10 Biggest Networking Mistakes PhDs Make When Looking For Alternative Careers

business networking tips | Cheeky Scientist | alternative careers in science
Written By Amy Heffernan, Ph.D.

This was it.

After all the hours in the lab, the late nights, the weekends, the missed time with family and friends, I was done.

Papers written, dissertation defended, PhD complete.

Time to begin my job search.

I didn’t know it at the time, but it was already too late.

I spent hours trawling job boards and sending job applications via email.

I had a few glimpses of hope, landing a handful of industry interviews, but I never got past the screening phase.

I knew there were interesting positions out there. I even connected with various industry professionals on LinkedIn.

But why were these positions never advertised?

Where were they hiding?

My PhD title seemed worthless and I felt panicked and desperate.

Staring at job boards all day was wasting my time and depleting my motivation.

I needed to start making valuable connections with others and expanding my network in order to hear first-hand when these positions were available.

Only then could I prove my value and obtain the alternative career that I wanted.

Eventually, I realized that networking was more important than my well-crafted resume.

Networking allowed me to get a position without previous industry experience.

It opened doors to new opportunities and continues to help me advance in my new career.

Why Networking Is The Key To Every Successful Job Search 

Referrals account for up to 50% of all industry job hires.

That’s right.

50% of job hires are the result of someone directly referring a person for the job.

Not from uploading a resume.

Another report by the job search company Glassdoor reviewed over 440,000 job interview reviews posted to their website since 2009 and found that candidates referred to a company by an existing employee had the best chance of receiving and accepting a job offer.

Researchers from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and MIT found that while referrals made up only 6% of the total applications received, they resulted in more than 25% of hires.

That’s more than the number hired through online job boards or head hunters.

Employee referrals are the most powerful tools for recruiting.

From a hiring manager’s point of view, candidates that apply through a referral make their job easier.

They know the quality of the job candidate will be much better.

They know the job candidate’s retention time will also be high as the applicant has sought to learn and assess the company’s culture through conversations with the referring connection.

Why wade through endless numbers of applicants when the best candidates are brought to you by people you trust?

networking for jobs | Cheeky Scientist | alternative careers for scientists

10 Big Networking Mistakes To Avoid

Job referrals lead to better jobs where both you and your employer will be happier with the fit.

So, how do you get a job referral?

You network.

It’s that simple and it’s that hard.

You must start forging reciprocal relationships with industry professionals. You need to seek out people you can learn from AND offer yourself as a resource.

You need to show you are an open, giving and intelligent PhD, able to make a connection, add value, and then ask for a reference in the appropriate manner.

But you can’t be lazy.

You can’t be greedy or needy either.

There’s a right way and wrong way to network, and you need to know both.

Here are 10 networking mistakes you must avoid if you want a job in industry…

1. Leaving it to the last minute.

One of the biggest advantages of living in academia is the freedom and solitude that it can bring.

But this independence can be a double-edged sword.

Being isolated and not networking at all while in graduate school is the number one mistake academics make.

When I was a student I had samples to extract, reagents to prepare, and data to process.

I didn’t have time to chat to salespeople on the phone, or stand around in the kitchen drinking coffee with campus visitors after the seminars.

I was too busy.

Being busy is an excuse.

Everyone is busy, including people in industry.

If you want to transition into industry you must make time to network.

Your lab work is NOT that important.

Really, it’s not.

It’s certainly not more important than your overall career.

So, get over yourself and start making time to network.

There are many opportunities to network while in academia.

You can participate in events given by your school’s alumni association or professional associations in the field you wish to enter.

Start small by committing to attend one new networking event per week.

Then commit to following up with 2-3 people you meet at these events on LinkedIn every week.

Most importantly, commit to scheduling in networking events.

Map out the events you want to go to and sit down with your advisor to communicate your plans.

2. Expecting  too much, too quickly. 

Meeting an industry professional at a networking event will not lead to a job offer the following day.

This should be obvious.

But to many, it’s not.

If you meet someone with the sole intention of using them to get a job, your insincerity will be palpable and kill any chance you have of creating a meaningful connection.

