Contrary to the cliche image of a scientist hunched over a microscope slide in isolation, science is all about effective collaboration, whether that be working together in a lab, presenting work at conferences, or seeking new opportunities! Focusing on the last example, it can be intimidating to build a network, especially as an undergraduate who is just beginning their science career. Below are some concrete tips that have helped us along our way that we want to share, and these tips apply to network at all levels!
Before the Event
Try to find who the key speakers are and if anyone you are specifically wanting to speak with is coming to the event. Then, you can start planning possible questions you want to ask! By asking specific questions about their career or current research, you can impress them as you are showing a tailored interest in their work. Also, this is helpful as it can reduce some of the anxiety that comes when meeting someone new, especially someone who may be an expert in their field.
Protip: Be wary of using LinkedIn profiles! Many professionals have premium accounts, which allows them to see an entire list of who has viewed their profile in the last 90 days.
Plan a little introduction about yourself, including who you are, what you study/projects you work on, and what you hope to do in the future. By doing this, you can prevent rambling on the spot and help convey the image you want to sell! Remember, this shouldn’t sound too rehearsed or mechanical, but it should be a way to ease into a great conversation.
Update your CV/Resume, LinkedIn, Online Profile before the event. That way, it will be easy to connect with people at the event and you don’t have to rush to quickly add your most recent accomplishments.
During the Event
Be your own hype person! Admittedly, events can be awkward and I, personally, have spent way too much time mulling over the snack table to avoid talking to strangers. What I find helpful is asking the question, “What is the worst that can happen?”
If you’re able to talk to an esteemed professor and get a research position, that’s great!
If you’re able to bond with another student, there’s a new friend!
If the conversation is dry and you end up rambling, that’s fine as long as you take these experiences in stride and learn from them. Being comfortable talking to strangers is a skill one can develop with time and practice so don’t sweat it.
Communication with confidence!
Speak slowly and enunciate clearly so that you and your ideas can be heard!
Stand straight, facing the person, and feel free to use hand gestures as you talk.
When the other person is talking, make eye contact and nod to show you’re actively listening.
Protip: 3 seconds is the best amount of time for eye contact. *
Avoid cracking knuckles, crossing arms, or any position that may appear unfriendly.
If in doubt, mirror the other person! You may be already doing this subconsciously.
Answer questions with enough detail to prompt further conversation! In life, no one wants to be carrying a one-sided conversation. On the other hand, make sure you don’t dominate the conversation. We recommend you never answer with a single word, rather use a couple of sentences!
Q: How are you?
A: I’m doing well, thanks for asking. I’m currently studying for [insert specific class subject]; learning about [this topic] is a lot more [insert adjective] than I originally thought!
Q: Where are you from?
A: I’m from [City]. BUT DON’T STOP THERE! Compare it to the city you’re currently in. This gives some commonality between you and the other person.
Fully listen to what others are saying! Although this may be common sense, I find that sometimes my mind starts formulating a response while the other person is still talking, and that means I’m not devoting my full attention to the person. Not only is it obvious when to that person that you’re not fully listening, but you’re also not gaining as much as you can from this talk!
If you’re worried about not having a follow-up, honestly saying “I’m really impressed by X,Y,Z factors you just talked about. Would you mind telling me about them in more detail?” Or ask something along the lines of, “What were some of the challenges you faced to accomplish that?”
Remember this interaction is a give and take! Rather than thinking about how others can help you, show the person that you’re a valuable asset to them. This nuanced shift in mindset will help you stand out as helpful and collaborative, instead of braggadocious. When talking to the professor or potential mentor, think to yourself, “How can we help each other?”
Protip: If you do request a favor or offer from the other person, follow it with a “because.” Expanding on your reasoning will show that you’re intentional with your request and increase the chances that the other person complies!
End it on a High Note
Leaving a conversation can be one of the more awkward parts of meeting new people. It’s a delicate balance of wanting to leave a lasting impression while not having the conversation dry up too quickly.
If you have a friend also there, decide before the event to come up with a signal to save each other. Perhaps it’s touching your right arm or shifting your weight. Whatever the cue, you can plan to subtly check in on one another.
If you’re alone, that’s okay! Being direct and saying something along the lines of “Well, thank you very much for talking with me. I really enjoyed learning X about your research. I hope we can talk again soon about how we might collaborate. What’s the best way to reach you?”
Maintaining Your Network
Send Up a Follow Up Email or Invite them out for Coffee within 48 hours. This email should be personalized with a detail that was mentioned during your conversation. It is obvious when emails are generic.
Send Hand Written Thank You Notes if they do any favors for you. While, yes, this does seem a bit outdated, it really does make you stand out. I mean, who doesn’t enjoy getting a nice note?
Connect with them on LinkedIn (and now you can view their profile with the comfort that they know who you are and why you are interested in seeing their work accomplishments).
Continue to follow up occasionally! It’s great to send a quick email, reminding them of your existence and eagerness to work with them.
If you’re not sure what exactly to say, perhaps you read an article that relates to a previous conversation or their work. Simply email them the link with a couple of sentences saying how you read this and thought they too might enjoy it!
Understandably, during this virtual time, networking may be a bit different. However, we hope that some of these tips are applicable as we head into the new year and can help you as you progress through your science career. Although I wouldn’t be surprised if one day you are the person everyone hopes to talk to, for now, we advise you to step out of your comfort zone and see how far that takes you!
*Pupil dilation as an index of preferred mutual gaze duration. Nicola Binetti, Charlotte Harrison, Antoine Coutrot, Alan Johnston, Isabelle Mareschal. Published 6 July 2016.DOI: 10.1098/rsos.160086