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7 Things Expert Networkers Never Do When Getting Job Referrals At PhD Networking Events

how to properly network at events **| Cheeky Scientist |** how to get job referrals
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.

I knew my postdoc had trained me to be successful in industry too.

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.

benefits of professional networking | Cheeky Scientist | business networking tips and tricks

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.

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Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.

Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.

Cathy has a PhD in Medical Life Science and Technology and is COO of the Cheeky Scientist Association. Cathy is passionate about science communication including translating science to lay audiences and helping PhDs transition into industry positions. She is Chair of Cambridge AWiSE, a regional network for women in science, engineering and technology. She has also been selected to take part in Homeward Bound 2018, an all-female voyage to Antarctica aimed to heighten the influence of women in leadership positions and bring awareness to climate change.
Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.
  • Dr. Turner

    I did the same mistake during my postdoc, avoid the networking events. I was not good at networking events, actually I was very bad at it. But I did not know that this is the key to transitioning the career in industry from academia. So I have to work another year to make the connections to industry and getting a job. I used to come here on weekends and at night to improve my skills and to know many new things about transition. This website helped me a lot and thank you very much for that.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Happy to hear that the association is helpful for you Dr. Turner and thank you the comments. I was in the same boat as you. I wish I knew then what I know now!

  • drjeffrey

    I would like to thank Cheeky Scientist and all the authors for providing such unique and exclusive tips and help for all the graduates and PhDs. I got my industry job and Cheeky Scientist played a major role in that.

    Now I would like to suggest the upcoming PhDs that most of industry jobs are filled by referral system. So try to expand your network and contacts so that you can be the part of such referral system. And someone from industry with high reputation can refer you for the good post. So pay proper attention to the networking events.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      YES! Great advice drjeffrey and congratulations on your industry job! We always love to hear the positive feedback and you are spot on with your comments. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  • GinaPhD

    I remember that one of my senior fellows used to tell me about attending such networking event. He told me that our PhD is like a candle and networking is like a lighter. You cannot ignite the candle without the lighter. So the networking events are very essential with your postdoc. We can leverage our knowledge and skills to expand our network and get a well paid industry job and ditch academia.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      I have never heard it put quite like that, GinaPhD — it is a fantastic analogy!! Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts!

  • Chiu-An Lo

    the point 4. ignoring the person standing alone resonance with my experiences well. In my experiences, good network or friendship is often established after a one-on-one conversation. People are not so open or honest when they are in a group of people, because they don’t want to sound stupid. On the other hand, when you are talking to just one person in front of you, you are more willing to share and ask for advices. And it is much easier to remember and be remembered.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      I completely agree, Chiu-An Lo. Thanks for sharing your experience. Indeed you will endow a last impression by walking up the lone person rather than approaching the group.

  • Wai Hoong Chan

    An interesting article. It is very true for those who are still pursuing their PhD. I am still trying my best to build up my network currently while I am on my way to finish my study this year.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Thank you Wai Hoong Chan and best of luck building your network and finishing your studies!! I hope you find some help from the association.

  • Donna L. Vogel

    Well said, Cathy, especially the personal viewpoint. I’ve been giving this kind of advice for years and completely agree with your points. I’d add that if you are an introvert yourself, remember to take breaks or you will find yourself exhausted and full of bad vibes even if you’re doing well. Leave the room, get to a quiet place, and recharge. It took me years to realize this and it really helps.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Thank you Donna! That means a lot coming from someone with your level of expertise. You make a great final point as well – attempting to do a 180 degree turn in your networking game plan can be overwhelming and stress. Small steps, small victories – it will add up in the long run!

  • MikePhD

    I experienced such stuff at a networking event. I have a very bad habit of using my cell phone at networking events and it irritates the people around me. Many times I have to face some bad consequences too. So next time I’ll keep your suggestion in mind and put my phone in flight mode. Thanks.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Thanks for your comment MattPhD. I did the same thing — glued to my phone but for no real importance and really does give a bad impression. Happy that you will try a different approach next time round. Best of luck!

  • Dr Girling

    Every time I go to any networking events I stick up with my labmates. So it seems that we’re productive as well as I feel safer this way. But after reading this, I understand that I was preventing myself from meeting new people with whom I can share my knowledge and create some great relationship that can help me to grab a well paid job.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      I was of the same understanding Dr. Girling! Now you can make the most of your next event — thank you for your comment!

  • Dr. Pushkin

    Only attending networking event won’t get you the industry job. You have to stay there after it finished so that you can talk with other people informally and it’ll increase your chances to get a job earlier.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Definitely agree Dr. Pushkin! After the event, it where the magic happens as people are more relaxed and open for discussion and socializing and it is a great opportunity to make connections — thanks for sharing 🙂

  • GlennPhd

    I agree with many students here that looks doesn’t matter if you have powerful brain. But it’ll be considered as an advantage if you dressed with business etiquettes. You have more chances to be hired than other students. Because, as you said, first impression is very hard to change.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Precisely, GlennPhD. All PhD student are brilliant but first impressions can be killer when it comes to making connections that will lead to job opportunities. Dressing smart as well as being smart is a great combination. Thanks for your comment!

    • Caryn Heldt

      I tell my students that they need to earn the respect to “dress down” at events. They haven’t earned the respect yet, so don’t do it.

      • Cathy Sorbara

        Great reply Caryn! That is spot on!

  • Dr Gandhi

    Most of the time at networking events, many students like me try to stand alone from the crowd because they are trying to avoid the interaction with another person in the room. But now I understand this is the best opportunity to initiate one-to-one conversation. And because of that you can create a meaningful connection which can help in the future and lead you to referrals.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Exactly, Dr. Gandhi! Meaning connections are what it is all about when you start looking for new opportunities outside of academia. I am happy to hear that you have gained value from the article!

  • Judith

    I just came here for the first time and I must say that this is the great place for undergrads and postdocs. I think I can learn many new things here and improve myself from what I’m right now. Thank you Dr. Sorbara for providing such in-depth details of networking events. I’ll surely consider these things for my next event.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Thank you for the kind comments, Judith! It is great to hear that you are finding these resources useful. If there are any particular topics that you would also like covered, we would love to hear about it! Best of luck 🙂

  • PekkaDr

    I see many of my senior postdocs who did not take such networking event seriously and now roaming jobless. I also have contact with some regular postdocs who attend such seminars and events and prepare themselves for industry. Most of them now has a good job in the industry. Because of their networking skills, they got a well paid job in industry through referrals. So I’m taking such event very carefully and also suggest other guys to do the same.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      It is a sad but all too true story, PekkaDr, for those who do not take advantage of these networking events. It’s a missed opportunity! Best of luck to you in your future networking events!