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Let The Truth Be Told: Get The Right PhD Advice When You Need It

Moral of The Story: Practice What You Preach

Many online blogs/sites serve as a guide or resource, or to help provide advice and insights. But, at the end of the day, you still have to create opportunities on your own as PhD student. You just have to know where to get the best information and WHO to get it from.

What is frustrating nowadays is where or more importantly, WHO to get your graduate or career advice from. With all the blogs popping up, and the talk of alternative science careers, it is very easy to get OVERWHELMED and confused. Who should you listen to? Who is qualified and who isn’t? Is this advice realistic and/or feasible? More importantly, what steps do you need to take in order for this to even happen?

These are questions that you must keep in mind every time you read a blog or site, or even talk to someone within a certain field. In many cases, the blogger may just be venting frustration. Others have a passion to CHANGE something or improve it (i.e. graduate education, promoting awareness, etc.). Others write from experience to help others. Unfortunately, there are also those who just want to “better their name” and get noticed. What’s missing here is you must practice what you preach.

Let’s say you wanted to start your own blog with a focus on how to run your own business on the side while working a full-time job (or while in grad school). Let’s also say that you are currently in the midst of doing this yourself or you are thinking about doing it, but lack the experience (and like to talk about it).

Now we can twist the story around and say you already have successfully ran your own business on the side while working a full-time job. What’s the main difference here? There are the talkers and the doers. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather take my advice from a doer.

To put this in perspective, let’s look at a few scenarios:

Scenario #1: There are those who ARE and those who ARE NOT qualified

Let’s say there is a PhD student that is AWESOME at science. Let’s also say this particular student is tracking two first author publications in prestigious journals and will graduate in a timely manner. Let’s call this PhD student, “the academic.” Now the academic may not care about alternative PhD careers. The academic has been highly successful and is “on track” in his or her mind, and this may lead to a prestigious post-doc position and ultimately (hopefully) to a tenure-track position. But let’s be realistic. Maybe in the back in the academic’s mind, the thought of alternative PhD careers is not absent. Maybe the academic has come to realize that only 14 percent of those with a PhD in biology and the life sciences now land a coveted academic position within five years.

So, why not keep an open mind? However, the point here is just as the academic will generally not take sound academic advice from someone other than a Professor (which is founded on experience, knowledge, credibility), why would he or she take advice from someone who has never worked in industry? In other words, are you going to get concrete advice about alternative PhD careers (i.e. going into industry) from someone who lies solely in academia? And just because you WANT to work in industry (as many bloggers do), this doesn’t make you qualified.

This is EXACTLY why you must branch out from academia if you wish to go into industry. You aren’t going to learn a sufficient and credible amount of information by forgoing networking, or by simply reading blog posts. I will continue to say this to PhD students, post-docs, and scientists in academia until I am blue in the face.

I recently heard a recent comment that was very intriguing:

How can you expect scientists or someone who lies in academia to step out of their comfort zone? We are trained to work hard and be independent, many times in social isolation. It is against our personalities and what we are used to doing on a daily basis. Therefore, it is really hard for us [to be expected] to network or even realize the need to network.”

I hate to say it, but enough with the excuses already. Unless you want to end up as a potential unemployed post-doc 5 years down the road still trying to figure what it is you want to do, start networking NOW. Networking is a skill that can be learned, regardless of your personality or situation. It will open up many doors and opportunities for you. I’ve already written a lot on graduate school and post-doc networking, so this post will not go any more in-depth on how to network. If you would like to recap, go here: The Dire Need To Network While In Graduate School.

But let’s also say that the academic does start networking and does find a credible source of industry-related careers. What are these sources? Online, they must come solely from someone who has worked in industry or who has some sort of experience. Some of the best advice I’ve ever read comes from Science Careers Magazine, the Tooling Up Series. The rule of thumb here  is to be CAREFUL, when reading other blogs/sites (that don’t have nearly as much credibility as AAAS) from someone who has never worked in industry.

Although it is easy for others to write articles about how dark and gloomy it is out there, and give you a shopping cart list of potential careers, it won’t add value to your action plan and/or career goals. And many times, it may just be that they think if they write about alternative careers-they will get noticed for doing so. In a way, it is not to benefit the reader but themselves. However, many bloggers and sites add TREMENDOUS value and open up your eyes to many things, but you should not rely SOLELY on getting your information from behind a computer screen.

The funny thing is that it is typical of grad students or post-docs to find their answers ONLINE. Let’s Google “How to transition from academia to industry.” I am guilty of this 3 years ago. But it won’t get you anywhere. Just as easy as you can go on PubMed and type in keywords related to your research, unfortunately career advice is NOT essentially the same.

