8 Networking Tips For PhDs To Advance Their Careers
Written by Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.
I went to graduate school because I liked working independently.
I liked having the time to think and study problems and form hypotheses and gather data on my own.
Sure, I enjoyed working with others in the lab and I valued (and needed) advice from my mentors.
But none of this changed how much I liked working alone.
There’s a certain appeal to having your own project and being entirely responsible for it.
You get to determine your own fate and don’t have to rely too much on others to get things done.
If you want to set up a transfection at 6PM and come back at midnight to change your media—you can.
If you want to start running a gel at 4AM and take a nap on the couch in the library—you can.
It’s up to you.
A strong desire to be independent is present in every STEM PhD.
But sometimes, this desire can become a PhD’s undoing.
Sooner or later, everyone needs a bigger network.
This is especially true for PhDs.
Eventually, your project or career will hit a roadblock so big that you’ll need to dedicate serious time to building your network.
This moment might come at the end of graduate school when you realize you want to transition out of academia into industry.
Or, it might come after you’ve been in a postdoc position for 4 years and are struggling to provide for your kids.
Either way, having a larger network is the answer to your problems.
A larger network will help you see more options and solutions than you would be able to see on your own.
In today’s economy and academic environment, networking with more people is not an option.
It’s a must.
What Networking Is Not
I thought going to a conference and collecting business cards was networking.
I thought showing up to a seminar and telling the speaker “good job” afterwards was networking.
I was wrong.
Without realizing it at the time, I thought someone I met would like me so much they would just give me an industry job.
I imagined someone discovering me and finally giving me the industry job I deserved.
Of course, that never happened.
The false assumption I had was that networking is easy.
I assumed that I could just send people emails and LinkedIn messages and they’d rush to help me achieve my career goals.
But it doesn’t work that way.
Networking is hard work.
It’s like a second job you have to take on in graduate school or during your postdoc without pay.
Why Networking Is Important
If you want a PhD job in industry, you must build a bigger network.
A key part of building a bigger network is improving your interpersonal skills.
These skills are important not only for networking, but for getting and passing an industry interview.
Numerous studies including these reported by the National Academies show that interpersonal skills are measurable and important.
Several surveys including those by the Workforce Solutions Group, Adecco, and the ManpowerGroup, reported here in Upstart Business Journal, show that interpersonal skills matter more than technical skills no matter the profession.
Improving your interpersonal skills is important, but it’s only the first step.
The next step is leveraging your interpersonal skills to grow your network and get an industry job.
Studies in the Academy of Management Journal show that successful industry professionals spend 70% more time networking than their less successful counterparts.
A report by the New York Times shows that almost half of all job hires at top tier companies are from networking referrals.
The fastest and most effective way to get an industry job is by getting referred for one.
This makes networking critical to all PhDs who want to move their careers forward.
8 Advanced Networking Tips For PhDs
Networking is a skill.
Like all skills, networking will become dull if you stop sharpening it.
All scientists need to practice connecting with other people, particularly with non-scientists.
This is especially true in today’s world. Academia is shrinking and the rest of the economy is being deindustrialized.
As a result, your interpersonal skills and the size of your network determine your worth more than the hard skills you’ve picked up in the lab.
Here are 8 advanced networking tips that will help you grow your network and advance your career.
1. Go to industry seminars and talk to industry salespeople.
The most important thing you can do in graduate school or during your postdoc to increase the size of your industry network is go to industry seminars and talk to industry salespeople.
Don’t write off the salespeople coming into your lab as uneducated and manipulative. Most of these people also have PhDs and were once in your position.
Many of our Cheeky Scientist Associates have gained referrals by building relationships with these people.
It’s all about trading value.
Industry salespeople want to ask you questions about your lab and your lab’s product needs. You want to ask them how to get into industry. Start exchanging information you both need.
Start going to industry seminars too. Industry presenters are another gateway to a career in industry.
If you’re willing to go to their seminar and learn about their product, they’ll be willing to give you attention and answer your questions in return.
Simply show up, engage, and stay after to talk with the presenter personally.
2. Go to networking events with clear goals in mind.
Showing up to a networking event randomly during the week is a waste of time.
Networking is not a random venture. Networking is a strategic venture.
Map out a list of events to attend in the next three months.
Next, call the organizers and hosts of those events and tell them why you’re coming and ask them for help in preparing for the event.
Ask them how you can get the most out of the event.
Finally, set a measurable goal for each event.
A good starting goal is to connect with three people (yes, just three) by getting their contact information and following up with them within 24 hours after the event.
