Using Social Media to Help Start a Science Career: How to Network

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I’ve lost count of how many students have approached me for career advice.  This is a little horrifying, since they tend to do so very late in their undergraduate or graduate training, when their more far thinking colleagues have already been planning their escape to the work world for years.

There was a time (I’m told) when universities helped prepare graduates for finding and keeping work. There was a further time (I’m told) when the skills learned in university classes were directly translatable to the workplace needs. And there was another time (again, I’m told) when we actually taught skills in university!

I’m being mildly facetious here. But I’ve often lamented the decline in our curricula of actual, measurable skills, most notably the two key skills sets of communication and analyis. Instead we have an entire pedagogical philosophy built upon regurgitation and grades. I’m not here to point fingers (today), only to point out that unfortunate fact.

I parenthetically point out above that these halcyon days of better preparedness are not directly known to me. In fact, I suspect that they have always been mythological. What has changed in the past few decades, though, is the level of competition for postgraduate opportunities and, commensurate, the number of avenues to increase one’s chances at capitalizing on such opportunities.

In recent years, I’ve been giving public presentations on strategies for young people to be more competitive in whatever job market in which they are invested (with a particular focus on the health sciences). For a taste of those lectures, visit the Deonandia Podcast, particularly this 2014 public talk.

One thing I always bring up during these presentations is the value of networking, and the value of social media in making networking easier. Pretty much all human resources professionals agree that building a solid professional network is critical for career building. By the time a job ad is posted, it’s often too late to win that job. Most people seem to get employed via networking rather than replying to ads. Forbes agrees, as does this NPR story.

For a young person unsure of his or her skills and without a lot of life experience, networking at a professional level can be a daunting affair. I would argue, however, that forcing oneself to find the courage and strength to approach strangers in a formal environment and to strike up poignant conversation that may eventually lead to a personal opportunity is a critical life skill to acquire. You do yourself no favours by avoiding or delaying that experience.

But it is difficult. And given the extroversion bar that must be exceeded to do it well and often, the field tends to be dominated by, well, assholes. I’ve reached a point in my life now where sometimes I’m the one with whom some people are eager to network. And I concur: overwhelmingly, those who approach me are brash, entitled men. Yes, they are almost always men.

I do see the eager, quiet others lurking on the periphery. They tend to be outvoiced by their brash competitors. And I suppose I could do more to reach out to the socially hesitant. But my point remains: there’s a skill here to be acquired, to learn to garner attention for oneself.

So, to the extent that I have any expertise in this field (and I don’t really claim to have), what follows is a bit of advice for those students seeking to learn to “network” for career purposes.

Part 1 – Networking in Person

If you’re a studious science type, you probably don’t get out as much as, say the business students do.  So where do you go to meet relevant people?

When I was a student, I did a few things that I look back on now to realize that they were actually quite wise choices. I joined many different university clubs –archery, karate, weightlifting, orienteering, etc.  Your university years are the least busy years of your life, believe it or not.  Your university is also your once in a lifetime location for accessing a wide variety of activities in one location. Take advantage of it. You will meet a wide variety of people in a comfortable, informal context.

Your university is also a nexus for education. I know, right? By this, I mean that important scholars from around the world are coming through your campus regularly, to give workshops, keynote addresses, and sometimes office hours. The bigger name speakers will also feature a reception (very often with free food and booze, so there’s that, too).

Look, you’ve already paid an exorbitant tuition. Take advantage of every educational opportunity your tuition affords you! Read the announcements posted around the campus and on the university website. Make the time to attend as many of those visiting scholars’ lectures as possible. And be sure to attend the networking event afterwards.

I recall fondly a visit from a CDC director. This fellow did it right. He insisted at his post-lecture reception that all attending students introduce themselves to him, just to make networking easier. That man was a hero. But he’s a rarity.

So what do you do at the networking event? Well, you don’t huddle with your friends, getting drunk and giggling in the corner.  This seems like obvious advice, but it’s what I see most often. Go introduce yourself to the speaker. He or she will want to meet you. That’s their job.

But you have a job, as well. Do not expect the speaker to carry the conversation. The poor bastard has to be “on” for scores of people for the rest of the day. S/he is exhausted! Instead, offer something.

And here is one of my core tenets for having a successful personal and professional life (again, to the extent that I am qualified to even have tenets): be generous.

Generosity is virtue, and it is increasingly rare in the world. Generosity will set you free. I’m being generous right now by offering in this blog post, for free, what ostensibly constitutes my so-called “wisdom”. And I’m a richer, better person for it.

In the context of networking, be generous by making a suggestion. “Hey Dr Speaker, I was interested in what you said about such-and-such. It got me thinking about a book by Dr Blah on a similar topic. Have you read it? If not, you might find it useful.”

Your goal here is not to garner an offer or opportunity. Your goal, genuinely, is to have a productive conversation and to make a connection. That is all. Iteratively, over time, many such connections will manifest as an opportunity.

Beyond your university are other, drier and more challenging networking opportunities. Conferences are the obvious next choice. They can cost money, but student fees are lower, and sometimes you can get in for free. One way is to contact the conference organizer and offer to volunteer in exchange for reduced admission fees. I did this many times throughout my student days. The contacts I made this way led directly to incredible career opportunities: being invited to sit on NGO Boards of Directors, to compete for job openings, and even handed consulting opportunities that eventually transformed into an exciting and lucrative international consulting career.

In my opinion, the important part of any conference is the social event(s). Sure, the content presentations are intellectually appealing. But, for my money, I need to be able to make connections via conversation. The social events at conferences are tailor made for networking in a low stress environment. I encourage students to try to attend as many of these as possible.

