6 Ways PhDs Waste Their Time At In-person Networking Events (And What You Should Do Instead)

Networking in person is key to getting a job in industry.

Despite knowing this, I avoided doing it at all costs during my PhD.

I tried it a few times at scientific conferences, but nothing happened.

It seemed pointless. Not only that, but it was down-right scary.

And so, like many PhDs, I gave up.

I allowed myself to make excuses. I thought “I’m way too busy to attend all these networking events”… or, “I don’t need to network – if I just send out enough resumes online, I’ll surely land a job”.

But boy, was I wrong!

I can’t even remember how many resumes I sent out. And yet, I still didn’t have a job.

Finally, a colleague of mine convinced me to go to a networking event with them.

It was everything I had expected – it was intimidating, and it felt uncomfortable. Despite these feelings, I forced myself to talk to people, and over time, I began feeling more natural in conversation.

I began connecting with people in all areas of industry.

After the event, I continued my conversations with them. And then, it happened – I started getting referrals for jobs.  

I couldn’t believe I had waited so long to start truly networking!

One Cheeky Scientist member recounts how important networking was for them in their job search:

First, in-person networking is totally the way to go!  I actually met this person at a triathlon of all places, so getting out and meeting people is essential.

Similarly, finding a common interest proved extremely helpful when adding value. If you can meet someone at an event where you share an interest other than research, it’s a huge advantage! 

Lastly, it’s important to take a chance and ask for an interview. I know personally I feel weird doing things like this (and networking in general), but if you never ask, you’ll never get the interview!”

Why Networking In Person Is An Absolute Must

Today’s technological world makes connecting with people easier than ever. If you have a computer, you can reach almost anyone in the world.

And while this has its advantages, it also makes it far too easy for someone to hide behind a computer screen.

To establish a true professional relationship with someone, you have to do more than just click a button on LinkedIn.

In fact, according to Psychology Today, only 7% of our communication relies on the words we say; attributes of communication, such as body language, tone, and facial expressions, make up the rest.

So, if you’re relying solely on online platforms to connect with people, you’re leaving out 93% of the components that make up effective communication.

People build stronger connections in person. People are also less cagey in person. In-person conversations can lead down avenues that would otherwise remain closed online.

In fact, in-person networking is the one tried and true way of getting a referral and learning about unadvertised job openings.

According to Forbes, 80% of job openings are never publicly advertised. Moreover, people that apply to an open position with a referral are 3-4 times more likely to get hired.    

The key is to get out there and start talking to people.

For many PhDs, this may seem too uncomfortable and scary. Think of the first time you presented your data in front of your colleagues. You were probably terrified. But chances are, presenting got more comfortable and less scary over time.

Similarly, the more you network, the easier it will get.

Stop Doing These 6 Things During In-person Networking Events (And What To Do Instead)

1. Stop confusing connecting with networking.  

There are two major mistakes that PhDs make when networking.

The first is spending too much time online. Many PhDs haphazardly surf LinkedIn looking for connections and reaching out to people without a previous introduction.

This is not effective networking and very rarely results in true professional relationships.

The second common mistake is attending large networking events. While attending in-person networking events isn’t necessarily wrong, what is wrong is the way many PhDs approach these events.

Many PhDs think that networking entails going to large events, speaking with as many people as possible, and handing out business cards while collecting the business cards of others.

And that’s it. They think they’re done.

They assume the other person is going to do all the heavy lifting for them – certainly, they’ll reach out, make the effort to introduce them to people in their company, and ultimately, find them a job.

But this is only the first step.

When you meet someone in person, this is the connection stage. Networking is what happens afterwards – the online follow-up with people that you’ve met in person.

The key to effective networking is dedicating the correct amount of time to each step of the process.

While you should spend time attending events and speaking with people in person, this shouldn’t be how you spend the majority of your time.

Most of your time should be spent following up online with the people you connect with in person.

The only way to obtain an informational interview, a referral, or an introduction to a hiring manager is by building a rapport with someone.

And the way to do this is through networking.

