The 7 Point Plan That Took Me From Networking Novice To The Center Of Connectivity

Networking was one of those things I was always doing “tomorrow.” 

It was so much easier to sit down and work on my resume, or change some word choices on my LinkedIn. They were easy and they made me feel like I accomplished something. But really it was like treading water. 

I tread this water for months, thinking I was moving somewhere but I was only moving with a gentle current. My actions weren’t actually propelling me in any direction. I wasn’t getting any hits on my LinkedIn, I wasn’t getting any call backs on my resume. 

Was I not good enough?

Eventually I had enough and “tomorrow” came. I was going to connect with people. I had the goal. So I jumped on LinkedIn and found a bunch of people who are in roles I’d like to be in and hit “connect.” That day I must have sent out 100 connection requests. You know how many connections I got? 14.

That’s it, just 14 connections. So, I continued to tread water for a few more weeks, feeling defeated, desolate, and without any job offers. 

It wasn’t until winter break that I finally had the time to sit down and think about this. Why was it so hard? And then I realized it was because I didn’t have a plan. Networking is a huge umbrella term that encompases so many interactions you can’t simply go out and “network.” You have to have a plan.

Why You Need A Networking Plan

Networking is an essential skill to propel your career. You can have it and develop it, but will never get good at it unless you practice, practice, practice. 70% of people report connections at a company is the reason why they got at least one job offer throughout their career. Networking can lead to new job opportunities and referrals, which are the fastest way to being hired. Being hired through a referral typically takes 29 days, while traditional hiring can take a couple of months. 

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, LinkedIn’s engagement has increased by 55%. And with the current industry trend of a decentralized workforce, this engagement level will likely high remain for a long time to come. 

Virtual networking is here to stay and requires more planning than traditional networking. During the pre-COVID era, networking was done in person – at conferences or networking events. All you had to do was show up and mingle.

Now, with virtual networking each person needs a good strategy in order to be effective and efficient. You have to plan your own networking events, which usually occur through one-on-one virtual informational interviews.

Here is the 7 point plan that took me from networking novice to the center of connectivity.

1. You must make the mind shift

Networking is hard. Networking is tiring. I’m not good at networking. Any of these sound like you? Networking is all of these things, if you let it be. However, you can easily frame this in another light. Networking is an exciting opportunity to meet new people and learn about opportunities. 

New situations can be scary and overwhelming, but so is getting a PhD. Most people think it’s crazy to get a PhD, why would you spend so many more years back being a ‘student’? But if you got a PhD, you have the right mindset to face new and scary situations. You had the determination and the foresight to know this PhD is what you wanted to do. You can do the same thing with networking. If you are anxious about networking, acknowledge that, but don’t let it deter you from developing new connections. Like anything, the more you do it, the better you will become and soon it will be as natural as writing an abstract, performing that experiment for the 1000th time, or endlessly talking about your research. 

Most people believe that they are good at faking a smile, looking engaged in a conversation they don’t really want to be at. In reality, no one is good at this. If you go into networking with the wrong mindset, believing this is not going to help your career or that you are bad at networking, you will fail. Before you plan anything else, you must make the mindshift and understand how networking can help you. Without this it is pointless to move forward.

2. Make an MVP list

Who do you want to connect with? This can be the hardest part. With 7 billion people in the world, who should you contact? Before the age of computers, you could only network with people close to you geographically but now you can connect with everyone. This is both exciting and overwhelming. 

Your MVP list is unique to you. This is your list of ‘influencers’ in your industry. But don’t be afraid to branch out from your niche. People from different backgrounds will provide interesting perspectives. 

To create a really solid list, come up with about 50 names. The majority of these names should be people you have some connection with already. Maybe it’s an editor at an academic journal you are interested in applying at or maybe it’s alumni at your school. These will be the easiest connections to grow as you already have some contact with them. Ten percent of this list should be the top people in your industry. These are people that are currently out of your reach (but not forever). This might be someone like Neil deGrasse Tyson if you want to be a science communicator. These would be people you aspire to be like. The rest of the list should be people somewhere in between.

This is not a rigid list, it should be dynamic. As you make new connections, you can adapt this list and add new people you’d like to connect with. By spending some time making your MVP list, you take the stress out of deciding with whom you want to connect. As you increase your connections,you will also increase your industry credibility. Maybe Neil deGrasse Tyson is out of reach now, but once you connect with the other 49 MVP members, he’ll be much closer.

