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Keywords:

  • science communications;
  • connections;
  • community;
  • personal contacts

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. WHAT IS NETWORKING?
  4. WHY BOTHER?
  5. HOW DO I DO IT?
  6. MAKE A GOOD IMPRESSION
  7. CONNECTING BEYOND THE SMALL WORLD OF SCIENCE
  8. Acknowledgements

To many scientists, the word “networking” sounds like an enterprise only suitable for those who run in circles with the business elite. However in reality, most scientists depend on networking to generate and maintain professional relationships, disseminate and gather information, and to climb the professional ladder. Presented here are tips from three seasoned professors, Kathy Cheah, PhD, Susan Mango, PhD, and Randall Moon, PhD, who describe what networking means to them, why it is important, and how they go about doing it. Developmental Dynamics 240:2597–2599, 2011. © 2011 Wiley-Liss, Inc.


WHAT IS NETWORKING?

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. WHAT IS NETWORKING?
  4. WHY BOTHER?
  5. HOW DO I DO IT?
  6. MAKE A GOOD IMPRESSION
  7. CONNECTING BEYOND THE SMALL WORLD OF SCIENCE
  8. Acknowledgements

Networking is not so much about using others to get ahead professionally as it is about opening lines of communication with colleagues. How will you ever know how they can help you, or how you can help them, if you never talk?

Initially the three panelists, Kathryn Cheah, Susan Mango, and Randall Moon, were baffled when contacted to discuss the topic. “I'm not sure I'm the best person to talk to,” was a typical reply. Yet with a little prodding, it became apparent that they are each talented networkers. They have discussions with other scientists at meetings, meet speakers who come to their institutions, and chat with departmental colleagues in the hallway. Although some people are naturally better at it than others, networking is a skill that most possess at some level. Our panelists explain different networking approaches, and reveal ways in which networking might be useful to you.1

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Figure 1. The panelists. Kathryn Cheah, PhD, Susan Mango, PhD, Randall Moon, PhD.

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WHY BOTHER?

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. WHAT IS NETWORKING?
  4. WHY BOTHER?
  5. HOW DO I DO IT?
  6. MAKE A GOOD IMPRESSION
  7. CONNECTING BEYOND THE SMALL WORLD OF SCIENCE
  8. Acknowledgements

Boost Your Career

With the financial squeeze many scientists are experiencing today, it can be hard to reconcile why one should devote precious money to go to meetings, or valuable time to attend talks. One reason is that establishing personal links can give you a professional boost.

“Even though experiments are done by individuals, science is advanced through both formal and informal groups of people,” commented Randall Moon, PhD, Howard Hughes Medical Investigator and Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Washington. These are the grant reviewers, journal editors, and the professors who make hiring and retention decisions. “One fares better in all these situations if the people making these decisions have seen, heard, or met you, or people who know of you, and this has led to positive impressions.”

When paging through dozens of applications, a reviewer can't help but take notice when she comes across one submitted by someone with whom she is familiar. “If you've met someone who is incredibly smart or curious, or you saw them give a fascinating talk, then they stick out in your mind,” said Susan Mango, PhD, Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Harvard University. It can also work to your advantage if a reviewer knows your mentor, or those who wrote letters of recommendation. Sometimes that second look is enough to give you an edge over other anonymous applicants.

By this logic, one shouldn't be bashful about corresponding with editors, grant funding officers, or the department chair in charge of hiring. While being respectful of their time, discuss with them whether your offerings match their search criteria. Also, is there anything you can do to improve your chances? Keep the lines of communication open if you come across bumps in the road. “Certainly I would call before resubmitting a grant that had not received funding to find out if they had any specific advice or insights that might help,” said Moon as an example. While an applicant will ultimately be judged on her professional merits, personal communications open the door a little wider.

Get Information

Another compelling reason for applying a personal touch is that it may yield information that is otherwise unobtainable at that time. Be it hearing about unpublished work, an upcoming job opening, sorting through professional problems with peers, or learning about how a colleague obtained his dream job, having these conversations can put you at a distinct advantage over others who are not privy to the same information.

