Written by Catherine Sorbara, Ph.D.
I arrived at a big PhD networking event.
For the past two weeks, I had spent all of my time gathering data for a poster.
Now, I was standing awkwardly beside my poster in a room full of industry professionals and other PhDs.
Time dragged on slowly.
I waited and waited for the mandatory “stand by your poster” hour to finish.
All I wanted to do was flee to meet my colleagues and complain about the stupidity of the event.
I just wanted to get back to the bench.
I didn’t particularly like working at the bench but it was what I was comfortable with.
Networking events were beneath me.
At least that’s how I felt.
They were a distraction that got in the way of my experiments.
I didn’t have time to network and making small talk with strangers was absurd.
Networking felt fake. It felt pretentious.
Then my postdoc ended.
I knew I wanted to leave academia and transition into industry.
The only problem was I didn’t have any industry contacts in my network.
That’s when it hit me—all the networking events that I had rushed out of and avoided like the plague were lifelines to the world outside academia.
Lifelines I had cut off.
I’d missed dozens and dozens of opportunities over the year to build up my network and get industry referrals.
Now, I was unemployed.
I had no industry connections and no idea what jobs were available to me or how to find them.
Where did I go wrong?
Why Your Network Is More Valuable Than Your PhD
It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.
This phrase dates back to 1918 when it was first referenced in the New York Tribune, and it’s still true today.
When it comes to getting an industry job, your network is you net worth.
And the only way to build a bigger network is to nurture your interpersonal skills.
Strong interpersonal skills are your ticket to transitioning into an industry job.
Numerous studies including these reported by the National Academies show that interpersonal skills are both important and measurable.
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.
7 Deadly Sins Of Networking At PhD Events
Too many PhDs completely ignore the development of their interpersonal skills.
As a result, these PhDs act atrociously at networking events.
Instead of building strong connections, they repel and annoy industry professionals.
These rude PhDs talk incessantly about themselves, interrupt others, talk in condescending tones, and come off as awkward, insecure, and disrespectful.
I know they do these things because I used to do them.
If you ever want a job in industry, you must stop misbehaving at networking events and start networking as if you are already a successful industry professional.
Here are 7 things successful industry PhDs never do at networking events…
1. Starting conversations that will ruin your reputation.
On the rare occasions when I did talk to other people at networking events, I always complained.
I would moan about my work, downplay my accomplishments, and criticize the event itself.
All of this made me come across as pessimistic and negative—not the type of person anyone would want to hire for an industry job.
If you’re serious about transitioning into a non-academic career, quit whining.
Academia can be miserable. Everyone knows there are substantial problems in the ivory tower.
However, you should not focus on these problems during networking events.
You should focus on solutions.
You should be looking forward and talking about what you want to do in the future while also asking others what they want to do in the future.
The next time you go to a networking event, aim to paint yourself as a positive, solution-minded PhD, not as a negative, problem-focused PhD.
2. Being glued to your smart phone
When I went to networking events in graduate school, my smart phone was my crutch.
Rather than awkwardly having conversations with strangers, I would squeeze my phone and stare at it intently.
I would pretend my phone was absolutely riveting.
Like I was using it to rewrite the theory of relativity.
In reality, I was playing Bejewelled.
Stop using your phone as a way to escape from networking events.
Instead, turn your phone on silent, put it in your bag, look up, and make eye contact with other professionals.
Ask these people how they are doing and what they’re working on.
Show enthusiasm when they answer you and ask good follow-up questions.
Referrals don’t happen over the phone. Real rapport can’t be built online.
Referrals and rapport are sparked in person.
Face-to-face conversations create trust and you should be having as many of these conversations as possible.
3. Only socializing with your labmates.
My biggest fear at networking events was standing by myself and looking stupid.
So, I’d congregate with my labmates and talk about comfortable topics.
I felt safe when I was in a circle of familiar PhDs.
Even though I saw these same PhDs every day for inconceivable amounts of time, I felt the need to stick with them at public events.
Misery loves company.
By sticking together, we could rant about the unfairness of PhD life without interruption.
We could also pretend like we were being productive.
If we all stand here and talk to each other and evade the fact that we’re not actually networking we aren’t failures, right?
Networking with the same people you see at your University is a devastating mistake.
The whole point of going to networking events is to meet NEW people.
This is why it’s so important to not only meet new PhDs at networking events, but to also meet non-PhDs at non-PhD networking events.
Your colleagues will forgive you if you ignore them for one afternoon.
Step outside your shell and set yourself apart from the others.
4. Ignoring the person standing alone.
I used to ignore people standing alone at networking events.
Which is ironic because I was often standing alone trying to avoid people.
I figured these loners either wanted to be left alone or were not worth connecting with.
On the contrary, people standing alone are the best people to approach.
It’s far easier to make a meaningful connection at a networking event one-on-one than it is in a circle of three of four people.
Try to realize that many industry professionals are introverts and are uncomfortable with networking, especially professionals in the biotechnology and biopharmaceutical fields.
At the very least, they are recovering introverts.
By connecting with these people one-on-one, you can make strong connections that are much more likely to lead to referrals.
5. Heading straight home after the final talk.
I know, I know—there’s a cell culture that needs to be passed and you cannot stick around a single minute longer.
You’ve already listened to the keynote speaker and have more important things to do.
Besides, your pending Nature paper is going to get you the job you want in industry, not networking.
If you’re thinking like this, you’ll never get an industry job.
Remember, your network is your net worth.
The majority of industry jobs come from referrals, not from experiments.
Never leave networking events right after the last talk. This is when the magic happens.
People relax and open up—they’re more willing to engage and give you their contact information.
Instead of leaving, stick around and head to the breakout area.
Now that the talks are over, you have the perfect opportunity to mingle and have fun while doing so.
6. Dressing inappropriately
As a PhD student, I always felt there was never a need to dress in business attire.
I had a romantic and idealistic view of academia…
Intelligent people don’t have to dress up.
Brains, not looks, matter.
My ideas are impressive, not my clothing.
You can’t judge my appearance because I’m progressing scientific knowledge and changing the world.
The problem is that first impressions are incredibly hard to change.
A report by the Quarterly Journal of Economics shows that first impressions can last for years and are rarely changed even in the face of an overwhelming amount of contradictory information afterwards.
Dress for success, while corny, is an adage you should follow at networking events.
Like it or not, other professionals will judge you within seconds.
Dress well but don’t overdress.
You don’t need to wear a suit and tie or a ball gown, but you shouldn’t wear an Axel Rose t-shirt and sweatpants either.
7. Pretending you do not need to network to find a job
I was 100% convinced I did not need to network to find a job.
I was above the networking process.
Wow, was I ever wrong.
When my postdoc ended, I found out just how wrong I was.
I was left unemployed and overwhelmed with uncertainty, stressed, and depressed.
Fortunately, I was able to join the Cheeky Scientist Association and start building a real industry network.
One of the first things I learned was that I was not above networking.
I needed to spend time reaching out to hiring managers and recruiters, creating a strong LinkedIn profile and, of course, going to in-person networking events.
If you think you’re above networking, I assure you—you’re not.
To become an expert networker, stop elevating yourself and acting like a snob. Come down to Earth and authentically accept that your network is valuable and you should invest in it. Quit complaining about networking events and quit using your smartphone as a crutch. Instead of only talking to your labmates, branch out and meet new people, including those who are standing alone. By dressing appropriately and sticking around after the final talk, you’ll be in a better place to create strong connections. Take networking seriously, it’s the most important investment you can make during graduate school and your postdoc.
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.