Beyond conferences are professional networking bodies. These are harder to find.  When I was a student, I used to religiously attend the monthly meetings of the Toronto Biotechnology Initiative, a group of government and business leaders dedicated to the biotech sector. I would wear my discount business suit and slap down $20 for a crappy breakfast (which was a lot of money to me at the time) all for the hope of perhaps meeting someone of substance.

It paid off. I met several CEOs, government representatives and leading scientists, and got an on-the-ground feel for the emerging biotech sector. My presence there led to a partnership with a fellow who would found SHI Consulting, the world’s biggest biotech consulting firm. We did a lot of business together over the years, and I learned to become a management consultant, a skill that would have otherwise taken me many years and whole new degree to acquire.

Next, I’m going to describe a strategy for using social media to augment your networking activities. However, nothing will ever fully replace making face-to-face human connections. I cannot stress enough: for my money, this can never be about trying to engineer opportunities. It must always be about making genuine human connections. It’s the legitimacy and depth of those relationships, not simply their existence, that may produce career opportunities.

Part 2 – Networking Over Social Media

All right. Here we go. I wish social media had been around when I was a student. The things I would have done with it, to help build my career! It saddens me watching Twitter wasted on the unimaginative, who are more than willing to Tweet about their cats, but who come to me bewildered about how to network for their careers.

As above, the primary diktat of using social media for networking is to create genuine human relationships, and to be generous without any expectation of a return. The moment you start having expectations (of how others will benefit your career), you have become a passive player; and the world eats the passive for breakfast.

The strategy that I offer students involves three current platforms: Twitter, LinkedIn, and any blogging platform, such as WordPress.

There are 10 steps:

Step 1: Create (or update) your LinkedIn profile. Make it professional. Make it complete. You will have already given some thought to the sector you want to explode onto, and the types of jobs your interested in. I won’t go into detail here. But I encourage you to consult a resume specialist to get the most out of LinkedIn. This is important, because as you become Google-able, there needs to be one place where potential employers can find all of your details.

Step 2: Create a (professional) Twitter account. Use your real name, not a fake one, like ProfMonkeyLove (which was my AIM name, back when AIM existed). You can keep a separate, personal account for pics of your cat or dirty jokes. But keep your real name pristine and “professional”. (I dislike that the word “professional” now means corporate and staid, but you know what I mean.)

In your Twitter profile, note that you’re a student of whatever topic in which you’re trying to express expertise, and include a link to your LinkedIn profile.

Don’t use my Twitter as an example. It’s completely polluted with nonsense. But I already have a career and a brand.

Step 3: Start a blog. You can make it private or public, but make it, again, professional, and tied to a theme, preferably related to your career of interest. For instance, “Thoughts About Health Science.”

Your goal is to create a brand out of your name, and to add value to that brand.  I apologize for the deplorable corporate language, but this is one of those rare instances when that world has actually provided some useful words.

You should blog for five reasons:

  1. Overall, students’ writing skills are deplorable and are declining. Blogging forces you to practice and, presumably, improve. By forcing yourself to write something everyday, even a paragraph or two, your skills will improve.
  2. Blogging about a different topic every day forces you to think in a way that I call “corpuscular”, meaning that you must disentangle the irrelevant from the relevant and focus. Maybe there’s a new malaria vaccine being rolled out in Zambia. Today, you will write about why Zambia needs a malaria vaccine. Tomorrow, you will write about why it’s been difficult to create a malaria vaccine. The day after, you can write about why malaria is an important disease on which we should focus.
  3. Occasionally, one of your blog posts will be so well thought out that you will be inspired to develop it into an actual publication. I use my blog as a kind of rehearsal space for my journalistic writing. Readers’ constructive comments are incorporated into the final product, which is then placed with a major newspaper. Example: my blog post about Ebola, which eventually became a Huffington Post article.  
  4. Having a public record of your well-reasoned thoughts about issues pertinent to your career is useful evidence that you are more than your university transcript. Job interview question: “Why do you think a malaria vaccine is needed?” Your answer: “First off, I care so much about this issue that I’ve even written about it…”
  5. Lastly, a blog post is a useful public record for demonstrating your value to the network you are creating (more about that below)

Step 4: Find leaders in your field on Twitter. And add/follow them. A magical thing will happen: a significant fraction will follow you back. That’s because people are nice that way.

Step 5: Add value to your network. When you read the newspaper (as you should ever single day) you will come across articles relevant to the network you are trying to cultivate. For example, “New Malaria Vaccine To Be Rolled Out in Zambia!” Click the Twitter button next to that article and share it via your new, professional Twitter account. Now you are providing a service to the people who kindly followed you. You are being generous and valuable.

Step 6: Re-tweet. When a member of your network –whose Tweets you should be reading!– posts something poignant, be kind and re-Tweet it. It costs you nothing, but shows you support their view. It contributes to the conversation by amplifying some views, and keeps you engaged.

Step 7: Share your goodies. When you’re particularly proud of an article or blog post you’ve written, Tweet the link.  “I just wrote this post about the new malaria vaccine in Zambia. Thoughts, anyone?” You never know.

Step 8: Ask for help. Don’t abuse the privilege. If you’ve been generous, others will want to be generous to you, too. When it come time to find that first job, ask your network for advice.

Step 9: Be grateful. If someone helps you, thank them publicly.

Step 10: Give back. If you’re in a position to help others, do so. Maybe someone in your new network has an opportunity for which you don’t quite qualify, but you know of someone who fits the bill. Put the two of them in touch with each other. There are many ways to be valuable. One of them is being able to bring people together.

 

And there you have it. In ten steps, you can create a global, professional network at zero cost and without ever having to leave your home.

You’re welcome  😉