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Employment

Office Hours

Networking doesn’t have to be unpleasant

Building a lasting relationship starts with a good conversation

by Jen Heemstra, special to C&EN
May 4, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 17

Illustration of a group of people networking.
Credit: Yang H. Ku/C&EN/Shutterstock
Think about networking as an opportunity to make new friends.

With the pandemic easing, in-person conferences and events are starting to appear on the horizon. For some, this is welcome news—they can’t wait to be surrounded by other people, talking about science and careers at poster sessions and social hours. For others, the thought of having to network and socialize in person again is stirring in them a deep sense of dread, particularly after a year marked by social isolation.

Building and cultivating a professional network is essential, but I’m willing to bet that few people would say that they enjoy networking. Even those who are extroverted and enjoy interpersonal interactions can find networking challenging or unpleasant.

Why do some people feel such a strong aversion to networking? It may be because they think networking is all about trying to get something from someone. They may have even attended an awkward networking event that was focused on using connections for personal gain. However, that goal represents only a small part of developing a professional network.

If you step back and look at the big picture, you will realize that your network is just everybody that you know. This can include your mentors, mentees, colleagues, friends, family, and people you might meet at conferences and events. The one thing that all these people have in common is that you can build a relationship with them, whether it is a yearslong close collaboration or a casual business friendship in which you message each other on LinkedIn once a year. So building your network is just a process of building relationships.

This raises the question: How do you build relationships? The answer is extremely complex, but an easy place to start is by having good conversations. Good conversations can be broken down into asking a good question, listening, and then responding with a comment, story, or another question. While this process is often done in person, it doesn’t have to be. It may take more time, but you can also build relationships through conversations over email, text message, or social media if that is where you are more comfortable.

What makes a good question? That depends on whom you are talking to. Being thoughtful and intentional with your questions demonstrates that you value their time and the relationship you’re building. If you are talking with potential collaborators or future employers, you will likely want to ask a question about one of their recent publications or something that you saw in their talks or posters. If you are chatting with someone you view as a role model, you might ask about that person’s career path or advice for someone at your career stage. If you are making a request of a sponsor, or career champion, you could ask if they would be willing to nominate you for an award or help you get invited to a conference.

It’s possible that you were starting to look forward to networking, until you read that last example. While making requests of sponsors is only a small part of networking, it can be an important one. But the requests don’t need to be unpleasant or feel disingenuous. If you are going to ask someone for help, that person will likely be someone you know well. For example, the person may be your research adviser, a longtime mentor, or a former lab mate or coworker. If you don’t know the person well, then making the request directly may not be the best strategy. In these cases, you can find someone whom you do know well and who also knows the sponsor you want to approach with the request. You can ask that person to either facilitate the conversation or make the request on your behalf. One of the powerful things about a network is that it extends beyond the people you know to also include the people that they know.

Remember that networking is mutual. You will likely need to make requests of people in your network at times. But over time, and especially as you advance in your career, you will also be able to grant requests and help others. And above all, remember that the real reward is meeting great people and building relationships that may last throughout your life.

Jen Heemstra is a professor of chemistry at Emory University who shares advice on Twitter at @jenheemstra. Find all her columns for C&EN and ask her questions at cenm.ag/officehours.

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.

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