Take the example of discussing research with a colleague. “The most cool and exciting research is often unpublished,” explained Moon. “Hearing about it might change what experiments you do yourself, which sets up a positive feedback loop.” Perhaps unexpectedly, learning about facts that will never see publication can be just as valuable. “Things like, ‘We tried X and it didn't work. So we did Y but it took forever to get it going,’” said Mango. “They're things you'll never read about, but they're clearly important.”

Talking to someone is also a way to rapidly get up to speed on a pertinent, but unfamiliar, area of research. “One thing about being a geneticist is that you go into areas that you would have never, ever expected,” remarked Mango. An expert may be able to distill dozens of papers into a quick conversation, and perhaps more importantly, provide insights into how the area may fit with your research.

Create Community

In the end, networking is about building community, something that only thrives if there is “give”—sharing your thoughts and data with your peers—as well as “take”. Why? It's human nature that others will be more likely to share with you their time and information if you do the same for them. An added benefit is that it gives them the chance to focus their creative energies on you.

Mango recalled presenting a poster to fellow C. elegans researcher Jim Priess, Ph.D., Principle Investigator at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, while she was a postdoc. The interaction eventually led her to travel to his lab to learn about embryology, the main focus of her research today. “I don't think I ever would have gotten to know Jim, or gone out there, if I hadn't talked to him about my poster,” Mango said. “Jim is still someone I tell results to so I can pick his brain.”

Imagine, what would happen if you kept up with a number of your contacts? “In 10–20 years one can look back and realize that you know most of the people in your field and that you have close ties with many of them,” said Moon. Putting a little work into keeping in touch with your colleagues helps you to create lasting connections that have the potential to keep on giving.

“The nice thing about this profession is that you make friends with people from all over the world,” said Kathryn Cheah, PhD, Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Hong Kong. “When you can do that, science ceases to be a rat-race. It becomes more enjoyable.”

HOW DO I DO IT?

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. WHAT IS NETWORKING?
  4. WHY BOTHER?
  5. HOW DO I DO IT?
  6. MAKE A GOOD IMPRESSION
  7. CONNECTING BEYOND THE SMALL WORLD OF SCIENCE
  8. Acknowledgements

The most effective way to network is to put yourself in the presence of other scientists, and make yourself noticed. Present a talk or poster at meetings, ask questions at seminars, or arrange a meeting with a seminar speaker. Cold calling or emailing scientists can also be effective if you have a specific question to ask, however email and voice messages are easily ignored or forgotten. You will be more likely to stand out if your motivations are genuine, and you show your intelligence.

However, when talking science formally, it can be difficult to really get to know someone, and what they think. If possible, get your colleague to let his guard down by having a conversation in a casual setting. At conferences, Cheah makes a point of having meals with other scientists that she would like to get to know. She also routinely arranges for her students to have lunch with visiting seminar speakers. “Just hang out with people who you think are doing great research,” said Moon. “Be yourself, and have fun.”

Although a junior scientist may think it's too soon to pursue networks, in some ways that is the perfect time. “When people hear what else is going on around them, it affects how they think about their work,” said Mango. Scientists tend to be more open to new ideas, and can more easily incorporate them, when a research project is in its early stages. Similarly, while it's important for more senior scientists to maintain contacts, they can get stuck in a rut if they mix with the same colleagues again and again. Meeting colleagues in tangential fields may open your mind, and professional opportunities.

Researchers located in remote geographical locations, or at smaller institutions, may find it particularly challenging to form broad networks. They may lack sufficient funds to attend national and international meetings, and high profile scientists are less likely to come through to give talks. In these cases, the solution is to make the most of what you've got. Cheah encourages her international colleagues to stop by and give talks if they happen to be passing through the Hong Kong area. She also finds that getting to know regional colleagues can be surprisingly enlightening. She said that not only do we frequently underestimate what is under our own noses, but there is also the six degrees of separation phenomenon. If there is something in particular that you need, then chances are that a colleague can introduce you to someone who can help you.

No matter how it's accomplished, the underlying motivation for networking should be in the interest of science, not self-promotion. Moon warned, “Those who worry too much about their careers won't have one because they lost their focus on doing the work.”