So if it doesn’t come from reputable online resources like Science Careers Magazine, where DOES it come from? The answer is staring right at you. Stop reading the computer screen, your iPhone, or iPad, and get OUT and start talking to people in the field. I am certainly not an expert on how to become a Medical Science Liaison (for example), so I’m not going to write you an article of my own describing what it is. Even if I went out and interviewed a MSL and had them write me a guest blog article for others to read, this will potentially add value to the readers (as blogging is a great way to educate and reach a large audience in a short amount of time), however the most value is going to come from what action YOU take on your own.

If you haven’t yet, check out thepostdocway.com which has a great list of GENUINE interviews that has everything spelled out for you. Use these as a STARTING POINT, and go from there.

The person that is reputable, credible, and is going to be the most valuable to you (with your direction, goals, and career advice) is someone who is already working in the field. If you want to learn about a position in industry, go TALK to someone in the field with years of experience. Those are the people you should take advice from and who are qualified.

The best advice you can also get from someone is a hybrid. If someone is currently working in BOTH academia and industry, they know the best of both worlds. I know many professors at UW-Madison that run their own companies while having commitments on campus and running their own labs. I respect those who have experienced and can appreciate both worlds. And because of the collaboration between academia and industry by one of these professors, it opened up an unforeseen position in product management for me the last 6 months of my PhD.

When a PhD transitions from academia to industry, it is essentially the same story. When they were fresh out of school, how did they make this transition? Many at times think that this is entirely individualistic, and what worked for someone else may not work for them. Although there is no guarantee, you choose which advice to internalize and put into action. By talking to PhD’s who made the transition, you are already 10 steps ahead of someone who is stubborn or complacent when it comes to networking.

If you do need a great starting point and you feel that you truly benefit from reading online posts about PhD transitions, Dora Farkas (who has her PhD and currently works in industry) wrote an article on PhD Career Guide titled: “Making the Leap from Academia to Industry: How to Set Yourself Apart from Other Candidates.” I’ve also had guest authors such as Doug Kalish write articles on “7 Ways to Stand Out From the Crowd” and “Life After Grad School: What Matters and What Doesn’t.” These are all great articles, written by reputable scientists who have successfully made the transition. Keep this in mind when digesting information from blogs.

Their goal (as well as The Grad Student Way’s) is to provide you with enough information, tools, and advice to “kickstart” your PhD or graduate career. It is a wake-up call.

Scenario #2: The Wanna-Be’s

Many PhD’s end up taking a post-doc only to find out later that it may have been a huge mistake. Others embrace the experience, and broaden their skills as a scientist. Just as the PhD’s who near graduation realize what is coming in comparison to the post-docs who have already experienced it-there are blogs popping up all over the place. Everyone wants a piece of the pie and wants to be heard, but at the end of the day, how are you truly helping others?

That’s great if you want to vent frustration, tell others of your bad experience, try and change something, or promote awareness. But you have to practice what you preach. (If academia is not for you, and you’ve come to realize this, that doesn’t make you any more credible than the next person)

If I write a book on how to network while in grad school or beyond the PhD, you obviously would be less apt to read it had I, the author, never networked a day in my life (experience speaks for itself). It is easy for anyone to read about networking online, then regurgitate that information. It is just as easy as it is for someone to write a list of 50 alternative PhD careers. Therefore, the same applies for those writing about alternative PhD careers in industry.

Someone who is in the “midst” of being qualified or is a “wanna-be” typically wants to write about it in hopes that it will become a reality for them. They hope that the more they talk about it, think about it, and dwell on it… It might happen for them. Don’t DO this. Although online reputation is very important and can get you noticed as a PhD student, enough with the recycling of information. The purpose of a good blog is to add value to your readers.

I could VERY easily write a 4,000+ word blog post on alternative PhD careers and give you a giant overview with a paragraph description of each type of position. But at the end of the day, where does it get you? Would you even know what steps to take in order to transition into one these careers fresh out of graduate school? I’ve already written about how to approach your thesis advisor and come up with an action plan. This is something that you should follow (whether or not you are ready to even approach your thesis advisor). The key is to come up with an action plan and execute it.

The Grad Student Way’s intention is to provide sound advice and HELP PhD grad students and post-docs see the reality, allowing you to have clear information in order to ACT on it. Even though listening to a success story might motivate you, this just might be something that was entirely individualistic. Therefore, it is necessary to focus on the readers as a WHOLE, and the VALUE that it can add. What worked for me may not have worked for you, but I can only hope that you, the reader, can see I once struggled where you used to be and now write from experience.

