Speed career coaching can be quite an experience. I enjoyed my two days in the SLAS2014 Member Center having 30-minute one-on-one meetings with scientists to talk about career planning. I was able to meet with around 15 different scientists at all stages of their careers. Now that I have had some time to think about the common themes that arose in our discussions, it is clear that a universal, key issue for those I met was that they just don't know many people with non-academic jobs.
This is not really a surprise. Training to be a scientist and then finding a real job after years in university environments can be a disjointed experience. Between graduate school and a postdoctoral position, an early career researcher can easily spend 10-12 years learning from and working with only people who know about academic career paths. Because more than half of these scientists will end up in non-academic jobs (according to National Science Foundation/National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Survey of Doctorate Recipients, 2008), there can be a major disconnect in what scientists need to make a successful transition to industry.
Not knowing people outside of academia is a problem for at least two reasons. First, if job seekers don't know scientists outside of academia, they will not know about the many different types of careers that are available or the paths one can take. Second, if they don't have connections outside academia, they will not know about open positions or be able to navigate into those positions very easily. It is all about who you know − and who knows you − that can really make the difference in a job search.
At SLAS2014, around 100 people attended one of my two formal presentations, "Not Networking 101 – Building Relationships for Success in Science." I call it "Not Networking" because it isn't about exchanging cards or going to uncomfortable large events. It is about developing long-standing relationships so professionals have many different people to turn to for advice, connections and information.
There are simple ways to work relationship building into even the busiest science schedule. For example, I have had a rule for my entire career to have lunch with another human being at least twice a week. The temptation was always to bolt a sandwich at my desk and read the paper for 15 minutes in peace (especially when I had two little kids at home), but I tried never to succumb to this. Since I mark the lunches on my calendar, it is easy to track if I have met my weekly quota or not. If twice a week is too ambitious for you, try to commit to twice a month.
The easiest way to build a network in a natural way is to get involved in a committee, club, project or organization outside of the lab. This way you meet and get to know people naturally, while working with them. I have volunteered over the years for many different groups including The Association for Women in Science, Healthcare Businesswomen's Association and our local trade organization, MassBio. All of these positions helped me meet people that share my interests in diversity and my passion for biotechnology in the Boston area. Some of these co-volunteers even served as professional references for my position at Addgene to speak to my past experience with nonprofit work. The great thing about volunteering is, instead of asking for help, you can offer help and when you offer your help, you build up some excellent networking "karma."
Another easy way to build a network is to sit next to someone new whenever you attend a conference, laboratory event or social function. I've been to events where just about everyone in the room picked a seat that left at least one or two open spots between them. When you leave an empty seat, it is basically saying, 'I'm not interested in you and I don't want to talk with you.' You may as well put on a T-shirt that says, 'not interested.' Always sit right next to someone, introduce yourself and ask what they do. It's completely natural; you are just talking with someone. Once a month, commit to sitting next to a stranger and introduce yourself. You will get better at it as time goes on. Setting goals like this for yourself is a very good way to grow your network with actual action instead of just thinking about it.
You never know when a connection will turn into an advantage. Recently I contacted the University of Michigan postdoc office to see if I could arrange a talk there during a planned visit. I was sending the e-mail to an anonymous group e-mail address and didn't expect to get an answer (sort of a shot in the dark). Within minutes, however, someone from that office responded. She just happened to have been a grad school classmate of mine who I hadn't spoken to in 20 years. The visit was arranged in minutes and we got a chance to reconnect over coffee before the event. It is unlikely I would have received such a rapid and enthusiastic response if we hadn't spent time together in the past.
We all need a posse of mentors and advisors. Having one principal investigator (PI) to advise you is not enough, especially if you want to take a career path that is not familiar to your PI. Finding and asking for mentoring support and advice can be difficult and uncomfortable but becomes much easier if you practice. Meeting people and asking for help or advice are key components to building this posse.
SLAS should be commended for offering coaching opportunities and career seminars to researchers in the SLAS community. Surprisingly, not all of my one-on-one meeting slots were filled. While I was happy to take an hour for lunch with a high school friend who was attending the conference, I was a bit surprised that more scientists didn't take the opportunity to meet with someone who was literally offering to help them broaden their network. Be bold; ask for help. And remember: sometimes, it is not who you know but who knows about you.
Joanne Kamens, Ph.D., is executive director at Addgene, Cambridge, MA. In 2013, she was named one of PharmaVoice's 100 Most Inspiring Commanders & Chiefs. She received her Ph.D. in genetics from Harvard University, where she studied signaling pathways. Kamens spent 15 years in the pharmaceutical industry at Abbott Bioresearch Center and moved into the biotechnology sector as director of research and then senior director of research collaborations at RXi Pharmaceuticals. She also has extensive experience with leadership of nonprofit organizations. Kamens founded the Massachusetts chapter of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS), and served three years as a director at large for the Boston chapter of the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association (HBA) Mentoring Committee.
February 17, 2014