Many scientists struggle with networking. If you’re one of them, don’t despair. A structured, scientific approach could be all you need.
Networking starts at home. Before you go to a conference or another event, identify a core group of people, likely to be there and whom you’d like to meet to advance your career. These might be potential collaborators, employers, funding sources or future conference programme organizers. Consider individuals who wrote the latest papers in your field, gave a memorable talk at a meeting or won major grants or awards.
Three goals for a networking event
After identifying this group, develop networking goals. When you attend an event, you shouldn’t leave the room until you have accomplished three things:
1. Introduced yourself to every person in your core group. Are you a scientist working on a technique they might find useful? Did you once work with one of their collaborators, mentors or trainees? Your aim should be that they remember meeting you.
2. Ensured that people in this core group know what specialty and industry you are in. Does your research expertise lie in cancer or neuroscience? Do you plan on having a career in academia, health care, industry, government or big pharma?
3. Made sure your new expanded network knows how to get a hold of you. You’ve exchanged business cards, added each other’s contact info into your phones or connected on LinkedIn.
Surviving a networking event
There are several ways to survive a networking event without inducing anxiety.
Arrive early. Arriving before the venue is noisy and full of people lets you get accustomed to the sights and sounds of the room before they become overwhelming. You can also scope out places to retreat to if you need a moment of solitude.
Arrive with a friend or colleague. Not knowing anyone is uncomfortable. Walking in with a friend guarantees you will know at least one person in the room who can introduce you to others in their network.
Have strategies to re-energize mid-event. Give yourself a networking time limit and then go somewhere to regroup in solitude. Or consider taking a break to peruse the books on the shelf or examine the artwork. Sometimes you just need to be seen and not heard at a networking event.
Have ‘starter’ and ‘closer’ sentences ready. Starting a conversation can be awkward. Have some opening sentences ready. “What a beautiful venue! Have you been here before? How long have you worked here? How has the conference been for you so far?” Having something benign to break the ice will come in handy.
Equally important is having sentences to conclude your discussion, allowing you to make a graceful exit. “I have to make a quick call”, or “I’m going to get a drink, would you like anything?”
What else can you do?
Conferences aren’t the only spaces to network. You can also look to:
Social media. Not all networking has to be done in person. It is acceptable to network online and to respond only when you’ve fully formulated your thoughts. Consider joining a distribution list or amplifying your voice on social media.
Networking outside formal events. If you find formal networking events draining, consider alternatives. Joining a committee or hosting a speaker at your institution can be effective, especially if you make the most of your strengths: are you great at idea generation, logistics or marketing? Offer to host a speaker at your institution and capitalize on the opportunity to communicate directly with the person through e-mail before the event, thereby avoiding awkward silence. You might find yourself feeling more comfortable on the day of the event, if you have already made conversation over e-mail and are on familiar ground. If not, ask someone who is more comfortable with face-to-face interactions and extemporaneous conversation to approach the speaker on your behalf on the day of the event.
Most people can be successful at networking, and awkward moments can be alleviated with a little preparatory work. Be prepared and give yourself time limits to mitigate undue stress. Find alternatives, such as social media and e-mail, which enable you to branch out in a controlled environment.
This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged. You can get in touch with the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.