One key piece of any job search is networking. Ask just about anyone “How do I find a job?” and the answer will be “Networking.” But what is a network and how do you form one?
Networking is one of the most important skills you can cultivate to be successful. Fortunately, it’s also simple. The essence of networking is two words. Make friends. I got my first-ever paid job because my elementary school friend’s mom ran a catering company and needed a busboy for the summer. I heard about it because my friend mentioned it at school. I said I was interested, and that was it. I was hired. This may seem like a very simple example, but it’s how people are hired every day.
When I was completing my undergraduate degree, I wanted one of the coveted undergraduate research spots, but wasn’t having any luck finding a lab with openings. A friend in my study group mentioned that she was giving up her position in her lab for the summer because she had a vet internship back home, and her professor needed a replacement. Again, I said I was interested, and that was that.
I worked in that lab for the next two years, and when I knew that I would be moving to the Maryland area, I asked all my friends and colleagues if they knew anyone in the area. My lab professor knew that the department had recently hired a professor from Johns Hopkins, and asked her for some names of Johns Hopkins professors who might take me on. Sight unseen, one of her former colleagues offered me a place for the summer and helped me get a grant so that I got paid as well. After I graduated, they offered me a full-time position.
I was able to take advantage of opportunities that many would have loved to have a chance at simply by making friends where I was at the time. None of these positions was advertised, and no one else was even interviewed. Similarly, with my current position, I had interned with the company, and when a full-time position opened up, they called me. Frequently, jobs are opened and filled almost before the advertisement goes up. The key to finding out about these opportunities is to make friends.
Make friends with as many people as possible. Make friends in your lab, in your classes, with your students, in completely unrelated departments, with the administrative assistants, at the gym, with your neighbor, and the guy who drops off the office mail. You never know where the key information will come from that will help you land your dream job. It may be that the person on the next yoga mat over is the hiring manager or the friend of one. Of course, it helps if some of your friends hold the positions you want, or know those that have control over those positions, which is why you’ll find many well-meaning networking articles that talk about networking with the “right” people. However, the more friends you make, the likelier it is that you will hit on someone who will be able to help.
If you have a friend, or a family member, you have a network. Start by writing down your network. Get a blank piece of paper and put yourself in a bubble in the middle. Then draw lines to other bubbles for the people you know from school, work, activities, etc. You may be surprised at the size of your current network, and you can identify areas where you may want to make more friends. If you don’t have any friends currently in the industry or area you want to work in, join the local chapter of the most relevant professional society and start attending events. You can do a quick internet search to find several professional organizations related to your favorite area of interest. Then you can start to build connections with people in the industry you are interested in, and fill some of the gaps in your network.
There are thousands of articles on how to network, who you should network with, what networking is all about. And there are some good points in these articles. I recommend reading several of them, and the book “Never eat alone” by Keith Ferrazzi. However, I have seen a lot of emphasis placed on how to find the “right” people to network with, how to go out and get that network going by having your “elevator speech” prepared and making a good impression at conferences.
While making a good first impression and being able to summarize your work in 2-3 minutes are important skills, most people can spot someone who is going out to try to meet the “right” people and build a network with “important” folks who can help build their career a mile away. It’s OK if you start out with wanting to know someone because of the position they hold, but if that’s all there ever is, the connection won’t be worth much to you. When you go to that first professional society meeting and meet someone new, look for some common ground on which to build a real relationship. That can be something related to the profession, or can be as simple as your joint love of running or your good taste in wine. Then you’ll have something to keep the discussion going, and that’s how your relationship will grow. The best networks are those built on genuine connection and friendship.