2. Quit going to large conferences. Instead, participate in small group functions and focused organizations.

Coming from academia, you’re probably used to networking at large scientific conferences. But when searching for a job in industry, this tactic won’t get you anywhere.

Scientific conferences are focused on sharing scientific information – they’re not designed to find you a job. You won’t find industry professionals roaming the vendor floor announcing job openings. Instead, you’ll be met by crowds of other academics just like you.  

You can’t find an industry job when you’re surrounded by academics.

And in a sea of hundreds, if not thousands, of attendees, how is anyone supposed to remember you?

So, the first step in effective networking is targeting the right events.

Smaller events or smaller organizations that are focused on a specific field, area of research, or a particular expertise are great ways to meet like-minded people.

Don’t just join organizations or attend events that are focused on networking and searching for a job. Get involved in events/organizations that are focused on topics that interest you.

If you have a PhD in Genetics and are looking for an industry job in a similar field, join an organization or society that is focused on genetics or genetic technologies.

Smaller events will also allow you to meet everyone that attends. It will allow you to have a genuine conversation with each person.

And if you keep showing up to activities, your connections will only grow stronger.

3. Avoid doing things that you’re comfortable with. Step out of your comfort zone.

Another mistake PhDs make is only attending events that they’re familiar or comfortable with.

If the only events you’re going to are the above-mentioned large networking events and scientific conferences, you’ll only be associating with more of the same people.

These are called red ocean events. The reason for this is that every person in the room is just another shark in the water looking for the same exact thing – a job.

To truly expand your network, you should attend what’s considered blue ocean events. These are events that are outside your area of expertise.

Attend events related to business investment, architecture, or art – anything that revolves around your interests but that are unrelated to your field or your job search.  

You may not know a lot about the topic or have much in common with the typical attendees of the event, but that’s the point. You don’t want all that competition, and you want to stand out in the crowd.

Say you have a conversation with someone at a business event, they talk about their interest in investing, then, when they ask about you, you mention that you have a PhD in the sciences.

How many other scientists do you think that person is going to speak to at that event? The number is likely zero.  

Being different – having a unique background – is what makes you memorable.

At this point, you may be wondering “But how is someone interested in business going to get me a scientific job in industry?”

Perhaps they won’t. But perhaps they know someone in your field that they can connect you to.

Don’t immediately assume that conversing with someone that isn’t in your field is a waste of time. You never know where your next connection will come from.

4. Don’t go to events unprepared. Do your homework and set attainable goals.  

Going to in-person events can be intimidating and exhausting for many PhDs.

To overcome the exhaustion that often accompanies in-person events, you should come up with a plan and stick to it.

One major contributor to this exhaustion is the not-knowing. When you sign up for an event, you often don’t know the venue, you don’t know how many people are going to attend, you don’t know who is going to attend, and you don’t know the itinerary.

To alleviate this, get information from the host or hostess of the event. Email them or call them – ask them questions pertaining to the event.

If you’re new to the topic – for example, this is your first business event – explain this, and ask them if they’re willing to introduce you to a few people during the event.

Don’t worry about bothering them. Most event hosts or organizers love hearing that people are enthusiastic about their event.

By contacting the host you’re not only getting further information and a few introductions – you’re also holding yourself accountable. The minute you tell someone you’re attending, the more likely it is that you’ll show up.

Another way to prepare for an event is to set measurable and attainable goals. If you’re an introvert like me, you don’t want to spend three hours talking with complete strangers. It’s draining and it’s not productive.

Instead, come up with a reasonable number of connections that you want to make. Speak to three people, five minutes each, and then leave.

Sounds more doable, right?

Effective networking isn’t about quantity, it’s about quality. Having short quality conversations with a few people is better than a dozen conversations without intention.  

5. At an event, steer clear of intense questions and come prepared with an elevator pitch.

The best way to drive someone away is to dive straight into the deep end with the hard-hitting questions.

When you go to an event, keep things light. After all, you’re meeting someone for the first time.

So, don’t ask people why they’re at the event or why they’re doing something (eg, for their job). Instead, open with a question that is more likely to get them talking.