Scenario #3: The Brute Force Blogger

I see a lot of Q&A blog posts, which is fine but you have to look at how it benefits the reader. Many bloggers lack the drive to actually go out and interview the person in the field (in-person or over the phone), then they proceed to post a glob of Q&A series online, and promote it all over the place on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Google+. It is a brute force method, only to really benefit the person who hosts the blog and bring in more traffic to their site. It takes the work off their shoulders since all they have to do is write a giant list of questions, and make the person writing the answers do all the work.

Q&A posts are great in some cases and have many benefits of getting expert advice outside one’s field of knowledge, however the reader has a very hard time siphoning out the important and relevant information. Where is the interpretation and value added to the reader?

One thing that is missing from Q&A blog posts is the fact there is no face-to-face contact. The reader doesn’t get to meet the speaker. Also, the reader doesn’t have the opportunity to learn what value he or she can add to a network contact. What is missing here again is EVERY PhD student has the opportunity, time, and power to do these Q&A sessions on their own (it’s called an informational interview)! So what are you waiting for? Do not take networking out of the equation and rely solely on a computer to get your information. Therefore, these Q&A posts should serve as motivation for what is out there!

A good example of a very thorough and genuine interview that will really add value to your career planning can be seen here. The main difference here is the author of this site actually spent time to type up these interviews, summarize relevant information, develop a podcast, and ultimately add value to the readers and listeners.

I’ll just end by saying, don’t confuse brute force blogging with someone simply trying to promote their content. There is a difference. Again, it comes down to the value that a blogger is adding to the reader. Beware of the bloggers simply trying to promote themselves and their own name.

If the blog/site you are reading from falls in the list of “credible” and adds value to you as a reader, then I encourage you to dive in and digest/internalize all the relevant material. But the real question here is: How are you going to use that information?

As I said earlier:

Many online blogs/sites serve as a guide or resource, or to help provide advice and insights. But, at the end of the day, you still have to create opportunities on your own as PhD student. You just have to know where to get the best information and WHO to get it from.

Now, once you know what to look for, go put it into action!


Further Reading


Come Up With An Action Plan!

Who are the scientists that industry wants to hire? “Brilliant people who are creative and curious and can communicate” ~William Banholzer

Are You Ready For A Career In Industry? How To Succeed By Really Trying

Ultimate PhD Networking Guide: How To Create Opportunities Out Of Thin Air (Part 2)

Part 1: Grad Student Advice Series: How To Network and Add Value To Yourself and Others

I stared at the computer screen. I knew no one outside of academia. I thought about setting up a LinkedIn Profile but didn’t see the point. A feeling of hopelessness set in. I heard about the importance of networking before but didn’t know what to do or how to take those first steps.

I signed up on LinkedIn despite my complacency and skepticism. I said to myself, “Like this will change anything.” This is supposed to do what for me exactly?

I stared at the screen. ZERO contacts. I knew of a handful of people I could add, but very few who actually knew of my accomplishments and personally knew me outside of academia (or who I worked with closely in a different field). A few professors maybe and a few people I worked with during a summer internship a while back. Sure I had my thesis committee. But I thought “they will probably just want to write me a letter to do a post-doc (at least that is the respectable and ‘expected’ thing to do upon graduation).” Beyond that, the only people I knew were the ones I’ve met at conferences, seminars, joint lab meetings, presentations, or just networking on campus.

The number of contacts just sat there. I had maybe 25 or 30 tops after about a month or so. I didn’t know where to go, until a friend told me about the importance of informational interviews.

What is an informational interview? I didn’t have a clue. I said “Yeah right. People will actually take time out of their day to talk to me? About what?”

I’ll tell you one thing: The Ultimate Networking Tool Is An Informational Interview. I don’t care if you are a graduate student or a post-doc.

Networking is about information exchange right? The real goal is to provide information about yourself and gather information about other professionals and potential opportunities. So let’s get into exactly how I used informational interviews to “create a network out of thin air” in a short amount of time.

A lot of PhDs don’t know what they want to do past the PhD stage simply because they lack information. I was one of them.

I also didn’t see the value in a PhD until I started networking. In all honesty, I wanted to drop out with a Master’s degree. But informational interviews saved my PhD.

You can’t get enough credible information by just sitting behind a computer screen and reading about what someone in industry is doing. Or by talking to people who are in academia and have never been OUTSIDE of academia or had any working experience/knowledge (a lot of professors will even have skewed perceptions about what industry is all about, career prospects, and what matters beyond grad school). The best way to find out is to TALK TO THAT PERSON. Plus, once you learn about one position you may become interested in another or learn about different paths/transitions to take.

– Most senior-level employees believe that there is intrinsic value in having connections and facilitating connections. It’s a cheap, relatively easy way to make the world a better place, and they consider their actions “paying it forward.” They know that new opportunities can be created–all by giving up a few minutes of their time.

