I have a confession to make: I can be pretty awkward. When I am not in my element, I can be quiet and standoffish. I am not a natural extrovert, so events such as seminars and conferences are challenging for me. Rather than mingling with fellow attendees, I am tempted to sip a cup of coffee and look out a window.
It doesn’t escape my attention that, on occasion, when I sit down at a table with a big group of people, conversations tend to fall silent around me, and people will begin to talk with other people instead of to me. And maybe, as an introvert, I like it that way.
As you might imagine, I have naturally shied away from networking. When I was an active job seeker, networking felt counter to how I thought the “right” approach to job seeking should be: It seemed fairest to present yourself in the form of a cover letter and résumé to potential employers. Shouldn’t you be judged on the basis of your work as a scientist, not your professional connections?
I can’t pretend that the chemical enterprise is a strict meritocracy, and the judgment of what science is “good” or “best” is subjective. But something deep inside me would recoil at the oft-repeated phrase, “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know.” That phrase disregards the years that chemists spend learning their field and honing their skills in the laboratory.
I also believe that there are minimum standards of achievement in our field. A brief look at CVs will indicate that for the average industry or academic position, those standards can be quite high.
Nevertheless, as I gained more experience, I realized I was missing something in this “merit-based” approach to job seeking. Perhaps the best way to think about networking is that it is not a way around the traditional (and not necessarily fair) gateways of academia or industry; rather, it is a more human and perhaps more fine-grained sorting tool for both people’s needs and their abilities.
It’s unfair and incomplete to boil a person down to a cover letter, a CV, and maybe a scratchy voice on the phone. Meeting someone face-to-face and engaging in conversation allows others to see your personality and determine whether you can work with them.
Avoid relying solely on virtual networking. It’s tempting to browse other people’s connections on LinkedIn and interact with people virtually, but that can’t reproduce the value of a genuine conversation over coffee.
If you’re a student, get to know your professors and fellow students. Meeting with former alumni and hearing about their experiences and career paths can be illuminating. You’ll begin to learn what skills and problem-solving techniques you’ll need to master.
For midcareer chemists, face-to-face conversations can reveal the inside story about companies, their projects, and how they treat their employees.
When I was job seeking, I always felt awkward about having an ulterior motive when trying to meet people in industry, as if I were a burden on others. Then I met someone on Twitter who passed along the networking experience of his well-connected friend: Rather than feeling awkward about networking, his friend is constantly looking for ways to help people without looking for a quid pro quo. Also, his friend isn’t afraid to ask people for help when he needs it. This creates a virtuous circle of people helping one another.
My Twitter friend’s advice has changed my perspective and approach to networking in my personal and professional life, and I hope it will change yours as well. I now deeply enjoy meeting fellow chemists, hearing their stories, and finding out what challenges they have and what help they need. Talking with chemists and figuring out creative ways to help them make connections in their careers is a lot more fun than staring out a window by myself.
Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.