|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 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.