Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Networking 101

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.


  1. Ditto to this whole post. I think law is really similar and I'm usually flattered when new lawyers and wannabes ask my advice and I also am very likely to take them out for a lunch or a coffee. I would also add to keep in touch after that coffee/lunch. Not in a stalker way, but maybe every few months drop an email, attach an article that is relevant to the conversation you had, etc.

  2. Somewhere along the way, I picked up that if I'm asking someone for mentoring advice, or an informational interview, that *I* should be the one buying the coffee or lunch. Seems only fair in exchange for someone's time or expertise?

  3. @ARC, you should offer, but most people won't make a student (or postdoc) pay, and most people won't make someone who is out of work pay.

  4. @Cloud, I totally agree and I usually end up picking up the tab for student mentoring things. But I think it's a nice gesture to offer (and be prepared to follow through...)

  5. Julie1:22 PM

    Perhaps for another post, but what type of questions should I ask at an informational interview? What questions do you love to get? Which should I stay away from?
    I really thought the informational interviews were something that you "should" do, but that no one ever did.

  6. Julie1:31 PM

    I have one more question:
    I'm a new post doc and would like to eventually move to industry. I'm assuming, based on this post, that I should get involved now. I just found the AWIS website (thanks, I didn't know they existed). How do I find out about other industry organizations in my area (I'm in NYC)?

  7. @Julie, here are some answers for you:

    1. What questions to ask in an informational interview- I don't think your opening questions matter as much as that you demonstrate that you are listening to the responses, and then ask good follow ups. Your basic goal is to come off as smart, motivated, willing to learn how industry works, and aware of the fact that your academic experience is only partial preparation for industry. So ask what you're curious about- that will lead to a better conversation.

    Some good openers are things like: tell me about what you do in an average week; tell me about your career path; tell me about your first industry job.

    You can also ask for advice about making the transition from academia to industry- that will get most people talking.

    2. Are informational interviews common? - no they aren't, but they are a really good way to meet people in industry and make an impression, and I don't know of anyone who is bothered when they get a request for one, so there is no reason not to try them.

    3. Where to find local industry groups- if a straight google search doesn't turn up anything, then you could try searching LinkedIn for relevant local groups. You could also ask the industry people you meet via AWIS or whatever other group you find to get started.

    If you're willing to move out of NYC to the surrounding areas, you could even go out for a networking event or two out there. I know that the Princeton area used to have some events- but my direct knowledge is more than ten years old now, so not much use.

    4. Yes, you should start networking now! The earlier, the better, because networking is easier if you aren't in the midst of an active job hunt.

    Good luck!

  8. Thanks for the response! I will get started on the networking.

  9. Anonymous11:00 AM

    I second everything you wrote- except the free lunch part, I was a post-doc less than a year ago and my finances are still in recovery.

    However, the thing that was most valuable for me in finding my first industry job in this crappy economy was LinkedIn. It falls under networking, but is such an effective way to find who you know (or who you know that knows someone) at the various companies you might be interested in.

    I got my current job because my cousin's wife's high school friend worked at the company I was interested in. We had an informational interview over the phone, she offered to pass around my CV, and the next day HR called me for a job that wasn't even listed because they thought they were done interviewing candidates until my CV showed up.

    I never would have gotten this job if not for LinkedIn, because what are the chances that I'd have realized that connection otherwise?

    I applied many places, but the only places that brought me in to interview were places where I had a contact to pass on my CV. It's all about the networking.


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