MAKE A GOOD IMPRESSION

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. WHAT IS NETWORKING?
  4. WHY BOTHER?
  5. HOW DO I DO IT?
  6. MAKE A GOOD IMPRESSION
  7. CONNECTING BEYOND THE SMALL WORLD OF SCIENCE
  8. Acknowledgements

The professor was looking forward to meeting a post doc who had published some high-profile papers. Hoping to hear more about the post doc's findings and insights, she was disappointed to hear a stream of complaints about fellow colleagues and excuses about why certain experiments didn't work. Networking can work against those who make a poor impression.

Whether you are shy or socially gifted, the best advice for how to capture the attention of others is to let your enthusiasm for science lead the way. “If someone comes across as really smart and she is the world's expert on whatever she is talking about, obviously that makes a great impression,” said Mango. If you don't have a story to tell, then show your interest in what others have to say. “If someone is curious, asking questions, and open to new ideas, that can make a positive impression, too.”

At the same time, don't forget presentation skills basics. Help the person you are talking to feel at ease by making eye contact and smiling every now and then. Keep your “audience” engaged by bringing up topics that are of interest to him. If you are relaying a story, start with the big picture and introduce details gradually. Your interaction will be more meaningful if you consider the needs of the listener.

By the same token, only approach someone if you have something to say. Elbowing your way up to a Nobel Laureate just to salute her with a starry-eyed handshake can be awkward for both of you. Surely this science rock star must possess insights that no one else has. Ask her about them. A genuine interchange may even make you memorable.

Despite good intentions, not all encounters will be productive. “Basically it's like making friends,” said Cheah. “Either you click or you don't click. If you don't click the first time, try someone else.”

CONNECTING BEYOND THE SMALL WORLD OF SCIENCE

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. WHAT IS NETWORKING?
  4. WHY BOTHER?
  5. HOW DO I DO IT?
  6. MAKE A GOOD IMPRESSION
  7. CONNECTING BEYOND THE SMALL WORLD OF SCIENCE
  8. Acknowledgements

To test their networking chops, the U.S. panelists were presented with a hypothetical situation. If you were to find yourself stuck in an elevator with the President of the United States, would you talk science with him? Without hesitation, each replied, “Absolutely!” They felt it essential to overcome any intimidation they might feel so that they could take advantage of the golden opportunity.

Of interest, neither would elect to talk to the President about his or her own research. Instead each would choose a topic likely to resonate with the audience, for example, relaying the importance of funding basic science research. Moon remarked, “I wouldn't expect it to lead to any changes in policy, but if he heard this same refrain at every elevator stop then, who knows?”

Some believe it is incumbent upon scientists, especially those who are supported by government funds, to play the role of science advocate. Between budget cuts and attacks from religious groups, the profession takes hits from all sides. Talking to those who disseminate information to the public, such as media personnel, teachers and students, patient advocacy groups, and politicians, can dispel misconceptions about science and scientists. Connecting beyond your professional circle may not benefit you directly, but is still worthwhile because it garners support for the profession as a whole.

Taking time to talk with a single person with seemingly little outside influence also has its merits. Mango recounted having a conversation on an airplane with an elderly woman who had ethical issues with stem cell research. “This was probably the first time she'd heard about the value of stem cell research from the point of view of a scientist,” said Mango. “We talked the entire trip and at the end she said, ‘You know, you have made me think differently about stem cells.’”

What happened next? (A) When she returned home, the woman forgot about the conversation. (B) The woman told her family about the conversation. (C) The woman, who was very influential, convinced local politicians to fund a new stem cell research facility.

Although you can never predict the outcome, having that initial conversation opens a world of possibilities.

Acknowledgements

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. WHAT IS NETWORKING?
  4. WHY BOTHER?
  5. HOW DO I DO IT?
  6. MAKE A GOOD IMPRESSION
  7. CONNECTING BEYOND THE SMALL WORLD OF SCIENCE
  8. Acknowledgements

Thanks to the panelists for their time and for sharing their experiences. I also thank Courtney Montgomery for her technical assistance.