This summer I have had a number of conversations with scientists looking for jobs – mostly academic scientists looking to move to industry or industry scientists looking to move into the business side. While I am a scientist trained in academia that has moved into the business side of the industry, I don’t think my route was a scalable approach to either issue. (I left graduate school and was the first employee of Quintessence Biosciences. Over the years, I have worked with people who have allowed me to grow with the organization.) While I will write about some of my other suggestions in the future, I wanted to hit on one topic that will be front and center for some of the folks I have talked with as they attend the BioForward conference this week – in person networking.
Based on my observations of many and conversations with handfuls, a large number of scientists are not naturally inclined to network. We could go into the psychology of why but I think it is more instructive to acknowledge that in person networking 1) is a necessary skill set and 2) can provide significant benefits regardless of your career situation. Your goal in networking may be to gather information. I did this type of networking extensively during my transition (writing a business plan) and I continue to do it now (advocating for small business). Or your goal may be to find a new career opportunity. One thing that quickly became apparent after my move to Quintessence is that people enjoy working with people they know, which I certainly understand. With these things in mind, the following are thoughts on how to get the best out of the networking opportunities that a conference can provide.
If you have any other in person networking tips, be sure to leave them in the comments below!
Before you go:
Evaluate what you want from the event.
In my opinion, most events you attend will be about building relationships, not getting a job at that company or signed term sheet from that investor. If you think of the six degrees of Kevin Bacon, you realize that while the person you are talking to may not be the correct person to get you your dream job, they may be the gatekeeper to that person. What do you want this individual to know about you so that they are motivated to make that connection?
Think about questions and answers.
What do you want to know about the people you will meet? If you have careers on your mind, perhaps you want to know what their company does and whether it is a good place to work. Maybe they have your dream job at your nightmare company so you want to know what experiences led them to their current position.
Ask questions in a way that encourages conversation rather than yes or no answers. For example, when I ask are you a scientist, I am likely to get yes, I’m an xyz (specialties have been left out to protect the innocent!). However, when I ask what kind of work do you do, people generally will tell me about their project and what role they play.
What do you want people to know about you? How would you answer the questions you want to ask them?
Consider what you want to leave behind.
When I was in grad school, I went to a number of scientific conferences to present results on posters. Even back then, I had cards to hand out that had my name, who I worked for, phone number and email address. Cards remain a convenient, relatively inexpensive way to exchange information with people. Remember that the person you are meeting has to find a place for what you provide and you would prefer it not be the round filing cabinet (aka the trash can). There are electronic ways to give people information but be aware that everyone has a different interest and skill level in technology solutions.
Think, albeit briefly, about what to wear.
This issue is about you being comfortable. Most people don’t want to be the only one in a suit and tie or the only one wearing jeans.
While you are there:
Take responsibility for yourself.
Find an individual or a group and go for it. When I approach a group, I try to wait for a signal (eye contact or a hello) before stepping in for the introduction.
Introduce yourself (I’m Laura and I work at Quintessence Biosciences.), shake the person’s hand and make eye contact. Give them the opportunity to do the same.
Side note: I think I’m bad at the name and face matchup. I’ve heard that repeating a person’s name helps your recall. (Hi, I’m John and Hi John, I’m Laura.) I’m not sure that tip works but it frightens me that I could be worse without it!
Pay attention to the person(s) in your conversation.
Assume that everyone in the room is there for the same reason – to meet and talk to people who can help them (get a job, close a funding round, find a good contractor, etc.). If that is true, then you should be breaking up your group every so often and meeting somebody new. Some people time this interval and some go with gut feeling. I go with the flow. Some signs that your conversation partner may be looking to move on – Are they avoiding eye contact, looking around the room, shifting their weight?
After the event:
Jot down notes.
This item goes back to my name/face/context issue. If you take notes on your conversations, you will be more likely to remember things you said you would follow through on and which people you wanted to follow up with later.
If you told someone you would do something for them, do it – or follow up with why you can’t and what you’ll do instead.
Follow up with people.
Send a note to the people you are interested in keeping in touch with after the event. In the note, mention where you met them and potentially include a memorable mention from your conversation. Finally, close the email with your electronic signature (Name, Phone number, Email address), which provides an easy cheat for people to copy/paste into their contact system.