– “Opportunity hires” occur even during a hiring freeze or in companies that have recently downsized. This happens when no specific opening exists and yet good people surface via informational interviews. So it makes good sense for both parties to reach out for informational interviews; for you, having a personal connection means you’ll be in a better position for a job interview invitation; and for them, the possibility exists that you’ll be a great “find.”

Source: Tooling Up: The Informational Interview

Step 1: Set up your LinkedIn Profile

Some things that may seem “obvious” aren’t obvious in reality, because I see people miss some of the most basic and important practices. Have a catchy headline that tells who you are. This shouldn’t be some boring title like “Graduate Student at UW-Madison” or “Manager at Company X.” That doesn’t tell me anything about who you are and the value that you bring to the table. Don’t be afraid to make it a sales-pitch here.

Your summary should have important points without lengthy paragraphs. Tell people the highlights of what you have done. Make it stand out. Talk about what you are interested in doing (your informational interviews and corresponding positions will match up with the field(s) of interest you list here). If you want to talk about any special skills, specialties or interests, now is your chance!

Your LinkedIn Profile is basically your online resume. If you have a polished resume, it is as simple as copying and pasting. If you don’t have a resume, well you better get to work. Because networking without having a resume (if asked for or if you want to offer it for feedback -I’ll mention this in Step 4) will only leave you empty-handed for potential future opportunities.

You don’t have to do everything at once like get recommendations or endorsements. People worry about needing to have a complete LinkedIn Profile right off the bat. The important thing right now is to focus on your informational interview strategy, not on having an A+ LinkedIn profile with 500+ connections. After all, quality beats quantity. You must have the basics to make contact (and start doing informational interviews), but you will build as you go. You don’t have to join 50 groups all in one day.

Join LinkedIn Discussion Groups and be an active participant. You will establish an online reputation and it will get you noticed. If you have a professional blog, even better (see below-only 18% of those surveyed actually have a professional website and only 2% have a professional blog).

Going further, you can even have people contact/message you for possible collaborations or value opportunities via LinkedIn Discussion Groups. Either way, you are getting your name out there. One group I actively participate is “PhD Careers Outside of Academia.” Also, keep in mind that some LinkedIn Discussion Groups will even have internal job postings that aren’t available elsewhere (you’ll have to find the ones specific to your field).

Statistics That Should Concern You

Based on a survey by dougsguides, the need to network and have a professional blog is imminent:

44% of people surveyed ONLY have a network between 5 and 15 people! That’s almost half!

Only 13% of those surveyed have done three or more informational interviews! More strikingly, a whopping 54% have never even done an informational interview!

86% of those surveyed already have a LinkedIn Profile But Most Likely Don’t Know How to Use It!

And, Only 18% have a Professional Website and Only 2% have a Professional Blog!!

So what are you doing to stand out from the crowd? Do you have a professional blog? Do you have a LinkedIn Profile that you are actually using? Are you doing Informational Interviews? Are you building your network that a lot of graduate students and post-docs are lacking? Do you lack career direction or marketable skills that allow you to cross over to alternative PhD careers? Also, make sure you check out MyIDP on Science Careers to assess your interests and skill sets: http://myidp.sciencecareers.org/


Step 2: Start Making Contact (Getting the Ball Rolling with your Existing Network)

Hit up your Number #1 contact. What I mean by that is the most well-connected person that you know. This could be a professor on campus. The first thing to do is go through their network on LinkedIn and look at their connection list. Then pick your top 5 contacts that they have listed. Don’t just go with all the same positions (or one company). For example, I picked Scientist, Field Application Scientist, Product Manager, CEO, Sales Rep, etc.

Set up an informational interview with your “key” contact. Ask to be introduced to the top 5 contacts that they know (if they don’t know your top 5 “personally” then ask for them to make alternate suggestions or meet with more than one key contact). Aim for someone high-up position wise. Why? Because once you start following the emerging network that will spiderweb via introductions, chances are if you stick with people who are more experienced and high-up position wise, they are more likely to keep the ball rolling for you (based on more high-up introductions). If the person is new at their position or at the lower-end (less connected) of the company you may reach a dead-end sooner.

If you don’t have time to set up an informational interview with your key contact (or they are in a different city), then you do it via email or LinkedIn. Your message should say something like:

Dear Dr. __,

I am a X year PhD Student (or post-doc) and I am starting to explore careers outside of academia. Therefore, I am conducting informational interviews to learn more about these potential opportunities. After doing some of my own research, I found fields 1, 2, and 3 of interest to me. I saw that Person X was in your professional network and was wondering if you wouldn’t mind introducing me to that person so that I could conduct an informational interview? I would greatly appreciate it. Thanks for your time.

