Networking Tips For Scientists – The Psychology Behind Connecting
Written by Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.
Like most PhD students I went to graduate school because I liked doing independent research. 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 desperately 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 destiny 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 and midnight to change your media – go ahead – its up to you. A strong desire to be independent is present in every good scientist. But sometimes, this desire can become a scientist’s undoing.
Sooner or later, everyone needs a bigger network. This is especially true for scientists. One day, your project or career will hit a roadblock so big that you’ll need to dedicate some serious time to reaching out to other people for help. This moment might come at the end of graduate school when you realize that you want to transition out of academia and into industry but don’t have any industry connections. Or, it might come after you’ve been in a postdoc position for 4 years and are struggling to get another round of funding. Either way, having a larger network will help you see more options and solutions than you would have been able to see on your own.
Your Network Is Your Net Worth
Networking is not easy. I used to think that networking meant showing up to seminars and telling the speaker good job afterwards or going to a conference and shaking hands and collecting business cards. Without realizing it at the time, I subconsciously thought that someone I met would like me so much that they would give me everything I’ve ever wanted – they’d discover me and finally give me the job or the chance that I deserved. Of course, that never happened. I also thought that if I took the time to email someone I met at a seminar or conference that they would be wildly impressed or would take pity on me and offer some real help. I’d click send and think, “The balls in their court now, I did everything I could.” I was perpetually ready to take but had no clue how to give.
Networking is a skill and, like all skills, it 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, interpersonal skills are extremely valuable. Numerous surveys and studies show that interpersonal skills matter more than technical skills no matter the profession.
The best way for scientists to advance their projects and careers is by growing their networks. And the best way to grow your network is by learning how to build strong relationships quickly. This means understanding the psychology behind creating an instant and lasting connection. Here are 16 psychological tips scientists should keep in mind when networking with other people:
1. Trading value.
Despite what some people might tell you, connecting with others is not altruistic or automatic. No one is going to go out of their way to advance your career and major interests out of the goodness of their heart. Never. They need a reason.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that people won’t be nice to you or do small things for you for no reason. It just means that they are too busy trying to advance their own careers and interests to be overly concerned with yours – and rightfully so (see #5).
The only way to get major value from others is to offer major value back. The good news is that this value comes in many forms (see #10).
2. Give realistic praise.
One of the strongest desires that every human being has is the desire to be appreciated. If you want to create a connection with someone but you don’t have anything to offer – offer kindness. Not sappy, weird, or insincere kindness – professional kindness.
Tell people what you like about their work or their company or their industry. Don’t kiss up. Give respect. The best way to do this is by stating things with a matter-of-factly tone.
For example, don’t say, “I’m so impressed with you. You’re amazing.” Say, “I like your work because it’s clear and creative.” Be real and be nice, but not cheesy.
3. Say why.
Everyone needs a reason to act. Everyone needs a motive. If you ask someone for a favor without giving them a reason why, don’t expect them to do it.
Studies show that just adding the word “because” after a request increases the chances of the other person complying by 33%.
Always give a “because,” especially when asking for something by email.
4. Ignore authority.
One of the most important things you can do to build a strong relationship is to show respect without showing reverence. Your aim is to make other people see you as a colleague, not a fan. Colleagues are interesting, fans are annoying.
The only way to pull this off, especially with people who are currently at a higher level than you professionally, is to ignore their authority (again, while still giving them the respect they deserve). This is harder than it sounds.
First, you need to acknowledge the power that perceived authority has over you. For example, studies show that people are 3 times more likely to jaywalk when someone in a freshly pressed suit jaywalks first than when someone in a regular shirt jaywalks.
Second, you need to resist the pull of other people’s authority to make you feel inferior. Realize that they are only human too and, no matter how smart or talented they are now, they were once in a position similar to you.
You’ll never make a strong connection with someone who sees you as significantly inferior to them. The key is to get them see you as their equal, or close, without coming off as disrespectful or as a threat.
5. Appeal to self-interest.
You’re not the only ego in the world.
Most people, by default, assume that the world revolves around them. We naturally think that our problems are bigger and more visible than everyone else’s problems.
In reality, other people think about you and your problems rarely, if at all. They’re not thinking about you; they’re thinking about themselves. Remember this when you talk to them. Talk to them about them. Discuss their problems, passions, and general interests, not your own.
Ironically, the more you encourage others to keep their focus on themselves, the more they will remember you and consider you in the future.
6. Lubricate with politeness.
Always be overly polite. Say please. Say thank you. Stop and ask, “How are you?” and stick around to hear the answer. These little things matter, especially in email correspondence.
A great way to lose rapport with someone who you haven’t met in person yet or are just getting to know is by emailing them requests without any civilities. Don’t do this. Instead, start every new email thread with a thank you, even if it’s a thank you for your last email, and a well-wish of some kind, like I hope you’re having a good day or week. Then, follow the lead of the other person. If they respond bluntly, you should respond bluntly in turn. If they are exceptionally civil, then you should be exceptionally civil.
