I recently participated in a career advice session on a local campus. The session was attended by grad students and post docs who were either interested in the field in which I work or desperately casting about for something to do that is at least somewhat relevant to their training. I had fun- hey, I write a blog, so it should be no surprise to you that I don't mind talking about myself. I was also struck by how completely clueless some of them were about networking.
To be fair, I was probably equally clueless, if not more so, when I was where they are now. But regardless, I thought I'd write up some of the advice I gave them, so that maybe a few more people might benefit from what I've learned from two rounds of "layoff school" (a.k.a. "outplacement services") and more than ten years experience in industry.
First of all, it really is true that most industry jobs are landed by networking- at least in my industry (biotech). I have never landed a job any other way, in fact, and I do not think that I am unusual. This is not because we are all heartless jerks who only want to hire our friends. It is because most industry jobs require not just the appropriate technical skills but also the appropriate cultural fit, some sort of clue about how to function in a corporate environment (surprisingly lacking in many scientists), and various other traits that are hard to discern in an interview.
So, like it or not, if you want to go into industry, you need to network. Now, this is hardest to do when you're looking for your first industry job. Once you've had a job or two, you have a natural network of past coworkers, who- if you weren't a complete jerk or flake- will almost certainly put in a good word for you if given a chance. So how do you get a network before you have worked in industry? I can think of two good methods:
(1) Join organizations like AWIS, industry associations, and local industry networking groups. Go to the meetings. Talk to people. And, most importantly, volunteer on a committee or two. If all you've done is schmooze with me, all I can say is that you didn't seem like a freak (still a valuable recommendation, but you want better- particularly in this tight market). If you've worked on a committee with me, I can talk about how you work in groups (very important in industry), your work ethic/reliability, and other relevant things. This, incidentally, is how I landed my first industry job. That, and I got incredibly lucky in that I graduated with experience in a relatively hot field at the peak of the dot-com/biotech bubble. But even with that luck, without that networking connection, I may not have gotten that first job.
(2) Organize some "informational interviews". These are interviews where you ask someone who's working in a job that sounds interesting to you lots of questions and try to figure out if you'd like the job and how you might get such a job. You do NOT contact someone and ask for a job. Even if that person has a job you want posted. You contact her and ask if you can ask some general questions about her field and how she got to where she is today. When someone emails me and asks me for a job, I generally ignore that email. Sorry- but that shows a level of cluelessness that I don't really want to have to deal with. But if someone emails me and asks me if she can ask me some general questions, I generally take her out to lunch and answer those questions. And, here's the kicker- if it turned out that she was a potential fit for the job I had posted? She'd have a pretty good chance of landing an interview.
Yes, I said that if you contact me and want to ask me general questions about my field, I'll usually take you out to lunch and try to do anything I can to help you in your job search. Think about that. The worst outcome of this scenario is that you get a free lunch. Not everyone takes people who ask for informational interviews out to lunch, but a lot of us do. It gives us a warm fuzzies and an excuse to go out to lunch. So don't be afraid to ask for an informational interview. They are a great way to start building a network.
Those are the basics of networking. Well, you should also always be nice to people and remember that biotech is a small world. If you're going to gossip about someone to me, there is a good chance I know that person. Do you really want to gamble on me sharing your opinion? The old "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all" adage is a good one.
Questions? Ask 'em in the comments. I'll try to answer.