When making new friends you wouldn’t ask them to lend you money the first time you meet them, would you?

Like any human relationship, building professional relationships takes time and effort before it becomes fruitful.

Deliver an elevator pitch and market yourself smartly, but don’t ask about available positions, or a referral, or if you can leave a resume.

Not at first.

Remember, your elevator pitch is not a desperate sales pitch.

Instead, your elevator pitch is a way to promote yourself as a resource in 30 seconds or less.

Talk about your profession, expertise, and environment and have a reason for connecting.

Then engage in meaningful conversation, smile, leave your card and walk away. Leveraging your network to look for new opportunities comes later.

3. Talking  only about yourself.

As important and all-encompassing as your dissertation was for you during your PhD, chances are no one outside your narrow field wants to hear about it.

No one. Not ever.

Research shows that technical skills alone are not sufficient for professional success, and employers are more interested in transferable skills such as teamwork and problem-solving.

Use networking opportunities as a space to showcase your transferable skills, rather than rambling on about the technical specifics of your dissertation.

The purpose of networking is to build rapport.

The most valuable gift you can give someone is your time and attention.

Remember, most people love talking about themselves and you can use this to your advantage.

Before you attend a networking event, do some research on the people attending and identify a few you would like to connect with.

Ask questions that show you’re interested in them and be an active listener.

Not only will this boost their confidence and put them in a more generous state, it will also make them more receptive to what you have to say down the road.

4. Collecting and distributing a lot of business cards. 

Networking events are not a competition to see how many people you can talk to in one evening.

You will return home, see your pocket full of business cards and not remember a single valuable discussion you had.

Even worse, no one will remember you.

Don’t sacrifice quality to quantity in relationships.

One meaningful connection is all that’s needed to make a networking event successful.

One meaningful connection is all that’s needed to get a referral and get the industry job you want.

Keep this in mind at the next networking event you attend.

Aim to connect with only 3 people per event.

Set a goal to have a meaningful discussion with 3 people, get their contact information and write a few notes on what you discussed, and then to follow up with them within 24 hours of the event.

Save your business cards for these meaningful connections, no matter how they occur.

Business cards are not confetti: they are a part of your professional branding and should be used to show you want to build a serious professional relationship.

5. Limiting yourself to online networking.

LinkedIn and other professional networking and social media sites are powerful tools for building an online presence and for following up with established connections.

They are a pretty horrible place for making new connections and building deep trust.

Sure, trusting relationships can be established online, but these things will take much longer to build without ever meeting in person.

Social media often prevents people from making “real” connections and can minimize your chances of building strong relationships that will actually lead to referrals.

Never underestimate the importance of face-to-face communication.

There’s a reason that an in-person interview is still universally required before a high-level job position is filled.

In today’s world, online communication is clogged while traditional forms of communication, like snail mail and in-person meetings, are increasingly becoming rare.

Go where it’s rare. 

Do what other people are not doing.

Differentiate yourself by meeting someone for coffee or at least picking up the phone to call them.

If you have reached out to someone on LinkedIn or by email, ask to meet for a coffee (your treat).

If your locations do not coincide, ask to chat over Skype or by phone.

Making that extra effort will differentiate you and show that you value the connection. 

6.  Networking only with other PhDs.

While your institute’s Friday afternoon happy hour might be a great introduction to networking, only attending PhD networking events is short-sighted.

At a PhD networking event—think faculty social mixer, early career researcher professional development seminar, or academic conference—you are just one PhD of hundreds, if not thousands.

It is highly likely that the person sitting next to you has the same skills and experience that you have.

Even worse, they are currently there with you, in the same location, competing for the same jobs.

But put yourself in a room full of writers, business professionals, or entrepreneurs and suddenly, you are one-of-a-kind.

You are exceptional.

You stand out. 

You can offer value that no one else in the room can.  

Remember, only 2% of the U.S. population has a doctorate (5.6% in Australia).

Why are you only congregating with the other 1.99999… percent?

Start putting yourself in situations where having a PhD is an asset, where you will stand out from the crowd, and where people will remember your name. 

7. Not talking to anyone or talking too much.

Becoming an expert networker is not easy, especially for introverts.

