Meet and Greet
How successful networking will make you a better scientist
Howard G. Adams had a master plan for the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) 150th anniversary celebration in Philadelphia in 1998. He had been invited to join a panel discussion, and arrived way before the bulk of the attendees in order to lay the groundwork for achieving his one goal: to shake the hand of then-president of the United States and speaker of the night, Bill Clinton. He plied anyone he could find working at the event with questions about Clinton’s entrance and exit and made sure to position himself directly in the path of the 42nd president.
Adams, author of 15 career and self-help books and former director of the National Consortium for Graduate Degrees for Minorities in Engineering and Science based at Notre Dame University, frequently recounts this story during his talks, not to boast that he shook hands with Clinton, but to drill into people’s heads that most of the time, meeting the right people takes much more than serendipity. “There’s a strategy to it,” he says. With tenacity and determination, anyone can ensure they’re setting themselves up for bumping into people who will enrich their personal and professional lives. For scientists, networking is especially important because it can increase the quality of their research, says William Reisacher, a clinical researcher at Weill Cornell Medical College who specializes in allergies. Here are a few tips scientists can use to parlay that initial handshake into an extensive network of connections that will help pave the road to success.
Plan 30 seconds for glory
“Really, you’ve got about 30 to 45 seconds or so to get somebody’s attention,” Adams says. True, you’ve spent 10-plus years training, and have a CV running a couple of pages long. But it’s not about your infinite experience; it’s about distilling what you think is the most interesting thing about you, both personally and professionally, into a quick sentence or two. There’s really no excuse for feeling like a deer caught in the headlights when asked about yourself. So have those succinct introductions ready before attending social events.
Say your name with aplomb
Always start by saying your full name, making sure not to rush and enunciating clearly, suggests Bernardo Carducci, a psychologist at Indiana University Southeast and author of The Pocket Guide to Making Successful Small Talk. Follow up with your affiliation and one tidbit that will prompt them to ask you a question. Keep it short and snappy, but remember that this is your seconds-long chance to capture people’s imagination and hook them into a longer conversation. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a witty remark, Carducci says—where you’re from and whom you’ve worked with are always good places to start.
Take a stand
People pick up on all sorts of body cues. If you’re uncomfortable and fidgeting, it’s going to make those you approach feel uncomfortable as well. Adams suggests planting yourself firmly on the ground, with feet slightly apart, in front of the person you’ve walked up to. This stance commands attention and should be followed up with a friendly handshake and introduction. Make sure you make eye contact and do not face the person at an angle.
Make the most of your shyness
Forty percent of the general population describe themselves as shy, says Carducci, who is also the director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana. Chances are that in any social gathering there will be people who are as uncomfortable as you. Shy people, he says, avoid reaching out to others because they think they have to dazzle them. Instead, Carducci says, you simply have to show people that you want to talk. For that, a smile and a pleasant disposition are enough. You can start a conversation about something in your “shared environment,” such as the food on the buffet table or the talk you just heard. And don’t worry, openly awkward starts can be endearing and put the other person at ease. Keeping to yourself, on the other hand, will make others think you’re not interested.
Chat up random people
“The key is being very curious and asking lots of questions,” says Tina Seelig, executive director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program and author of What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20: A Crash Course on Making Your Place in the World. Most people love talking about themselves. The key thing, she says, is to show genuine interest and view every interaction as an opportunity to learn. “The value of networking comes from being able to talk to lots of different people rather than only talking to the people in your field,” says Seelig, who earned a PhD in neuroscience before going into business. In fact, because scientists are frequent jetsetters, planes are great places to diversify the kinds of people they’re exposed to. “I never get on a plane and not meet the person sitting next to me,” Adams adds. Seelig, for example, met the publisher of one of her books while flying.
Did you mention knitting?
Always follow up after a conversation. Strike “while it’s hot,” Adams says. A short E-mail message will suffice, so sit down and crank them out. You don’t have to wait until the conference is over. Add a personal touch by mentioning something you had talked about and offering something you think the person would find interesting, such as a new idea, a link to an abstract or article about a common personal interest like sci-fi movies or knitting. “We’re all looking for something novel,” says Reisacher. “If this is something that is going to add to their life, they’re going to be delighted to follow up,” Seelig says.
Prepare like a stand-up comic
Everyone is drawn to a good storyteller. A well-told anecdote will make people remember you. It may seem like storytelling is a talent possessed by a lucky few, but Carducci says anyone can get good at it with practice. “This person who’s telling that really interesting, elaborate story…chances are they’ve told that same story 200 times,” he says. If storytelling doesn’t come naturally, think of something amusing that’s happened in your lab, at work, or during your travels, and practice talking about it to your friends, making sure to include an opening gambit, setting, set of characters, and a punch line. As you retell it, you’ll see what sparks interest and what doesn’t, and can tweak your story accordingly. While it sounds like a recipe for a canned conversation, its all about delivery; this is how stand-up comics perfect their art. It’s worth a try.
Focus your networking
While it’s important to network broadly and meet a wide range of people, it can also be useful to know what you hope to gain from the people you are meeting. Are you looking for collaborators for a specific project? Do you want to get feedback on an idea or research problem you’ve been mulling over? Are you in dire need of career advice? If so, then you should first identify the best people to help you and then “make it your business to meet them,” Adams says. An E-mail and an open request for discussion is a great way to get the ball rolling. Stefano Rivella, a geneticist at Weill Cornell Medical College, suggests attending relevant small conferences, which are great for cozying up with the short list of attendees. And don’t miss the often-memorable “extracurricular” activities offered at conferences held in exotic places.
Develop high-level contacts to grow your network
“Good networkers are connected to people who are connected to people,” Adams says. Leveraging your relationship to well-connected people such as department heads, conference organizers, and program directors at the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation will help you grow your network. Very often, the easiest way to do this is through people you already know, he says. You will find that people are often willing to share their contacts with you when prompted, Reisacher adds.
Keep tabs on people
Eventually, you want to build long-lasting relationships. As with any relationship, these take time to cultivate. By popping into people’s lives from time to time, not only are you letting them know that you’re thinking of them, but more important, you’re reminding them that they should be thinking of you. When you notice contacts have published a paper or received an award, send them a congratulatory E-mail or note. Also, share your successes, professional and personal, as well as interesting news about your current projects. Don’t be afraid to talk about yourself, Reisacher says. And whenever you travel somewhere, check to see if someone you know lives in the area and make time to meet, even if it’s just for a quick coffee.
Give before you take
“The thing that I find frustrating is when people, after a meeting, basically send a follow-up and have a whole laundry list of things they want from me,” Seelig says. You should think of networking as building goodwill. If you’re expecting these connections to help you out in the future, make sure you have the time and energy to help them in return. If a discussion seems weighted in your favor, Seelig suggests ending with, “Is there some way that I can be helpful to you?” People are more likely to go out of their way to help you if they believe you’ll do the same for them. “It’s much more likely that I’m going to respond if they have something they can offer.”
Don’t make promises you can’t keep
Sometimes, when you’re caught up in the midst of a fascinating conversation, you might find yourself offering to help a colleague with a project or discussing a possible collaboration, only to realize later on that you don’t have the time or the resources to actually deliver. “Be clear about what you can do and what you can offer,” Rivella says. When you say you’re going to do something, do it. All the more so if the other person is relying on your data for a grant proposal, for example. Academia is a small world and you’ll likely end up bumping shoulders with the same people for the rest of your professional career.
Your science is your selling point
Ultimately, charm won’t get you far if you don’t have the science to back it up, Rivella says. So concentrate on producing quality work that will guarantee people will want to have you in their networks.