informational interviews can be a great way to test the waters of a new area of interest and to expand your network. 

Start by contacting any individuals in the new field with whom you have come into contact, or representatives from organizations you are familiar with. These could be the same people or groups who first engaged your interest in the field. If you are well acquainted with any professionals in your field of interest, contact them first.

If not, do not be afraid to reach out to strangers. Just be sure to make it clear that you are seeking information, not direct employment. In preparing for the interview, focus on clearly articulating why you are interested in the area, what skills from your present work might be transferrable, and why you are looking to shift into a new field. Prepare a resume beforehand, but be ready to modify it after the interview based on what you learned. (You can even seek direct feedback on your resume itself at the interview. This is an exploratory interview, after all!)

Ask questions about the work environment at particular organizations and/or the general culture of the field of interest. And make sure to ask for recommendations of other people or organizations you can follow up with. Referrals from professionals in the new field can be one of the most valuable outcomes of such an interview.

If you aim to identify options or narrow your focus

Finally, and especially for graduate students and post-docs, informational interviews can be a great source of professional advice, mentorship and exposure to the many professional options in front of them. Mentorship is a great asset, but mentors can be hard to find. Informational interviewing is a great way to meet people whose work you admire, and who in turn may take an interest in your aspirations. 

Seek advice for interview candidates from your peers, advisors, family and friends. People who love what they do usually also love to talk about it, so they are likely to be receptive to interview requests. Ask people how they got to where they are now. What steps did they take? What pitfalls did they avoid—or overcome and learn from?

Also, ask individuals representing specific organizations for advice on how your skills and experience can be best applied to their work and what additional skills you might want to acquire. This type of an interview might be formal, with an individual whom you do not know personally, or it could be informal, with an acquaintance whose career path appeals to you. Even informal lunch dates, telephone conversations, or e-mails can yield valuable information that helps you to generate new ideas and leads, or points you to relevant reading material to pursue on your own. Again, be sure to ask for referrals.

Parting thoughts
At an informational interview—unlike a traditional job interview—you must be prepared to lead the discussion. Approach the interview with a healthy list of questions. You need not follow a script—you are mainly there to listen and learn. Even so, have your questions ready. Also, remember that you are asking a favor of someone, so be grateful, courteous, punctual and direct. And brave. Good luck!

Marcius Extavour, most recently a quantitative risk analyst at Ontario Power Generation, is currently serving on Capitol Hill as the OSA/SPIE Arthur H. Guenther Congressional Science and Engineering Fellow.

 

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From Science to Policy: New OSA/SPIE Congressional Fellow Shares Early Lessons

12. November 2010

By Marcius Extavour

After a busy day at the office last Monday, I settled in for a long night of poll-watching and punditry. As I scanned the Web for ballot results, comments and analysis about the U.S. mid-term election, I realized that, more than ever, I have a real professional stake in the results. Regardless of the exact political outcome, the nature of my job in energy policy with the United States Senate will certainly be affected.

I am only a few months into my term as an OSA/SPIE Guenther Congressional Science and Technology Fellow on Capitol Hill, but I have already learned a great deal about the nexus of science, technology, policy and politics. I am spending my fellowship year in the majority staff office of the Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources. This committee’s main function is to write, review and research legislation within the broad scope of energy policy, minerals and natural resources, public lands and parks.

My day-to-day work includes writing memos; summarizing technical and policy issues for the Chairman and other committee members; planning and organizing committee hearings related to emergent issues or pending legislation; and meeting with subject matter experts from academia, industry, government, and other stakeholder groups to ask questions and hear public concerns.

I have learned a few valuable lessons the hard way, even on the first few weeks on the job. Mostly, it’s been about shifting from the priorities of a laboratory scientist to the priorities of an active policy staffer. Here are a few lessons I’ve taken away from my experience so far. 

Get to the point. Concision is a virtue; verbosity a vice. Many of my assignments consist of summarizing complex technical material or policy history for a Senator or their staff--in one page or in a few bullet points! There is a tremendous appetite for accuracy and detail, but little tolerance for expansive treatises, no matter how eloquent.

Deadlines matter. In my academic career, a deadline could be sacrificed in the name of accuracy, improved analysis or added nuance; the focus was on producing the best product, even if it was delivered a bit late. Around Capitol Hill, timing is everything, and late material quickly becomes irrelevant. Accuracy and speed are both prized and expected.

Networking is key. A network is a group of trusted colleagues who can be counted on to give good advice in a pinch. As a new Fellow, this has meant introducing myself and my skills broadly to colleagues, and then finding out how we can work together. Career-wise, it has meant approaching people whom I admire and respect, and asking them how they got to where they are. I’ve found that most people who are good at what they do and who enjoy their work love talking about it!

With the national campaigns over and done with, policy discussions will likely intensify as electoral politics and strategy retreat. I hope that developing new skills will serve me well as I work with colleagues to advance the conversation on issues related to science, technology and especially energy policy.

Marcius Extavour, most recently a quantitative risk analyst at Ontario Power Generation, is currently serving on Capitol Hill as the OSA/SPIE Arthur H. Guenther Congressional Science and Engineering Fellow.

 

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