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5 Smart Moves PhDs Can Make At A Networking Event

phds networking with kristen stewart-lookalike

Contributing Author: Sarah Smith, PhD

It used to paralyze me when I would hear it:

How is your networking going?

I had some family members who would always ask me this question – relatives with industry jobs who sort of “knew the ropes” of the business world.

I was nearing the end of my PhD with no job lined up, and my aunts, uncles, and cousins knew it.

My relatives like to visit me, and they would really get on my case about this whole networking thing.

The stress was overwhelming.

I told them I didn’t have time to network, but that was only sort of true.

I was working incredibly long days in the lab and writing up my data well into what should have been my sleeping hours.

Sometimes, just making time to eat was a challenge (I had a lot of ramen noodles at some very odd hours).

But a part of me knew what the biggest issue was…

… The issue I didn’t explain to my family because I thought it would make me sound like I lacked a serious work ethic (which of course I didn’t, and my PhD is proof of this).

The real issue was that networking sounded almost as bad as defending my dissertation.

Lab work wasn’t always fun, but at least I could enjoy the isolation.

I could put on a podcast, get my work done, wear whatever I wanted, etc.

In my mind, networking meant uncomfortable things like cold-calling, introducing myself to strangers, getting people’s contact info, putting myself in the public eye…

Academia doesn’t help you with things like this – it doesn’t prepare you for the exciting world of industry.

Academia prefers to keep you in the lab, working for less than half of what you’re worth as a PhD.

I wanted a fulfilling, high-paying job, but didn’t know the first thing about building a career outside of academia.

So I made excuses when anyone asked me about my networking efforts.

And whenever I found a rare bit of spare time, I submitted my resume to job openings that I found online, hoping that someone would just see it and hire me.

Needless to say, this approach was a total failure.

I finished my PhD very educated and very unemployed – frustrated and disappointed.

Finally, I decided it was time to own up to my situation.

It was time to try networking and to try it seriously.

And as soon as I began networking, I wished I had started sooner.

It was tough at times, I’ll be honest.

But I met some amazing people—both PhDs and non-PhDs—working in various industry roles.

Industry professionals took the time to chat with me, and it wasn’t long before I started feeling energized about the future of my career.

Eventually, one of my new connections referred me for an industry position, and I got hired.

Networking was clearly a huge factor in my success, and if you put in the effort, you can enjoy that same success in your own industry career.

Why Refusing To Go To In-Person Networking Events Damages Your Career

phd networking and smiling

LinkedIn is an excellent resource for networking, and it makes the whole process easier than ever before.

But LinkedIn should not be the only place you are meeting industry professionals.

You need to attend in-person networking events too.

Meeting in person allows someone to get to know you at a far more significant level than the internet alone will allow.

The amount of rapport and relationship-building that can occur during a 10-minute, in-person interaction could take months if attempted over the internet.

There is no substitute for face-to-face networking – it’s what we as a species have evolved to do.

In fact, Psychology Today reported that speech makes up just 7% of how we actually communicate.

Yet when networking online through emails and messaging, word choice is the only part of your communication that is coming across.

The most important components of how we communicate – body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice – are totally absent when all you’re doing is writing to someone.

That means the only way to fully communicate with someone is in person.

As PhDs, many of us are introverted, and that definitely includes me.

PhDs may tend to avoid in-person networking events for this reason.

Instead, we opt for online networking, where we can just write – an arena in which many of us excel.

But merely networking online is not enough.

According to Forbes, 80% of job openings are never even advertised.

This means that the majority of job openings can only be accessed via other people.

And if you meet someone in person, they are much more likely to tell you about an opportunity than if you were to chat with them online.

Bottom line: If you truly want an industry job, there is no way to avoid in-person networking events.

You’re better off embracing them, and you will look back and thank yourself for it.

5 Steps To Avoid The Awkwardness Of Entering A Networking Circle Where Everyone Might Ignore You

At first, it will be hard.

I would know – I’m an introverted PhD who has pushed herself to get out there and meet professionals at networking events.

If you are one of those PhDs who loves meeting new individuals, having lengthy conversations, and finding excuses just to chat, well, that’s great.

For PhDs like me, in-person networking can range anywhere from mildly uncomfortable to agonizing.

But you can embrace in-person networking by focusing on its massive benefits.

Focus on how expanding your network will increase your chances of getting a referral (by a lot).

Focus on how getting a referral means you are 3-4x more likely to be hired, according to CareerXroad.

All you have to do is get out there and network.

Here is my 5-step guide that will make in-person networking a breeze…

1. Stop being afraid of your own shadow. Everyone expects you to talk.

phds learning to network professionally

So many PhDs go to networking events and don’t even talk with new people.

If you are going to show up and just stand in the corner, why even bother?

This is like pseudo-networking, and it defeats the entire purpose of the event.

Networking at an event becomes much easier if you remind yourself that the whole reason anyone is there is to talk.

Everyone is prepared for actual human conversation, and no one will be put off by a person who does exactly what you’re supposed to do at the event: network.

