February 2010

Note to Self: If I Network, the Jobs Will Come


Sarah Edwards received her bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Wellesley College in 2002 and her doctorate in chemistry from Stanford University in 2008. Her dissertation research focused on developing biological tools to study proteins in the model organism Saccharomyces cerevisiae. This past year, she studied the mechanisms of Alzheimer’s disease as a neurology postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School. Sarah has recently begun a scientific coordinator role at Duke University’s Center for Systems Biology, where she writes, edits, plans, presents, fosters interactions and collaborations and conducts outreach.

As a third-year chemistry graduate student at Stanford University, I wondered what life was like after graduate school. What were people out there doing, how were they meeting each other and how were they getting jobs? Admittedly, these questions relieved my brain from troubleshooting my repeated failure to turn my recalcitrant yeast cells green. However, I also recognized the utility of building a network – this is how I would discover what job I wanted and how I would obtain it.

The idea of networking, for most of us, incites fear. “People don’t like networking,” says Lance Choy, director of Stanford’s Career Development Center. “There is 'stranger danger' and they don’t know what to say.” Very true, and, furthermore, networking requires skills not typically in a scientist’s repertoire. So why bother? The statistics speak for themselves: I hear regularly that networking fills 80 percent of jobs. For four out of every five jobs, the person hiring is somehow connected to the person being hired. That’s why you should bother.

I didn’t do much networking while I was in graduate school. Instead, I used Stanford’s Career Development Center to gather information that I knew I’d need one day. That day came six months ago. After finishing my graduate degree, I had taken a postdoctoral position at Harvard Medical School to work on finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. However, I realized that bench research did not feel right, so I abandoned the laboratory in favor of finding another science-related career.

Thus, I found myself in a position I never would have imagined: I was unemployed. What has since ensued is a networking roadtrip. My goals: to discover what doors a doctorate in science can open and to land a job.

Networking 101

Networking is a numbers game: Connecting professionally with more people increases your likelihood of landing a job. As with any new task, start easy. I asked my parents if they knew anyone doing anything science-related I could contact. Then, I asked my next-door neighbor, my high school guidance counselor and math teacher, my mom’s friend, my friend’s mom. Before long, I was off to the races with several contacts.

I sent e-mails. It felt less invasive than cold-calling, especially with people I did not know well. The format is simple. In the subject line, write “referred by ____.” This grabs the person’s attention. Unsolicited e-mails are easily overlooked, so this tactic increases your chances of making the cut. Start with “Dear ____” and end with “Sincerely, ____.” Use a four-paragraph approach with two sentences per paragraph. Begin with an introduction that includes a reference to your mutual contact, then describe your background and refer to your attached resume. Next, describe your area(s) of interest and intention to speak with this person, and end with an appreciative, enthusiastic exit. The goal is to be polite, concise and grateful. You are asking for a favor.

An effective tip is to ask for “insight and advice.” This gem comes from a recent contact, Joan Plotnick, a writer and editor in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

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A few people will not respond to your e-mails. A few more will reply but offer little help. The majority will happily oblige. They often explicitly tell you how they prefer to connect, so your job is to set up the phone or in-person meeting.

Before the interview, spend at least 15 minutes finding out who this person is and what he or she does. “This leads to more thoughtful questions,” says Choy. “The unstated goal is building trust.” Translation: Make a good impression.

Approach the meeting like an informational interview. Have a list of questions like: What is your role within the organization? How much travel is involved? What is the education or training necessary for this position? We may not know these people well (or at all), but these conversations encourage us to explore our interests, broaden our knowledge base and help us think outside the box. Most importantly, these people are our tickets to our next jobs.

Interviewees generally fall into three categories. One is awkward folks who answer questions with one or two words. Here, the responsibility falls on you to ask good questions. The second group of people answers your questions more thoroughly, and a back-and-forth ensues. The last group, my personal favorite, consists of contacts who are excited to share and connect. Listen well and write quickly, because the floodgates open with that first question.

The most important information you will gather in the meeting is two new contacts. If these are not offered, ask, “Do you know of anyone else within your field willing to share his or her career history with me?”

These two new contacts become the sources for your next two e-mails. Follow the same e-mail format. Set up your informational interviews. Rinse and repeat.

If at any point you lack contacts, fear not. LinkedIn is an excellent online professional networking community. Or, use the alumni services for your educational institutions. Go to conferences. Join the local chapter of your trade or professional society. Volunteer at your local science museum. Use recruiters and educators local to you. Google searches even have resulted in valuable contacts for me.

Do not ask your new contact for a job. If the information is not freely given, ask, “Do you know of any current or future opportunities for someone with my credentials?” or “How do you suggest I approach finding this type of job?” These questions have triggered job possibilities for me, leading to job postings I had not seen and new people to contact.

If you persevere with your networking project, your contact base will build quickly. Start a spreadsheet to record basic contact information: date, name, number, e-mail, company, job title. Include how you know the new contact, e.g. a “Referred by” column. This last column is crucial. When you call or meet with one of your contacts and hear, “So, how do you know Mark?” you had better be sure you know which Mark and what this Mark does.

Give yourself a timeline for reinitiating contact. Three to four weeks after making your connection, send an e-mail to check back in. The e-mail should be personal. Refer to something you had previously discussed, what steps you have taken toward one of the suggestions from your contact, etc. This makes you pop back on the radar screen and gives your contact the chance to mention new job leads.

A follow-up thank-you note is crucial. Every single time you speak to or meet with someone in an informational interview, write “thank you for taking the time to [meet/speak] with me. I appreciate the advice you gave me concerning [something specific you learned].”

“Remember that the folks you are connecting with have lives, too,” says Laura Dominguez Chan, a career counselor at Stanford’s Career Development Center. “Be appreciative throughout the networking process and minimally send an e-mail message thanking them for their time.” Based on a recent survey by Chan, most contacts had not received letters of thanks. The few written thank-you cards stood out like gold stars.

If, like me, you dislike asking for help from acquaintances or strangers when it isn’t clear how to repay them, I have good news. People love talking about themselves! Three months and 90 contacts later, I can now give each new contact two of their very own new contacts. My networking adventure is still a work in progress, and I’m still out there searching for that tailor-made job. Along the way, however, I have gained much insight and advice.

The Stanford Career Development Center’s motto is “Connect, Respect, Reflect.” These three words make a world of difference between unemployment and employment. “Integrate [networking] into your goals,” says Chan, “and if you are job searching, then by all means make it a priority. Look at networking as research.” Scientists love research.

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