Regards,

Signed You

The hardest part is getting started. But once your key contact introduces you to those top 5 people (or however many you see fit), it will spiderweb to an endless network. A lot of times that person may be out of town or won’t respond right away. You can follow up a second time. If you still get silence, then move on. Don’t annoy the person.

Ideally, these top 5 contacts (which stem from your initial key contacts) should be in your area (nothing beats face-to-face contact), but if you are looking to move or build your network elsewhere-do a phone interview instead.

If you “run dry”, lack initial key well-connected contacts (like I did), or want to expand further (as I would suggest/recommend anyways), proceed to step 3.

Step 3: Start Making Cold Contacts (Optional)

The first informational interview I ever did (officially) outside of academia was done and set up cold. Keep in mind that Step 2 is the most ideal step and best way to start since introductions get things done faster and are more credible (and you are more likely to get a response). Do step 3 if you want to branch out to different contacts and different companies or expand on talking to people in certain positions that your current network is not acquainted with (maybe there are top 5 companies in your area that you are really interested in learning about or even working for).

I went on LinkedIn and typed in “Field Application Scientist” (as an example). I found a huge list of people. So I narrowed it down to people JUST within my area (Madison, WI). I am fortunate enough to live in a city with over a 100+ biotech companies. So everyone’s situation may be different. But, from there I messaged my top 3 picks (you can do more if you wish: up to 5 or 10 which will depend on your schedule and how aggressive you want to be-if you aren’t getting responses you can increase the number to however you see fit).

I worded the message similar to Step 2:

Hi (Insert name of person),

I did a search for ‘__(Insert Position)__’. Your name came up in the search on LinkedIn. I was wondering if you would be willing to conduct an informational interview? The ____ track is a career I was interested in pursuing and I was hoping to learn more about it. If you would be willing to meet in person that would be much appreciated. I am currently a PhD graduate student at ____. There are numerous questions I had about whether this position was a good transition in order to be able to move away from the lab bench and go more into ____ . Please get back to me at your earliest convenience. I look forward to hearing from you. Thanks for your time.

Regards,

Me

Does it actually work? Yes. It’s not 100% but guess what? They were once graduate students too (assuming you pick someone with a Master’s or PhD). They know of your situation! They know what you’re going through because most likely they went through the same thing. That is why 60% or more of the time they will respond and most will agree to take at least 30 minutes out of their day to speak with you. My success rate was 75% or more at first. But it led to almost 100% after the cold contacts introduced me to the people that they knew (it no longer become cold-the first initial contacts were cold then it was no longer viewed in this manner). If the person isn’t available in-person, then do it over the phone.

But I didn’t stop at Field Application Scientist. After I did the informational interviews with FAS’s, I noticed that they mentioned this type of position as being a stepping-stone. So I learned more about the types of roles they transitioned into. So I followed the dots. One example of this was going into Marketing or Product Management. I’ve also spoken with people who were at the laboratory bench and moved away from it. I asked them how they made the transition and if they were happy with their decision. I’ll get to the questions in Step 4.

The career path that you wish to learn about and/or pursue is uniquely up to you and your interests. Therefore, choose your interviews and network contacts accordingly.

Still stuck?
This should get you started:


Part 3  (Proceed once you have digested all the material)

Includes:
Step 4: Start Asking The Right Questions (Questions to Ask) +  My Story
Step 5: Follow Up, Offer Value, and Stay In Contact


Further Reading:

1) Part 1: Grad Student Advice Series: How To Network and Add Value To Yourself and Others

2) Do Your Research: Find Your Future Career Interest On PhD Career Guide or BLS.gov

3) Check out PhD Branching Points and Versatile PhD

4) Tooling Up: The Informational Interview

Grad Student Advice Series: How To Network and Add Value To Yourself and Others

Part 1: The Dire Need to Network While In Grad School or Academia

It’s Not What You Know It’s Who You Know That Matters

Why is networking so important? Well, the short answer is that it all depends on what your objectives are. For example, some people network to expand one’s resources, learn about potential opportunities and collaborations, answer questions, discuss current research topics, build relationships,  learn from other people’s failures or experiences, establish yourself as an expert in your field, add value to others (I’ll explain this later), and/or other personal reasons such as business or entrepreneurial ventures.

Those who are in academia and choose to network with those in industry, may even help bridge the gap between academia and industry which has many added benefits. The bottom line is that networking is extremely valuable and you never know what opportunities might arise.

A common misconception is that networking only serves one purpose: finding employment. This will be covered more in detail in my Ebook or Part 2 of this series. However, a survey conducted by the Science Advisory Board (www.scienceboard.net) revealed that networking is by far the most successful means of finding employment. Networking is responsible for 90% or more of finding employment, whereas cold resume submission has been reported as low as only 4-10%.

If that 90% isn’t a good incentive for you to step out of your comfort zone, then this is your wake up call.

