Casting a wider NET-work

By Lindsey Costantini and Diana Athonvarangkul

Have you ever walked into a room of scientists and wondered how you could start up a conversation with that world-renowned scientist? At conferences, do you wish to drum up a repartee with a speaker but don’t know how to begin? Here, we provide a brief introduction to the importance of starting the conversation, developing your own network and tips on how to improve your scientific-socializing.

Networking is a critical skill for students and post-docs to develop as part of our scientific training. Creating a network involves more than e-mailing another lab to ask for troubleshooting tips, finding a roommate for the national conference or applying for a job. By having an established and solid professional network, you will be able to effectively reach out for advice, collaborations, and life-changing opportunities. Moreover, it is important to keep in mind that you should reciprocate your good deeds to those in your network as well.

As your career progresses, the roles of the people in your network will shift accordingly. As a graduate student, your classmates may primarily be your friends but when you enter the workforce they will become your colleagues and collaborators.  Even as a graduate student or post-doc, try to establish your network early. Make connections with and through your adviser, faculty in your department, fellow students and people you meet at professional conferences. Each of these people has their own network, which will also become available to you. 

Here are some tips and ideas for taking that first step in creating your professional network,

  • Be sincere and authentic. Scientists are naturally inquisitive, so showing sincere curiosity can go a long way in opening the door for your first interaction. If you are interested in learning more about your new acquaintance, showcase your curiosity by listening to what the other person says and then asking appropriate follow-up questions. Most importantly, make sure that in your attempt to impress the other party you do not lose your own voice. Ask yourself: “Am I changing my behavior and ideas to satisfy what I believe is expected of me?”
  • Remember networking is a two-way street. A good friendship includes give and take; the same can be said for a good professional relationship. Understandably if one person is more senior in experience and knowledge, as could be the case in the graduate student-PI dynamic, a student could contribute to the give and take by asking well thought out questions, or take part in a scientific discussion. There is commonly an ulterior motive when attending networking events. You want to speak with Dr. So-and-So to ask for a job, a letter of reference or a favor. People can sense if you are genuinely interested in conversing with them or if you are trying to exploit their good nature.  When making requests, be straightforward.  Also, be ready to offer something in return. 
  • Use online resources. LinkedIn and allow you to build a profile, share your CV, contact and add people in your field. A word of caution, be careful using Facebook as your networking tool. Although it’s a great way to contact old friends you’ve lost touch with, you may not want to blur the line between personal friendship and professional colleagues.
  • Join organizations. Scientific societies have regular meetings and networking events that bring people together with a common interest or purpose, therefore jumpstarting the process and putting you directly in an environment where starting up a conversation is completely expected and most likely welcomed!
  • Maintain your network. Keep a running log of people you have met and contact information if available. Look up the ten most influential people in your research area and put them in your Rolodex. These individuals have the influence to shape the direction of your field more than you can imagine. Even if you will not be calling them in the near future, keep them in your network and stay updated with their research work.  As you become more entrenched in your research field, you may convert this one-way street to a two-way channel.
  • Extend a hand. Develop a firm handshake. And don’t be afraid to extend your hand first.


NOTE: Every individual is different and although we have provided some tips and ideas we cannot predict how each interaction will take place. However, we hope that with practice you will begin to feel more comfortable starting the conversation and will continually seek opportunities to expand your network.

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