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.
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Director of Corporate Partnerships at the faculty of applied science & engineering, University of Toronto, Canada.