The first hurdle is starting a conversation with a perfect stranger.

Don’t make this harder than it is. 

Don’t be afraid of—gasp—people.

No one will walk away from you if you stand in front of them, smile and say, “My name is so-and-so. Mind if I join in the discussion?”

Better yet, approach someone who is standing alone in the room and introduce yourself. 

Chances are, they will be relieved someone else has started the conversation.

If you are worried about how the initial conversation should flow, keep it simple.

You can start with the classic approach of asking them what has brought them to this conference today or what their story is or what they’re excited about right now.

You can strike up a conversation about what’s going on around you—the venue, the catering, or the last speaker of the session.

Even the latest news headline can work to start the conversation and get past the initial introductions. 

Finally, once you have had a reasonable chat, be respectful of the other person’s time.

When I first started networking I was so focused on meeting my goal (meeting Mr. or Mrs. X that was working at my dream company) that I neglected the signals of someone wanting to leave the conversation.

The feet pointed away from me.

The looking over my shoulder. 

The torso turned outward.

Look for these and other nonverbal cues like fidgeting, eyes glazing over, excusing themselves to use the restroom, or going to get ANOTHER finger sandwich.

When this happens, smile, thank the person for their time, and ask if they would like to stay in touch.

Then, exchange business cards and MOVE ALONG. 

8. Not preparing for the networking event beforehand.

It should come as no surprise that the secret to success in networking (and in your life and career overall) is being prepared. 

Do not show up at the event with nothing to say, nothing to show, and not knowing anything about the attendees.

Have professionally made business cards printed with your name and contact details.

If you’re looking to leave a particular institution, I recommend having your own cards privately printed without your current institution’s logo or letterhead.

Have your elevator pitch prepped and polished, so that when someone asks “So, what do you do?” you have a cohesive answer that best showcases your skills. 

Do your homework.

You’re in research, right?

Act like it.

Research potential leads, speakers and key industry players that you know will be attending the event. 

Try to memorize one fact about each of these key players.

This will give you the upper hand when building rapport, and will allow you to ask intelligent, strategic questions. 

Clear your schedule for the day.

The most fruitful times for networking are normally after the conference is over and people are unwinding.

Make sure you do not have to run off to another engagement.

Instead, utilize this time appropriately by following up. 

9. Looking and acting unprofessional.

You only have one chance to make a first impression, so make sure it is a good one.

Have a strong, firm handshake.

Stand up straight, extend your hand, grip firmly, look the person directly in the eye and smile. 

Subliminally, a bad handshake can affect a person’s opinion of you.

How did you feel about the person with the clammy handshake?

Or the misplaced grip?

Or the limp, lifeless handshake?

These blunders may seem trivial but they stew in a person’s brain long after the meeting is over.

This should go without saying, but be well-groomed. 

You are no longer a graduate student, you are a professional.

Whatever your individual style, make sure you look sharp—your shirt is ironed and your shoes are polished.

Get a haircut, trim your facial hair, and manicure your fingernails.

If you are making the effort to attend the event, make the effort to look presentable. 

Make sure to fit in with your audience.

You don’t want to wear a three-piece suit at a casual mixer, but your ripped jeans and favorite band t-shirt are not appropriate either.

If in doubt, ask a colleague. 

Or, search for photos from past events to gauge the level of formality required.

While it may seem shallow or arbitrary to focus on appearance, it matters and will count towards other people’s overall assessment of your professionalism. 

10. Not following up. 

You have researched the attendees, engaged in fantastic conversation, and handed out business cards.

Now you can sit back at the computer and wait for the job offers to roll in, right?

Not so much. 

If you don’t follow up with your networking connections within 24 hours, you might as well not have showed up to the networking event.

There is no point making a connection and exchanging numbers if you are not going to do anything about it.

Directly following the event, send your new connections a thank-you note.

Make sure to be specific and sincere. 

Be enthusiastic but not desperate.

Hold back on using multiple exclamation marks, emoticons, or saying that yesterday’s meeting was the best conversation of your life.

You get extra points if you mention the topic you were discussing together and follow up with additional information.

