Written by Todd Nolan, Ph.D.
I walk through the door, choking on my fear.
I’m sweating and dizzy.
All I want to do is find an empty table somewhere in the back behind a large plant.
The only empty space in the entire room is right up front next to the bar.
I’m going to be forced to chit-chat.
I hate small talk.
I knew I should have gotten here earlier.
Then I could have found somewhere to hide.
It sounds ridiculous but these are the thoughts and feelings that go through me every time I go to a networking event.
I know networking is critical to moving my career forward, but it’s very painful for me.
Like a lot of PhDs, I’m an introvert.
I’m a shy introvert.
I get very uncomfortable walking into a room full of strangers.
When I’m at a networking event, it’s like I’m wearing two sets of chains.
One set of chains is pulling me forward towards other people, encouraging me to introduce myself.
The second set is pulling me backwards, encouraging me to find a safe place on the wall to stand and avoid eye contact.
The second set of chains used to be much stronger.
Alive In The Lab, Dead At Networking Events
I feel alive in the lab.
I love dutifully performing my next experiment, reading the latest research, and hoping I don’t get scooped.
For me, this is bliss.
Alone, minimally interacting with those around me—ah, pure happiness.
I was the epitome of the lone scientist.
I wasn’t building relationships and I surely wasn’t building a network.
But that was okay.
The science will speak for itself.
I could stay nicely cocooned in academia, isolated just the way I liked it, and my work would be rewarded.
Unfortunately, no, I wasn’t right.
One day, I woke up to find out my research grant wasn’t renewed.
It was time to move on.
My network was abysmal and I didn’t know how to grow it.
Every time I found a networking event nearby, I would either back out the day before, or show up, scurry to the nearest wall, look at the floor, and leave 5 minutes later.
I felt dead at business networking events. Like I was sinking into quicksand, suffocating.
But everyone else was on dry ground.
They were loving it. They all looked so happy and confident, talking about all of the hottest jobs for PhDs right now.
Why couldn’t that be me?
6 Networking Event Tips To Become An Expert Networker
If you feel out of place at noisy, crowded networking events, you’re not alone.
A report in Scientific American and data presented in Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking shows that introverts make up one-third to half of the population.
Once I realized I wasn’t alone in my fear of networking, things started to get better.
For a long time, I thought something was wrong with me.
I thought I had some kind of disorder. I thought I was defunct because I couldn’t network.
Now I know that almost half the population is like me.
Those other smiling faces at the networking events I’ve been attending are uncomfortable too.
They’re just human!
Still, I needed a boost.
If I was going to start networking for real, I needed a positive group of people to support me and to hold me accountable.
I found this group by joining the Cheeky Scientist Association.
With a positive group of PhDs behind me, I started creating an actual networking strategy, instead of just winging it and showing up to events unprepared.
This changed everything. Slowly, networking became natural to me.
Now, I have an incredible network and hear about academic and industry opportunities daily.
Here are 6 things I did to turn myself into an expert networker at business networking events….
1. Focus on one person at a time.
I like people.
I enjoy meeting new people too.
The problem is I like meeting one person at a time.
This is all the social interaction I can handle.
When I get around more than one or two people at a time, I start to feel overwhelmed.
I feel pressured to give multiple people attention at once, which I’m never be able to do.
Instead, my eyes dart back and forth and I get lost in multiple conversations and have to find an excuse to leave, like going to the restroom.
Now, I know that it’s impossible to pay attention to more than one person at a time.
Now, when I go into a networking event, I find one person to talk to and stay focused on him or her.
I have a real conversation with that one person.
Then, I move onto another single person.
Chunking things down like this is very helpful. By focusing on one person at a time, the other people disappear.
Plus, it helps me treat the people I’m meeting as real people, not just a means to an end like getting a job.
2. Stop expecting to be comfortable.
How did I finally get over my fear and self-doubt?
I never did.
Those feelings are still there, lingering in the background.
I don’t think I’ll ever fully banish them.
But I’ll continue to get better and better at managing them.
The only way to manage the anxiety that comes with meeting new people at a networking event is to harness your nervous energy and redirect it in a positive manner.
Do I still get nervous when attending an event?
Yes, of course.
But, does my nervousness ever make me not want to go?
The most important part of refocusing your nervous energy is realizing that everyone else is nervous to some extent too.
If everyone is nervous, then nervousness is not a bad thing.
It’s just part of the interaction.
Just like having to repeat an experiment multiple times is part of getting your data published.
It’s not always fun, but it’s necessary and with the right mindset, it can be a positive experience.
Every time you start feeling nervous, smile.
Our physiology affects our psychology. It’s nearly impossible to feel nervous with a big grin on your face.
It might sound corny, but it works.
Not only do you feel better when you smile, you also become more approachable.