Some working professionals who already have an established career stop networking because they no longer see the need. No matter what situation you are in, you should NEVER stop networking. You never know when it will pay off.

Graduate School “Tunnel Vision”

For graduate students in particular, the need to network becomes even more obvious. As a graduate student, not only did you make the decision to go get an advanced degree, but you made a decision to increase your chances of landing a better job. Without networking this chance is dramatically diminished.

For example, a lot of PhDs in the sciences will spend five to six years on average working in a research lab. During that time, the majority typically network very little. Many are afraid to step out of their comfort zone or they lack confidence. Some find themselves caught up in fear or making the excuse that it takes too much time.

Another excuse is that one’s particular field doesn’t require networking or good communication skills. One major downside of graduate school is that a graduate student may get “tunnel vision.” Tunnel vision is when a graduate student gets so overly-focused on his or her thesis topic that he or she doesn’t devote any time to other things other than finishing the degree.

Although the end-goal is to graduate in the fastest possible time, it is meaningless if you are unemployed and with a degree that you aren’t even putting into good use. You finally got your degree yet you don’t even know how you’re going to use it. Next comes the traditional post-doc. Or does it?

The Problem With Taking On A Post-Doc and Not Networking

A post-doc is a good option for those who want to stay in academia or broaden their skills as a scientist and want to continue their love for science. If you want to stay in academia, the need to network might not seem as prevalent or important. However, for those who want to go into industry, there is a cross-over you will have to make: Academia into industry. The need to network is greater than if you were just switching into a different lab and remaining in academia.

I will point out that just because you are a fifth year post-doc for example, this doesn’t entitle you to a job and it certainly doesn’t exclude you from having to network. But the real question is: Is a post-doc even necessary? Depending on what you ultimately want to do as a career, the answer is ultimately up to you.

But I will also point out that 50% of Graduating PhDs end up doing a “traditional” post-doc upon graduation. Some even enter Industrial Post-Docs (although this is a road less traveled). Of that 50% how many are landing tenure positions? Not surprisingly, only 14 percent of those with a PhD in biology and the life sciences now land a coveted academic position within five years (according to a 2009 NSF survey). Do you see a problem here? Most will look the other way or ignore the problem.

It is no wonder we have a so-called “post-doc crisis,” which is when a newly minted PhD ends up taking a traditional post-doc, then ends up spending an average of four or more years at one post-doc. What happens after the first post-doc? They end up doing a second post-doc and never end up with a “real” job until much later. Or worse. They remain a post-doc, come to their senses about the poor job prospects, and enter industry, government, or sadly leave the field altogether. Can the “post-doc crisis” be prevented through the benefits of networking? The answer is YES.

Another important question here is: Where do the other 50% go? Careers in discovery research, preclinical research, bio/pharmaceutical product development, and clinical development may require post-doc experience. However, other careers in industry such as project management, medical or regulatory affairs, quality and operations, business and corporate development, sales, marketing, technical applications and support, corporate communications, law, executive leadership, consulting, or finance may require a totally different kind of experience and you most likely do not need a post-doc as a stepping stone.

No matter what your career goals are, the need to network is imminent.

Some companies may require post-doc experience, but networking will give you an edge either way. Networking serves two important purposes. First, it can educate you (see informational interviews)  by allowing you to talk to others in the field and learn about potential career opportunities and options. From this, you may realize that you don’t want to be stuck at the lab bench anymore based on information that was shared and learned. You may even realize that you want to take your career in a totally different direction.

Maybe you can’t see two steps or even five years ahead in your career, but networking may just help you and add immense value. Maybe you want to do one post-doc as you see the benefits and it fits with your goals and career objectives, but then leverage your network to land a good job. However, the second benefit of networking is that it allows you to skip the post-doc altogether. Either way, networking allows you to transition away from a post-doc.

To get around Graduate School or even Post-Doc “Tunnel Vision” you have to make an effort to dedicate your time to networking. Even once a month is better than nothing. Many graduate students (and post-docs) who work in research labs won’t even leave their lab building for lunch. Just think if you met a network contact once a month.  How about once a week? Your network isn’t going to grow by staying in lab in seclusion.

I Understand That Networking Is Important But I’ll Worry About It Later.

If you have said or thought this in the past you need to change your way of thinking. Now. Graduate school and the poor job prospects in academia can throw you curve balls. You can have personal issues, your lab can lose funding, or you may find out that it’s not for you. If you network early on and keep networking throughout graduate school or beyond it, you have strategically created opportunities and built personal relationships. This may play a huge role and have unmeasured benefits upon completion of your degree or in your future career.