For example, if you spoke about their upcoming trip to Rome, follow up with the address of your favorite restaurant there. 

Feed their interests, not yours.

Leave open the suggestion that you would be happy to meet again without mentioning any hidden agendas.

Foster this connection by continuing to touch base in the weeks and months to follow without pestering.

Chances are they will approach you to let you know about a job opening in their company.

Networking is a skill that every graduate student must learn if they are thinking about leaving academia. There are hundreds of applicants for every online job posting and if you want to stand apart from other job candidates, you need to meet people within industry and gain referrals. To make it less painful, start early when you are not desperate for a job and can genuinely offer value and build rapport with others. Look for events where you are not surrounded by other PhDs and will be unique. Remember to craft effective follow-up emails to ensure your networking is not in vain and that you will not be forgotten.

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.

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Amy Heffernan Ph.D.

Amy Heffernan Ph.D.

Amy has a Ph.D. in Analytical and Environmental Chemistry, and currently works as a Research Scientist at the Florey Institute in Australia where she uses mass spectrometry to investigate Alzheimer’s disease. Amy is motivated to integrate advanced analytical technology into applied health research by building interdisciplinary networks across industry and academia.
Amy Heffernan Ph.D.

Latest posts by Amy Heffernan Ph.D. (see all)

  • Madeline Rosemary

    So true – if you don’t prepare for your networking and follow up afterword, you may as well not go. What I like about this article is all the specifics as to HOW to prepare and follow up! Well done! 🙂

  • Matthew Smithson PhD

    I’ve got to applaud you for a great nuts-and-bolts approach to networking. You’ve got to infuse value into your networking, and that takes time, effort, and thought. Fortunately for us PhD’s, we’ve got the skills — we just need to apply them to the job search.

  • Kathy Azalea

    Thank you for explaining in such detail exactly what we need to know as we finish up and start spreading out into the world of industry. I sure don’t want to have to experience what you went through on your first attempts. I was feeling your pain. I hope you realize that a lot of us will benefit from your transparency.

  • Julian Holst

    Those are pretty staggering statistics about referrals – 50% of hires are from referrals, and the ratio of applications to hires heavily favored referrals.

    After reading this, I went around to a few friends and we practiced handshakes on each other. I think we need to sharpen up our people skills.

  • Marvin D’Esprit

    I know you’re right about people judging by outward appearances. I think that most people take it as a sign of respect, not just to the interviewers or people you’re meeting, but to yourself as well. I resist getting dressed up, but you can bet your last buck that I’ll be dressed professionally when I do my networking.

  • Carlie Stevenson, PhD

    It’s a thin line to walk between being enthusiastic and being so enthusiastic that you come across as desperate. While desperation is not exactly the #1 most attractive quality in a candidate, it’s for sure that a lot of candidates feel exactly that. If you have to, do some deep breathing or whatever you have to do before meeting someone important. It relaxes your body and makes you feel more in control.

  • Sonja Luther

    Great tips. Looking at photos from previous networking events is an awesome tip! And so is getting your elevator pitch ready. I know that for me, that is the easiest part to goof up and get confused on. One needs to practice! 🙂

  • Harvey Delano

    I love the social etiquette tips like making sure to let other people talk, memorizing at least one thing about each person you want to meet, following up, and sticking with a few people instead of bouncing around like a basketball. I, for one, appreciate this kind of tip because I usually feel pretty awkward at this kind of event.

  • Theo

    Amy, I love your focus on using mass spectrometry to better understand Alzheimer’s. It’s painful to see people suffering from this disease and it’s comforting to know that the more we learn, the better equipped we are to alleviate it. And, I love the tips you gave us in the article. You are leading by example, which makes the article all the more impactful.

  • Winona Petit

    I think you’ve really captured the conundrum we all faced as we neared the end of our various posts in academia. When you say our lab work is not that important, you really know our weakness – getting too caught up in being perfect in an academic session and not giving ourselves the respect of getting out there and networking — regardless of how much we’d like to impress an advisor or professor. I really appreciate the guidance you’re delivering for the young people (or old!) who are just contemplating what to do after defending their dissertations. 🙂