When I started my PhD program I was advised to attend every career development event, talk to everyone I met, start planning my career now and start networking yesterday. As a recent Ph.D. Candidate, I found that after grad school the future seemed far away and the completion of the next lab experiment was much more urgent. But I’ve pushed myself to attend career-related mixers and events.
As a self-proclaimed introvert, small talk with strangers and striving for attention was not something I readily welcomed, making such events not particularly enjoyable or productive. It felt like I was just one of hundreds of other students in a sea of faces in front of an overwhelmed professional. Now, looking back, I see that the problem wasn’t that networking was a necessary evil. It was because I didn’t have enough clarity in my approach to networking or realistic expectations of what I was hoping to get out of the experience.
Ultimately, networking is about building a group of people who support your career growth and you, in turn, support theirs. But networking has a bad reputation. I came into networking with the wrong mindset, that I needed to know what I wanted to do with my career (despite having just started my PhD and actually had no idea) and that the people I am would be superficially introduced to my future prospects decide or break.
While many articles offer some good suggestions on how to structure your network and build relationships with people, the challenge I found in grad school was knowing when and how to apply this advice in the context and schedule of a degree program be able. I also found that I encountered three common misconceptions.
- Networking is an activity you do for a short period to get a job, and then you’re done. I know I had this mindset of attending X events to make X connections and then crossing “networking” off the list. But building meaningful relationships doesn’t happen overnight.
- To network, you must attend structured career panels or sanctioned events titled “Networking.” However, forming relationships and making connections can happen in a variety of places, settings and scenarios. In addition, informal sources of networking are invaluable.
- All kinds of networking activities are equally useful at all stages of your graduate journey. The truth is that the way you interact with people can change depending on where you are in your career and what kind of support you need.
Now that I’ve recognized these misconceptions, I propose a framework to approach networking in three more long-term phases.
Stage 1: exposure
It’s your first or sophomore year of grad school (or your postdoctoral position) and you’re being overwhelmed with information about career opportunities and unsure of what you want to do in the future. Don’t go through the hassle of meeting each person and immediately forming an extensive network; This initial phase is all about gathering information, so focus on that.
Career panels and seminars can be great ways to familiarize yourself with different career fields. These shouldn’t be stressful events where you feel like you have to talk to every panelist afterwards and try to grow your membership list. Use these career panels and seminars as a starting point to discover the wide range of jobs available for someone of your experience or educational background.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been fortunate to be in a well-resourced institution that continually hosts different types of events for students. I have also been privileged to be in a position where I have had the time to attend career panels and seminars to explore my opportunities. I know this is not always the case. But especially in the last few years of virtual events, if you get a chance to listen to a careers or alumni panel I would recommend it as a starting point to pique your interest. This work is also about dealing with options, not about making connections.
After attending panels and listening to alumni career paths, a few areas stood out and caught my attention. As this began, I began to transition to the next phase.
Stage 2: Immersion
Colleges and universities are built for exploration. Outside of the formal structures of degree programs, you will find a network of student organizations, clubs and alumni groups that offer learning opportunities. Once you identify potential career fields, find opportunities to get involved in those related to those fields. Trying out different areas can give you valuable information about what career paths might be right for you. Instead of listening to a medical editor at an event, volunteer for your department’s newsletter. Instead of having a business consultant explain your job, take a consulting case and work as a team to solve a company’s business challenge.
For example, during my fourth year of graduate school, I was intrigued by the idea of working in the pharmaceutical industry. I participated in a case study in which I played the role of Medical Science Liaison (MSL) and spoke to leaders in the field about a new therapy. This was an opportunity to work with a real MSL and interview real doctors about real products.
I know that attending a panel and listening to an MSL explain his job never made more sense than trying the role for myself. Participating in programs, committees, and clubs can open your eyes to many different perspectives and people. When you get involved, you will ask questions, observe what people are doing in the field, actively engage and collaborate with professionals and achieve tangible results – all while building a strong network.
The continuation of this story is that I realized I didn’t want a job as a medical science liaison and wasn’t as interested in the field as I originally thought. However, by participating in the case study, I became involved in the student organization running the program. And a few years later I organized this program and actively collaborated with professionals from the pharmaceutical industry and career development fields. By pursuing my interests and contributing to a portfolio of projects, I organically connected with people active in these areas, which led to future opportunities.
Stage 3: Connect
Volunteering and involvement is a natural way to nurture these coveted network nodes. The commitment can be small (demonstrating at a public event) or large (arranging a conference), but in either case you will not undertake such activities alone. If you volunteer to lead a departmental retreat, professors and administrators will see you in action and know you are reliable. When you organize a careers panel for other students, the professionals you contact will know how you communicate.
I volunteered on a department internship committee and helped recruit guest speakers, which required communication with the department program manager. After developing a relationship by organizing a small series of seminars, the program manager knew firsthand what I was capable of when I volunteered to help with the departmental retreat; he knew he could entrust me with bigger tasks. It’s always better to show than to say, and everyone has something to give. Actively helping others and asking, “What can I do for you?” and solving people’s pressing challenges are ways to demonstrate your skills while building relationships.
Also remember that your network is not only made up of bosses but also of colleagues. As a student, I often forgot that my fellow students and colleagues were part of my network and that I could turn to them for advice and help. But the fact of the matter is, the people I’ve volunteered with have consistently supported my career growth. I also support them in their professional development. The shared experience of working in a team is extremely helpful when it comes to building a meaningful relationship.
Ultimately, when you move from higher education to the real world, you need connections. Regardless of whether you are leaving university or aiming for postdoctoral studies, contacts will help you find a job. When I finished my PhD, I was able to look back on my extracurricular activities and reflect on what bothered me the most. I was able to easily connect with people I had worked with along the way and seek informational meetings to learn more about their roles and responsibilities. Having previously interacted or worked with many of them, they knew my abilities directly and were able to provide tailored advice and confidently recommend other people to reach out to them. This process has allowed me to strengthen my professional ties and meet new people. I also came to these new contacts with a portfolio of past experiences and past teammates that I could draw on and in some cases reciprocate the help they gave me.
Reframing networking as a step-by-step approach can help relieve the stress of trying to meet everyone at once. Instead, use your time to explore different career paths, get involved in the fields that interest you, and connect with the professionals and peers you meet along the way.
There are many ways to network, but I hope colleges and universities move away from focusing on traditional mixers as a means of promoting professional affiliations and instead encourage students to get involved — whether through pro bono counseling clubs, job -Simulation programs or leadership positions in student organizations, public engagement, student mentoring or departmental committees. Networking is not a one-time activity. It’s about building relationships, exploring new career opportunities, and using your skills to give back.