Effective Networking Is A Learned Art

Don’t expect to become an expert on networking right away. In fact, it is a skill that needs to be developed over time. So what can you do to build your network? Again, don’t get used to just sitting at your desk all day and in front of a computer. Nothing beats face-to-face interaction and making personal connections. This is exactly why an online marketer is at a disadvantage (especially using social media). Keep in mind, half of networking is just showing up.

10 Ways To Effectively Network

  1. Talk to your professors. Chances are they know people (or have past lab members) within and outside of academia. Preferably talk to the professors (ie the ones who run their own company) who are well connected and can introduce you to those people in industry that have transitioned away from academia. Get the names of those individuals. Email or call them and set up a time to meet.Then, do an informational interview (#4) with that key contact. From there, ask to be introduced to other people that they might know and it will spiderweb and create an endless network.
  2. Attend live networking events or “happy hours”.
  3. Go to scientific conferences.
  4. Start doing more informational interviews via introductions through LinkedIn or branching out from your existing network (the higher you aim position-wise, the better your chances will be for establishing a network that branches out).
  5. Attend career fairs, product shows, recruitment events, seminars, etc.
  6. Connect with someone who is established or is much better at networking than you and who can connect you with working professionals. Or better yet, connect with someone who can teach you effective ways to network.
  7. Audit classes on campus. If you are a science person, then take a business class and start networking with business professors and MBA students. If not business, find a secondary interest and step out of your comfort zone.
  8. Talk to those interested in entrepreneurship and possibly starting their own company. Chances are you will learn about what drives you, others, and you may just come up with the right idea that could lead to a successful business.
  9. If you can’t do face-to-face interviews, connect with that distant (interesting) person over the phone. Chances are they may be in your area on business sometime in the near future and they will contact you to meet face-to-face. This also expands your network beyond your own local area.
  10. Give presentations, be a guest speaker, and put yourself out there. The more you step out of your comfort zone the more you will find new networking opportunities! And this can lead to yet even more opportunities!

Some Key Things To Remember

Understanding what networking is NOT is just as important as knowing why you should be networking.

  • Networking is NOT about selling your products or services. Your objective is to build a relationship or connection with that person. Ease up about having to sell yourself, and make sure you keep an open mind. You never know who might be a potential business partner, referral, or your future employer.
  • Networking is NOT about selling you. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t prepare for a quick introduction for the common question “So.. What do you do?”, but it shouldn’t be rehearsed or over-practiced. Do not dominate the conversation and bore the person with only talking about yourself. Show sincerity and focus on adding value.
  • Networking is NOT about just finding employment. Remember it’s all about adding VALUE to others. If it just so happens you do end up finding employment, then great. But this should not be your main objective. This means you have started networking for the wrong reasons: To only add value to yourself and no one else.

So what SHOULD you do?

  1. Get comfortable talking about what you do (you should be able to sum this up in no more than 30 seconds) and with speaking to a total stranger. That means practice your elevator pitch.
  2. Have a casual conversation that adds value to that person.
  3. Make a definitive plan with at least 3 people to have a follow-up meeting. That means having lunch, coffee, or seeing them at the next meeting or event (you can even invite them ahead of time if you’re going).
  4. Get to know the organizers and those who plan events.
  5. Ask be to a presenter or speaker at a future meeting  (such as Biotech Happy Hour) or on-campus event.
  6. Position yourself as an expert in your niche.
  7. Seek out potential business or academic partnerships.
  8. Expand your network! Ask to be introduced to other key contacts this particular person might know (LinkedIn works great for introductions). The network is endless and you can go as far as you like.

Plan Before And After Each Event

Make sure you have a plan for what your objectives are before attending a particular event. Obviously, do your research ahead of time. What do you want to get out of attending this event? If you aren’t defining your objectives ahead of time, you may just waste time or money of that particular groups’ objectives because they are not in-line with your own business or personal goals. Avoid this pitfall and mismatch.

After the event, make sure you FOLLOW UP. Especially with the people you said you would follow up with. You exchanged business cards remember? Don’t let more than a week go by without making contact, otherwise it will show you were not engaged. Show them that you serious and you value their time by further establishing a sincere personal connection.

Schedule time to follow up. Do phone calls or emails. You need to set aside a specific amount of time to do this each week. Why? You need to get the most out of your networking efforts! Not just waste them. The whole point to a follow-up is to maintain that connection and add value to each other.

Conclusions

By building your network, you are increasing your net worth. People will begin to see you as an authority in your particular niche. It will gain you credibility and respect. Most importantly, they will see the value that you have to offer. You’re not just another face in the crowd.

Keep networking consistently and do this in order to build yourself or your particular brand. The beauty of networking is that the more you do it, the more comfortable you’ll be talking about WHO YOU ARE and WHAT VALUE YOU HAVE TO OFFER.

