At the beginning of my doctoral program, I was advised to attend every career development event, talk to everyone I met, start my career plans now, and start networking yesterday. As a new PhD. Candidate, I have seen that the future after graduation school seems to be far away and finishing the next lab test has felt much more stressful. But I pushed myself to attend career-related mixers and events.
As a self-proclaimed introvert, talking small with strangers and refusing to pay attention was not something that I readily welcome, such events are not particularly enjoyable or fruitful. It was as if I was one of hundreds of other students in front of an overwhelmed professional. Looking back, I can now see that the problem was not that networking was a necessary evil. It was that I didn’t have enough clarity in my approach to networking or realistic expectations of what I wanted to gain from the experience.
Ultimately, networking is about establishing a group of people who will support your career growth and, as a result, you will support them. Yet networking has a bad reputation. I came into networking with a flawed mindset that I needed to know what I wanted to do with my career (even though I started my PhD and had no idea in reality) and that I was too familiar with people to create or break my future prospects.
While many articles offer some good advice on how to build your network and build relationships with people, the challenge I found in graduate school is knowing when and how to implement that advice in the context and timeline of the degree program. I further found that I was coming up against three common misconceptions.
- Networking is an activity that you do for a living Time is short Get a job, and then you’re done. I know I had this mentality of making X number connections to attend X number events and then checking “networking” from the list. But establishing meaningful relationships does not happen overnight.
- To network you must be present at structured carrier panels or authorized events with the title “Networking”. Yet building relationships and making connections can happen in many locations, environments and situations. In addition, informal sources of networking are invaluable.
- All types of networking activities are equally useful at all stages of your graduation journey. The truth is that how you interact with people can vary depending on where you are in your career and the kind of support you need.
Now that I’ve acknowledged what those misconceptions are, I’m proposing a framework for moving toward networking in three more long-term stages.
Stage 1: Exposure
This is your first or second year of graduate school (or your postdock location), and you are overwhelmed with information about career options and not sure what you want to do in the future. Don’t stress about meeting everyone and building an extensive network right away; This is about early stage data collection, so focus on it.
Career panels and seminars can be a great way to gain exposure to different careers. These should not be stressful events where you feel you must talk to every panelist and try to add them to your affiliate list. Use these career panels and seminars as a launching point to discover the wide range of jobs available to anyone with your experience or educational background.
I must first admit that I was fortunate to be in a well-resourced institution that regularly hosts a variety of events for students. I have the privilege of being in a position to attend career panels and seminars to explore my options. I know it doesn’t always happen. But with events becoming virtual, especially in recent years, if you have the opportunity to be heard on a career or alumni panel, I would recommend this as a starting point for giving birth to your interest. Again, this work is about exposure to options, not about making connections.
After joining the panel and listening to the alumni’s career journey, a few fields stood out and caught my attention. As soon as this started to happen I started to move on to the next stage.
Stage 2: Immersion
Colleges and universities are built for exploration. Beyond the formal structure of the degree program, you can find a web of student organizations, clubs, and alumni groups that offer learning opportunities. Once you’ve identified potential career fields, look for ways to get involved with those fields. Examining different fields can give you valuable information that career paths may be right for you. Instead of listening to a medical writer at an event, volunteer for your department’s newsletter. Instead of listening to a management consultant explain their work, take a consulting case and work as a team to solve an organization’s business challenges.
For example, in the fourth year of my undergraduate school, I became interested in the idea of working in the pharmaceutical industry. I took part in a case study where I took on the role of a medical science liaison or MSL and talked to field leaders about a new therapy. This gave the opportunity to work with a real MSL and interview real doctors about real products.
I know joining a panel and listening to an MSL would not make as much sense as trying to do a role for yourself. Participating in programs, committees and clubs can open your eyes to many different perspectives and people. As you get involved you will ask questions, observe what people in the field do, actively engage and work with professionals, and create realistic output while building a strong network.
The follow-up to this story is that I noticed that I didn’t want a job as a medical science communicator and wasn’t as interested in the field as I thought at first. By participating in the case study, however, I became involved with the student organization that hosted the event. And a few years later, I was organizing that program and actively working with professionals in the pharmaceutical industry and career development. By following my interests and contributing to a portfolio of projects, I have been systematically connected with players active in all areas that led to future opportunities.
Step 3: Connection
Volunteering and getting involved is a natural way to nurture those tempting network nodes. Busyness can be small (performing one at a public event) or large (organizing a conference), but in any case, you should not do such activities alone. If you volunteer to run a departmental retreat, professors and administrators will see you in action and know that you are reliable. If you organize a career panel for other students, the professionals you contact will know how you communicate.
I volunteered in a departmental trainee committee and helped recruit guest speakers, which required contact with the department’s program manager. After establishing a relationship by organizing a short seminar series, the program manager himself knew what I was able to do when I volunteered to help retreat to the department; He knew he could trust me for a bigger job. It’s always good to show up, not say, and give everyone something to give. Actively helping others, asking, “What can I do for you?” And solving people’s stress challenges is a way to showcase your abilities while building relationships.
It is also important to remember that your network includes not only superiors, but also colleagues. As a student, I often forgot that my classmates and colleagues were part of my network and I could reach out to them for advice and help. But the truth is that those with whom I have volunteered have consistently supported the growth of my career. In addition, I am able to assist them as they progress in their careers. Sharing the experience of working in a team is extremely helpful when building a meaningful relationship.
Ultimately, you need a connection as you move from higher education to the real world. Whether you’re leaving the academy or going to postdock, the connection helps you find a job. I have my Ph.D. As I finished, I was able to look back at all the curriculum activities I had done and reflect on what had assigned me the most. I was able to easily reach out to those I worked with and find informative interviews to learn more about their roles and responsibilities. After contacting or working with many of them before, they had direct knowledge of my skills and were able to offer helpful advice and make recommendations to reach out to other people with confidence. This process allows me to strengthen my professional relationships and get to know new people. I’ve come into that new acquaintance with past experience and a portfolio of past teammates that I can tap into and in some cases, to repay the help they’ve given me.
Periodic networking refraining can help reduce the stress of trying to meet everyone at once. Instead, use your time to explore different career paths, engage in your interests, and connect with the professionals and colleagues you meet along the way.
There are many ways to build a network, but I hope colleges and universities will move away from focusing on traditional mixers as a way to increase professional affiliation and instead encourage students to get involved — be it through Pro Bono Consulting Club, job simulation program, leadership . Position in student organizations, public engagement activities, student counseling or departmental committees. Networking is not a single and accomplished activity. It’s about building relationships, exploring new career options and using your skills to give back.