If someone expects to be left alone and is rude or terse with you, then they are the one with the problem.

If they didn’t want to network, they should not have come.

You are there to make connections, just like the event description says.

This is not the train where everyone just wants to be left alone.

The other people there are excited to meet new people too.

Plus, other people are probably having anxious thoughts about standing awkwardly alone as you are.

They will be excited to have a conversation with you.

Yes, networking is hard and, for many, it is an uncomfortable experience, but you have to do it.

It is an essential part of job searching and will continue to be a part of your industry career.

And, the more you do it, the easier it will become.

2. Use an “excuse me sandwich” to enter the networking circle.

At networking events, people tend to congregate into groups of 2-6.

If you are not in one of these groups, it can seem impossible to join one.

One way around it is to find other loners, which is not a bad idea at all.

The two of you may even build the foundations of your own large group if you’re lucky.

But as a loner, if you always avoid other existing groups, you are denying yourself an enormous chunk of the opportunity that networking events provide.

You’re going to have to break into one of these big groups and make an effort to join in.

The strategy you can use to join one of these groups is actually pretty simple and easy to execute.

First, find a group you want to join.

Second, approach the group, look at the person who is currently talking (make eye contact) and say:

Excuse me, I’d like to join in and introduce myself.

Then introduce yourself, shake hands with everyone in the circle, and say,

Thank you, please continue.


You have successfully entered a networking circle.

You are going to have to interrupt when someone is talking, as there will rarely – if ever – be a pause.

But if you follow the steps above, it will be fine.

The worst that can happen is that you look and feel awkward.

The best thing that can happen is that you lay the foundations for getting an industry job

Imagine having that job and looking back at your networking experience – at that point, would you regret feeling awkward for a while at some networking events?

Probably not.

3. Stop obsessing over how to make yourself look good – instead, ask good questions.

phds sitting in a circle and networking

Once you’re in the conversation, the hardest part is over.

But the most important part is yet to come.

It’s time to practice active listening.

Good networking involves mostly listening and asking good questions.

And the great questions are those that keep people talking.

Instead of asking what someone does for a living, ask them what they are passionate about – what are their hobbies or personal projects?

These questions give people a chance to talk about what they enjoy, rather than boxing them into only speaking about what they do for work.

Be ready with relevant follow-up questions to show that you are interested and listening.

And, when it’s your turn to talk, be succinct and interesting.

Be prepared with your elevator pitch that speaks to your passions, and where your industry career is headed.

But most of all, be genuine with the people you interact with because this is how you will be able to make real connections that can lead to referrals.

4. The real networking happens after the event – don’t be afraid to “ghost.”

During the conversations that you have at the networking event, always make sure that you get the contact details for people you are interested in making a more in-depth connection with.

Don’t just hand out your business cards.

You cannot rely on other people to reconnect with you after the event.

That is your responsibility.

You must get their information so that you can follow up.

And once you have had a good conversation and gotten some contact information, you need a way to leave the circle.

The best way to do this is to just excuse yourself without making a scene.

You don’t need to wait for the conversation to end, or for there to be a pause in the conversation.

You can excuse yourself to get another drink, to go to the bathroom, or to find your friend, etc, and then leave.

There is no need for a goodbye production – just leave quickly and quietly: ghost the group.

Even if you don’t say goodbye at all, no one is going to care or even remember the next day.

5. Get other people’s contact details and follow up as soon as possible.

How many people have you met at events, had great conversations with, and then never heard from again?

How many lost opportunities?

Lost, because you did not follow up.

The real power of networking happens after the event.

As a PhD, you know how to set up a system – you know how to follow through and be determined.

To follow up, you will need to call upon these strengths.

You should send a quick email to the people you met right after the event, but make sure you send an email or LinkedIn message no later than 24 hours after the event.

Your note should remind them about the conversation that you had, and express your gratitude for meeting them.

Then you should set up a plan to follow up every few weeks with your new connections.

And in every interaction that you have with them, make sure you add value.

Once you have created a relationship, you can make your request.

Whether you ask for a referral or an introduction, your efforts at the networking event and in the follow-up are what make that request possible.

It’s no secret that networking is an important part of getting hired in industry. Nevertheless, many PhDs still only do the bare minimum when it comes to networking. If you can get past your excuses and put real energy into networking, you will see benefits. The more successful your networking efforts, the more successful your job search will be. And, in-person networking must play a part in your networking strategy. You can make your in-person networking happen smoothly by just following this simple 5-step guide. Stop being afraid of your own shadow. Everyone expects you to talk. Use an “excuse me sandwich” to enter the networking circle. Stop obsessing over how to make yourself look good – instead, ask good questions. The real networking happens after the event – don’t be afraid to “ghost.” Get other people’s contact details and follow up as soon as possible.

To learn more about 5 Smart Moves PhDs Can Make At A Networking Event, 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.

Cheeky Scientist Association

Sarah Smith, PhD


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