Peter Drucker, the Father of management education, once said, “Manners are the lubricating oil of an organization.” He was right.
7. Mimic behavior.
The fastest way to build rapport with someone is to subtly copy their body language, mannerisms, and speech patterns. The key is to not do this in a manipulative or creepy way, but in a way that helps you and the other person understand each other better.
Studies show that, by default, people like people who are similar to them. People also understand people who are similar to them more than they understand people who are different to them. Its superficial and sometimes dangerous but it’s true.
Instead of fighting this, use it to your advantage. Check your ego at the door and be willing to communicate how other people want to communicate, not how you want to communicate.
8. Stay top of mind.
One of the biggest mistakes that scientists make when they network is assuming that a good idea will speak for itself.
Ideas don’t speak. They die. Unless you keep them alive. This includes ideas like collaborations, promotions, or funding opportunities.
If you want a new job, for example, firing off one email to a prospective reference is not going to keep the idea of hiring you for the position alive. You need to follow up. Over and over and over again. Without being annoying (see #9).
People don’t remember anything on their own. There’s too much noise nowadays. Break through this noise by being consistent and pleasant (see #6).
9. Follow-up in small doses.
Networking is all about following up in small doses. This means sending small “give” emails every week or two, not massive “take” emails once or daily.
You can also give in other small ways like by consistently commenting on professional articles and social media pages. These little efforts add up and are always noticed, even if no one openly thanks you for them.
The best networking connections grow out of small seeds planted over the course of several months. You can consider this as a kind of law of human chemistry. If you try to break this law by coming on too strong or by asking for too much too quickly, the relationship you’re trying to build will blow up in your face.
10. Be enthusiastic about others’ ideas.
A lot of scientists don’t feel like they have anything to “give.” This is untrue. If you’re looking for a new job, you can “give” to a prospective employer or hopeful reference by making their life easier or more enjoyable. For example, you can act like you’re working for them already by sending them leads, contacts, ideas, or articles that they might be interested in.
At the very least you can pay them attention by showing enthusiasm for their industry or company, or for their personal work by engaging with them on social media.
Everyone has ideas their passionate about. Supporting other people’s passions with enthusiasm – authentic enthusiasm – is a fast way to build rapport.
11. Do your research.
Never reach out to a new connection without researching their interests and accomplishments first. Any generic email you send about liking someone personally will be discarded and quickly forgotten about.
The only way to be remembered – the only way to get the attention of a potential connection – is to reference something specific that you like about their work. Studies show that praising someone’s work or effort is more emotionally powerful than praising someone’s personality or intelligence.
Before you reach out, dig into the work of the person you’re reaching out to. Reference an effort-based accomplishment they made as specifically as possible and then ask them a question about it (see #12).
12. Ask questions.
Questions are calls to action. Never send an email or any other type of message to a new connection without ending it with a question. Don’t expect them to respond but put the ball in their court to encourage it.
13. Kill the curse of knowledge.
Knowledge has a funny way of making people feel important. But no one is so important that they don’t have to try.
A large part of networking is working to not come off as an elitist, selfish jerk. Some scientists struggle with this because they’ve dedicated their lives to working extremely hard for very lofty ideals and usually for very low pay. As a result, it becomes easy to feel like you’ve paid your dues and are owed something in return.
Never feel entitled to an email response or callback. Resentment is a networkers worst enemy. If you don’t get what you want the first time, don’t get bitter. Simply change your approach and try again.
14. Tap into identity.
The strongest connection you will ever make with someone happens right after they say, “You remind me of a younger version of myself.”
Identity is an extremely powerful networking tool. Studies show that your brain works extremely hard, often unconsciously, to maintain a positive and unified view of your personal identity. For example, if you identify yourself as a vegetarian or smoker, your brain will work to make it so.
Once someone identifies with you, even in the smallest way, their brains will fight to maintain a positive view of you. To go against you, would be to go against themselves.
Quick ways to get others to identify with you include mimicking their behavior (see #7) and drawing attention to shared past experiences and geographical locations.
15. Keep a long antenna.
Reading body language, understanding email tone, and sensing mood-shifts are incredibly important to networking effectively.
When reaching out to others, the most important thing to consider is timing. Ask yourself, “Is the timing right for them?” Consider both the day of the week and the time of the day. Studies show that people are most agitated, uncompromising, and erratic on Wednesday afternoons, while they are most flexible and accommodating on Thursdays.
Don’t be in such a hurry to knock things off of your to-do list that you fail to consider your audience’s mood.
16. Project confidence, not need.
To get a loan from the bank the first thing you have to do is prove that you don’t need it. The same is true when it comes to networking and moving others to help you – the first thing you have to do is prove that you don’t need their help.
Wanting and needing help are two very different things. People who are needy and desperate are avoided. But people who believe in themselves and their abilities are magnetic.
Confidence in who you are and what you have to offer is the starting point of creating a strong connection. You have to be comfortable with yourself before you can build an authentic relationship with someone else.
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