by Megan Grunert

When I was first approached about doing a blog post on networking, I laughed a little inside. I have always struggled with networking, knowing that it is a valuable skill yet feeling entirely incompetent. What I offer here are my thoughts on what I’ve done well, what I’ve done poorly, and what I’ve learned along the way. I won’t reiterate the value of networking, because I think we all know it is a necessary skill that has the potential to provide tremendous career opportunities (but I’m happy to field questions about this and anything else you see here!).

Even with self-acknowledged networking inadequacies, I managed to use networking to help me in my post-doc and faculty position job searches. It really is about who you know. I think the question then is, “How do you get to know people?” This is especially important if you are naturally introverted (like me) or if you are not well-connected with the people you want to meet. Here are some strategies that have worked for me.

  1. Get someone to introduce you. I know this sounds so incredibly obvious that I shouldn’t have to say it, but it’s true. Ideally, your advisor should introduce you to colleagues when you’re at conferences and other professional events, but sometimes you’re on your own. Find a committee member or friend if possible. Don’t be afraid to ask an advisor/committee member/peer to introduce you. If all else fails, introduce yourself (see #2).
  2. If you are introducing yourself, spend less than one minute introducing yourself (name, university, position, research interests). Then ask a question! Most people are flattered that you’re interested in their research or expertise and are happy to talk about themselves. Even better, they remember you as a great person because you were interested in them and gave them the chance to talk about things they’re passionate about. It’s a great idea to have a business card to exchange as well.
  3. Take advantage of opportunities. Attend presentations given by researchers you’d like to meet and try to catch them afterwards to introduce yourself (or be introduced by someone you both know). If a seminar speaker is visiting your department or campus, volunteer to help out. This could include taking the speaker for meals, helping transport the speaker between airport, hotel, university, etc, giving a tour, or meeting with the speaker. A small time commitment can pay dividends later. Also, if you’re part of a graduate student or postdoctoral organization, get involved with inviting speakers you’re interested in. It’s a great way to make connections.
  4. Go to things. At conferences, there is a constant barrage of stuff to do. Sometimes, it can be overwhelming and exhausting, leading me to want some quiet time. Even so, get out there and mingle with new people as much as possible. Attend mixers (and talk to people). Check out poster sessions (and ask questions). Get yourself invited to coffee, lunch, dinner, whatever (or ask to be included!). It’s easy to stay inside your group of friends, but setting a small, achievable goal like introducing yourself to one new person a day means you’ve met a handful of people by the end of the conference. And chances are, you’ll meet even more than you set out to meet!

Here are some things that I’ve done poorly, but realize are really helpful and have been working on doing better.

  1. Send follow-up emails. Sometimes I’m good at this, like in the case of seminar speakers, but other times, not so much. (Many people can tell you I’m a terrible correspondent.) What I do know is that I’m always impressed when someone I’ve exchanged business cards with at a conference or workshop sends a follow-up email, reinforcing where we met and what we talked about. It serves a two-fold purpose: reminding someone that you talked and making yourself look considerate, polite, and organized. (All great things!)
  2. Getting over being shy. I am naturally not outgoing, and like many others in science fields, I’ve been a huge nerd for the majority of my life. Feeling confident, bubbly, and self-assured in social settings is not the easiest thing to do. This is where “fake it ‘til you make it” comes into play. Put a smile on your face and channel the person who always makes you feel great, then walk up to the individual or group you’d like to get to know. When I say the person who always makes you feel great, I mean the friend or acquaintance that always boosts your mood and makes you wonder how they are always so positive. Give compliments, be energetic and enthusiastic, act like a person you would want to be around. It works!
  3. Not taking it personally. Sometimes, you work up the nerve to introduce yourself and the person you’re talking to clearly isn’t interested. Or it’s right up there with the most awkward conversation you’ve ever hard. It happens. Don’t let it discourage you from continuing to introduce yourself. Try again. Part of networking is learning how to talk with new people, which is an invaluable skill on the job market.
  4. Going along with #3, don’t be afraid to ask someone’s name again if you’ve forgotten. It happens, especially when people aren’t wearing nametags. Politely ask to be reminded, like “I know we’ve met before, but I am blanking on your name right now” or “Could you remind me of your name? I’ve met so many new people it’s hard to keep everyone straight.” No one will be offended, because we’ve all been there. Likewise, it’s nice to close a conversation by using your own name again or providing a business card.

I hope this has been helpful, and as I mentioned earlier, I am happy to answer questions here or by email. Good luck!

Megan L. GrunertMegan L. Grunert
Assistant Professor
Western Michigan University
Department of Chemistry and the Mallinson Institute for Science Education
PhD from Purdue University, Post-doc with Tom Holme and the ACS Exams Institute