You could ask them “What are you currently working on that you’re excited about?”. Or you can keep it more general by asking “What’s going on in your life that you’re excited about right now?”.

People love talking about what excites them.

By asking these simple questions, you’re generating a real conversation with them; one that will make it more enjoyable for the both of you while also making you more memorable.

During the conversation, ensure that you stay interested and engaged – nod, smile, ask follow-up questions.

This may sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people forget to do these simple things during a conversation.

You also don’t want to talk too much about yourself. Many PhDs make the mistake of going off on tangents about their expertise, their accolades, or anything they consider prestigious – all with the goal of impressing the other person.

This just comes off as arrogant and insincere.

So, when the conversation turns to you, make sure you have an elevator pitch prepared. That way, you’re less likely to go off script, and start a monologue that makes the other person disengage.

Your elevator pitch should be short – anywhere from 10 to 15 seconds long. The goal is to make them understand what you want, what you’re about, and why they should care.

An effective elevator pitch consists of two parts: the professional and the personal. You want to include information that differentiates you from everyone else in your field.

You also want to avoid being direct about the fact that you’re looking for a job. Networking isn’t a job interview. So, leave the job interview tactics at home.

To start, say something about your professional background. Then, add something personal and share why you’re attending the event. And lastly, tell them what your motivation is for networking.

For instance, you could say “Hi, I’m Alex, I’m an Immunologist, and I love mountain biking on the weekends. I’m here because I want to get into project management, and I have an interest in sustainability”.

Make sure your interest(s) and your motivation(s) are appropriate for the event.  

If you go to an event with a plan, a purpose, and a little preparation, you are well on your way to building a strong long-lasting network.

6. Don’t forget to take notes and follow up with your connections.

Now that you’ve returned home from an event – what’s next?

The first thing you should do is write down everything you can remember about the event –  the people that you met and what you talked about.

That way, when you follow up with the person online, you can bring up an accurate account of what you talked about.

As I mentioned before, you should be spending the majority of your time following up with people that you connected with in person.  

Reach out to them on LinkedIn with a personal message. Remind them of who you are, what event you met them at, and what you talked about. If you shared an interest in something, be sure to bring this up as well.

Be sure to ask them a question – they are more likely to respond. And make sure you follow up with them within 24 hours of the event.

Establish a rapport with the person before you bring up anything related to your job search.

And overall, be genuine in your communication.

Concluding Remarks

Networking in person doesn’t come natural for most PhDs. But it’s the way to get a job in industry. To network effectively, you must pick the right events. Avoid attending large scientific conferences and large networking events. Instead, attend smaller events focused on a specific field or area of interest. It’s also imperative to step out of your comfort zone. Don’t go to the same events with the same people and expect the outcome to be different. While networking, you want to stand out in the crowd. And the way to do this is to attend events outside your area of expertise – a business event or an art event. When at an event, stick to your pre-conceived plan. Make connections with only a few people. Initiate engaging and genuine conversations with them. Find a shared interest. Then, spend the majority of your networking efforts on following up online with the people you met in person. Just like with anything, the more you network, the easier it will get. And if you network the right way, you’re well on your way to landing a job in industry.

If you’re ready to start your transition into industry, you can apply to book a free Transition Call with our founder Isaiah Hankel, PhD or one of our Transition Specialists. Apply to book a Transition Call here.

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Isaiah Hankel, PhD
Isaiah Hankel, PhD Chief Executive Officer at Cheeky Scientist

Dr. Isaiah Hankel is the Founder and CEO of the largest career training platform for PhDs in the world - Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by 3 million PhDs in 152 different countries. He has helped PhDs transition into top companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, Intel, Dow Chemical, BASF, Merck, Genentech, Home Depot, Nestle, Hilton, SpaceX, Tesla, Syngenta, the CDC, UN and Ford Foundation.

Dr. Hankel has published two bestselling books with Wiley and his methods for getting PhDs hired have been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Nature, Forbes, The Guardian, Fast Company, Entrepreneur Magazine and Success Magazine.

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