Don’t just show up, walk out with 50 business cards, and then not be able to remember anything about the people on those cards.
3. Learn the art of following up.
Networking is all about following up after the meeting.
Making a connection means nothing. You have to connect, then give, give, give, and give some more before one day, when the timing is just right, you ask.
That’s how real networking done.
Either you make time for the giving or you’ll never receive and you’ll sit in some postdoc position for 20 years wondering what happened to your life and career.
Whether it’s a salesperson you met in the lab or a Research Scientist you met at a local event, keep the connection going.
Email them or send them a LinkedIn message every two weeks.
The key is to add value to them. In fact…
You should act like you’re their assistant.
Send them articles they might be interested in or anything that could help their career or help them build up their reputation or network.
Send them connections that will help build their network.
Focus on them.
You’ll only get what you want after you help other people get what they want.
Follow up until you start to build a real relationship built on trust.
Then, and only then, ask for something in return—like a job reference.
4. Stop worrying about getting a letter from your academic advisor.
These letters mean absolutely zero outside of academia.
Getting a recommendation from your academic advisor is simply not worth the abuse.
Stop crawling on your belly. Stop getting pushed around by cruel academic advisors in the hope that one day they’ll write something nice about you.
The truth is most academic advisors know very few, if any, people in industry, and can’t help you get an industry position if they tried.
5. Quit spending all of your time on your resume and CV.
Resumes and CVs are the least important aspect of getting an industry job.
The most important aspects are networking to get a referral and nailing the initial phone interviews you’ll go through.
Only then will your carefully crafted industry resume come into play.
6. Don’t just network with other PhDs.
If you’re a PhD and you’re only networking with other PhDs, you’re in trouble.
These people are your competition.
If a great opportunity comes along, someone you just met at a networking event is not going to give it to you.
They’re going to give it to their friend or colleague. Or they’re going to give it to themselves. Most importantly…
You’ll never be memorable at these events because everyone else there has a PhD too.
It’s hard to be a gold star in a room full of gold stars.
A better strategy is to start going to Blue Ocean Networking events without other PhDs.
At Blue Ocean Networking events, you’re the only PhD. You’re the only doctor.
This fact is very impressive to people outside of science.
It’s time you start leveraging this 2%.
You’ll never be remembered for your STEM PhD in a room full of scientists but you’ll always be remembered for it in a room full of painters, or authors, or architects, or a thousand other professions where having a doctorate is exceptionally rare.
7. Stop listening to networking advice from lifelong academics.
The biggest mistake that a lot of PhDs make when they start networking is looking to other lifelong academics for advice.
You’ll never learn how to transition into industry successfully from someone who has never worked in industry.
There are hundreds, if not thousands of PhDs getting on LinkedIn and other professional sites every day asking questions about how to get a job.
The problem is they’re asking these questions in groups full of academics, journal editors, and other people who have never held an industry job.
If you want a job in industry, don’t listen to an academic or a journal editor on how to get it.
Don’t listen to anyone unless they’ve worked in industry.
If you want to get into sales and marketing, applications, R&D, management, or anything else, focus on networking with people who have actually worked in those areas.
8. Join advanced networking groups.
Most people’s idea of networking is nothing more than talking.
These people shake hands in person or comment on posts online and that’s where things end.
The reason this kind of networking doesn’t work is because it’s too generic and superficial.
The majority of PhD networking events are full of people who are not serious about collaborating or adding value.
They’re full of people who are either only there to take or just there to just hang out and judge other people.
If you’re serious about getting ahead, you have to find a way to get around other serious people.
The problem is that finding worthy networking groups takes effort. But that’s the whole point.
You have to put in real effort and commit because you want to be around other committed people who are also willing to put in real effort.
Don’t just join the same easy-to-find, talking-oriented networking groups that everyone else is joining.
Take some time to find exclusive and action-oriented groups that produce results.
By following these networking tips and focusing on how to network in today’s economy and academic environment, you can put yourself ahead of the competition and get the industry position of your choice. The key is being strategic in your job search, following up properly, and surrounding yourself with the right people.
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.
Isaiah believes--from personal experience--that if you feel stuck somewhere in your life, it’s a clear sign that you need to make a change. Don’t sit still and wait for the world to tell you what to do. Start a new project. Build your own business. Take action. Experimentation is the best teacher.
Isaiah is an internationally recognized Fortune 500 consultant, CEO of Cheeky Scientist, and author of the straight-talk bestsellers Black Hole Focus and The Science of Intelligent Achievement.
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