So get over yourself. Drop the lonely, brooding scientist act for a few hours.
Trust me, you’ll be happy you did.
3. See your silence as a strength.
“Silence is only frightening to people who are compulsively verbalizing.”
I love this quote by William S. Boroughs.
I used to see my silence as a weakness.
Inevitably, at every networking event I attend, I end up in a circle with 3-4 other people all talking at the same time while I stand there silently.
I love listening.
I like to learn about other people and hear about their experiences.
But I used to feel pressured to talk as much as everyone else.
If you’re not talking constantly at a networking event, you’re doing something wrong.
The truth is talking is weakness.
Most people think talking makes them memorable but in reality, listeners are remembered more.
When you give someone the chance to express themselves, you become more memorable.
The key is asking good questions to keep the other person talking.
As an introverted PhD, you’re an incredible listener.
You’re comfortable with staying silent.
Apply this strength.
Ask questions and then ask more follow-up questions.
People love to talk about themselves.
Most people are just waiting for their turn to talk.
Use your strength as a listener to truly hear what other people are saying.
By truly listening to others, they will engage deeply with you, which is the whole point of networking.
4. Get used to the sound of your own voice.
If you’re a shy introvert like me, you don’t talk.
Most days, I say about 100 words out loud.
Think about that.
That’s barely enough to order a pizza.
As a result of talking so little in my daily life, I would find it extremely hard to talk at networking events.
Yes, you should spend the majority of your time listening to other people at networking events, but sooner or later, you need to talk.
You need to ask questions.
You need to ask for people’s contact information so you can follow-up with them after the event.
How did I get used to my own voice?
I started talking more.
Plain and simple.
First, I started talking to myself (in private, so wouldn’t get locked up).
We have all monologues running through our minds all day long.
Start saying these monologues out loud.
Next, start speaking to others every chance you get.
Make it a goal to say “hello” to at least 10 people each day.
There’s no pressure here.
You don’t have to discuss anything.
All you have to do is say hello.
Once you master “hello,” start making short conversations with people.
Ask the barista at Starbucks or in the hospital coffee shop how their morning is going.
Do the same things when you buy your morning bagel or when you go to the grocery store.
Remember, it’s part of these people’s jobs to talk to customers.
You’re not putting them out by starting a conversation. You’re helping them do their job.
You’re helping their days go by a little faster too.
Again, start small and keep it simple.
You’re not trying to discuss your latest plasmid prep technique.
5. Network with attendees before the event begins.
Going to networking events is hard because of the pressure to connect.
You’re going to the event to connect with new people.
If you don’t connect with anyone, you’ll feel like a failure.
This pressure to connect, this fear of failure, keeps a lot of PhDs from networking.
The best way to deal with this pressure is to deflate it before you show up to the event.
First, contact the event hosts the day before the event.
Hosts love it when you contact them because they want you to have a good time.
After all, they’re the hosts!
Very often, these hosts will already know someone who they think you should connect with and, when you arrive, they will introduce you.
What’s better than being personally introduced to someone at a networking event by the event’s host?
Not much in my opinion.
Second, look at the list of attendees before arriving to the event.
If you can’t find a list, ask the hosts for a list.
Now, you can reach out to the attendees you want to meet before you go.
Simply tell these people you’re going to the event too and would like to meet them.
By introducing yourself via email first, you get the hard part out of the way before either of you show up to the event.
6. Set a goal for every networking event.
The most important part of networking is setting tangible goals for each event.
A goal that myself and many other Cheeky Scientist Associates have is to make just one strong connection at each networking event.
This includes connecting with at least one person at the event, getting that person’s contact information, and following up with him or her within 24 hours of the event.
Everything else is gravy.
Remember how I used to run to the nearest corner table when I showed up to networking events?
I don’t do this anymore because if I do, I won’t achieve my goal.
I’ll not only let myself down but I’ll let my fellow Associates down.
By setting small, tangible networking event goals for yourself, you’ll start enjoying networking events instead of just fearing them. If you’re a quiet, introverted person and feel afraid, don’t worry, feeling afraid is normal. Everyone is at least a little uncomfortable at business networking events. Use this nervous energy to your advantage. Channel it into excitement. Relieve the pressure of the situation by reaching out to the host and attendees before the event. Practice communicating and leverage your strengths as a good listener. Your practice and preparation will pay off with meaningful connections that will stay with you throughout your professional career.
To learn more about transitioning into industry, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the wait list for the Cheeky Scientist Association.
Latest posts by Todd Nolan Ph.D. (see all)
- 5 Personality Types To Avoid At Your Next PhD Networking Event - December 1, 2015
- 6 Networking Event Tips For Quiet Introvert PhDs (Like Me) - June 30, 2015