3. Develop an exhaustive questions list

At the heart of networking is conversation and at the heart of conversation is curiosity. Why do you want to meet or connect with this particular person? Maybe it’s to learn about their career path, to get information  about the company they work at, or grasp what their work life looks like. Develop an exhaustive informational interview questions list. An actual informational interview shouldn’t be more than 20-30 minutes long but by creating this master list, you will be better prepared when the informational interview is happening. It will be easy to quickly pull up your list and pick the 5-6 most appropriate questions for the person you are interviewing. Your list will also help you identify good conversation starters the next time you meet them.

4. Find Some Common Ground

Networking is often associated with job searching and career development. An informational interview often revolves around someone’s career choices. However, everyone exists outside of their job. Their hobbies and passions are what motivates them to go to work every day. Meeting someone with the same career aspirations as you is some common ground, but knowing you share a hobby or a past experience like going to the same school or living in the same city, instantly creates a deeper and more meaningful connection. 

Before you connect with anyone, take some time to look at their LinkedIn profile or even Google them. Finding some commonality whether it’s a personal connection or a shared hobby or alma mater, is a great way to start a genuine and memorable relationship.

5. Contact and create a calendar event

Now, you’re in the right mindset, you have made your MVP list, you have an exhaustive list of conversation starters, and you have found some common ground with your target audience, it’s finally time to contact them. 

Contacting can be as simple as sending them a message on LinkedIn. You want to keep it short (<100 words). You never want to ask for a job but you want to add value. The final step is to make it easy for the other person to respond to your connection. Don’t be afraid to be assertive and very clear. 

Hi [Contact Name]

I came across your website while searching for [topic] and was very impressed with your insights on [specific topic]. I also noticed that you work for [Company name] as [industry position]. As a fellow graduate who is currently interviewing for a similar position, I would value your thoughts on the position. 

Would you mind having a 10-15 minute phone call and possibly sharing your experiences in [industry position] ? 

Thank you for your time, 

[Your Name]

~Cheeky Scientist Networking E-book

This 78 word script shares with the contact why you are interested, how you found them, and precisely what you are asking for (a 15 minute phone call). This is not a huge ask –  like asking for a job –  but a small favor, just 15 minutes of their time. Most people will be willing to have a short conversation with you and you can schedule a time based on mutual availability.

6. Connect, Don’t’ Collect

Networking is not a game, it’s not about collecting as many contacts as possible. It’s about connecting with people with mutual interests. 

During the initial conversation or any conversation thereafter, you should know what your goal is. What do you hope to achieve? How will both sides benefit from this interaction? Always know how the person fits into the larger world and how you fit into theirs. 

Connecting is about caring, about showing genuine interest in the other person. Again, people are terrible at faking emotions, but excellent at knowing when someone is faking it. Be genuine and allow your curiosity to guide the conversation.

  1. Remember To Reciprocate, Rinse, Repeat

If you’ve ever played sports, you know the importance of follow-through. During the course of the conversation you might make some promises, or they might make some promises. Maybe you said you would send them a certain paper, or maybe they said they would introduce you to one if their contacts. Make sure you send an email following up on those promises. Thank them for their time and send them what you promised or gently remind them about what they promised. 

Here is an example of a follow up networking script: 

Hi [Contact Name], 

Thank you for meeting with me yesterday. It was great to discuss [topic] with you. 

You mentioned that you know [professional name] from [company name]. Would you be interested in arranging a meet-up between the three of us or referring me to them via email? 

Your insights yesterday were wonderful and I would like to expand on that, if possible. 

Thanks again for all your help. 

Sincerely, 

[Your Name]

~Cheeky Scientist Networking E-book

Conclusion

The follow up is not the end of the relationship but the beginning of a new cycle. Once you make a connection make sure to check back with them from time to time. Be consistent but not annoying (you likely don’t need to talk with them every day or even every week). In conclusion, make sure you have the right mindset, develop your MVP list, prepare your conversation starters, find some common ground, contact and connect but don’t collect, follow through, and repeat. If you follow these steps you will begin to develop a solid networking plan that turns your soft skills into hard referrals and new frontiers for your career path.

To learn more about networking at the PhD level, 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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Sarah Smith, PhD
Sarah Smith, PhD

Sarah Smith, PhD, holds a degree in Biochemistry. A tireless science consultant at large, her rigorous pursuit of pristine labwork is unflinching. Yet Sarah’s keenest passion--guiding emergent academics into the business world--stems from personal experience with the transitional struggles she would have no PhD face alone.

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