Increase your net worth and you may just find that future start up company or job in industry not too far off. You never know WHAT can happen. The possibilities are endless. So what are you waiting for? Get out there and start Networking!!

Further Reading

1) Part 2: Ultimate PhD Networking Guide: How To Create Opportunities Out Of Thin Air (Part 2)

2) Part 3: Ultimate PhD Networking Guide: How To Create Opportunities Out Of Thin Air (Part 3)

If you want to learn more (in greater depth), my Ebook will release sometime in 2013. I want to truly help grad students or post-docs boost their net worth and their networking skills. Therefore, the book is FREE. I am going to share my experiences and hardships and what I did that truly saved my PhD. Had I not started networking in Jan of 2012, I would have no direction, goals, seemingly low net worth, and I would lack confidence of how I could add value to others.

From teaching myself and stepping out of my comfort zone, I created a network out of thin air and built 200+ connections on LinkedIn in under 6 months. I used LinkedIn and informational interviews as one method, but also built my network (in both academia and industry) through means as outlined above. Either way, I hope I can add value to graduate student’s (or post-docs) who need to network, allowing them to look towards their future with optimism. Happy networking!

Networking Isn’t Just For Social Animals, The Importance of Networking and Biotech Happy Hour

Networking Isn’t Just for Social Animals

July 1, 2012
As reported in the pages of In Business magazine.


Networking is an important way to stay connected, but not every entrepreneur is comfortable with it.

With a few exceptions, human beings are social animals and like to meet and share ideas, and perhaps nowhere are people more socially “animalistic” than Madison, where networking is an essential piece of the business development process.

In Madison, the popularity of networking has spawned monthly events like the High Tech Happy Hour, the Biotech Happy Hour and, more recently, the Business Professionals Happy Hour. IB has done its part with the annual Extreme Networking program and quarterly IB Introductions.

These events only begin to scratch the surface of local networking activity, but their evolution from bare bones meet-and-greets to philanthropic contributors demonstrates how their value can grow over time. “Madison is a networking type of town,” stated Bryan Chan, president and founder of SupraNet Communications and one of the organizers of the High Tech Happy Hour. “No matter how much advertising you do or how much media you do, ultimately Madison is more of a word-of-mouth, shake hands type of business community.”

Networking tutorial

Cay Villars, a management consultant with Celebrus Facilitation, Coaching & Consulting, has written about effective networking. She notes the prospect of such interaction can be intimidating for introverts but advises them to shift the focus from themselves to serving others.

Removing concentration from the “self” also helps in social preparation. The prep work entails identifying goals for each opportunity, including a very brief elevator pitch about yourself, plus who you want to meet, what you want to learn from them, and even challenging yourself to meet three or more new people. In addition to basics like having business cards at the ready (if you are asked for one) and coming with your own readable name badge, people uncomfortable with networking can bring along a friend who can be a source of support.

When you come across someone you want to converse with, make eye contact, smile, and introduce yourself with a handshake. That’s when you focus the conversation on the other person, his or her job, and what’s it’s like where he or she works.

As Villars notes, we all act out of our beliefs about ourselves, and if an entrepreneur believes he or she is shy, it is useful to become clear on what that means. If shy is a code word for uncomfortable meeting new people, especially in social settings, a good question to ask is: Is being shy more important than developing connections critical to maintaining and growing the business?

“If even the most shy entrepreneur believes that his business will fail or be less successful without connecting to key people in the community – i.e., bankers, angel investors, venture capitalists, potential customers, and collaborators – he or she will quickly figure out creative ways to get past shyness to network and meet others,” Villars noted.

Net gains

Perhaps knowing what goes into a networking event can ease the intimidation some feel. Many networking events are linked to an industry, such as Madison’s High Tech Happy Hour and Biotech Happy Hour, while others are launched by entrepreneurs as a way of gaining some visibility, such as the Business Professionals Happy Hour. Most have their own websites and use social media to keep attendees informed about programming.

The High Tech version was established to promote Madison as an innovative community. Bryan Chan (SupraNet) and Bob Vanden Burgt, co-owner of Yahara Software, help organize an event that facilitates long-term relationship-building in part because anywhere from 30% to 35% of each month’s 300 or so attendees are attending for the first time.

After several years, organizers have tried to keep what Chan called the “movable feast” fresh by rotating the monthly venue and introducing programming concepts like the quarterly Pecha Kucha Happy Hour. Pecha Kucha is a presentation method in which 20 slides are shown for 20 seconds each, for a total presentation length of six minutes and 40 seconds. With this fast-paced format, the presentations are educational without being tedious. On one recent Pecha Kucha night, the gathering heard from a variety of presenters in technology, health care, entertainment, and the economic impact of buying local.

“They have been quite popular,” Chan said, noting that 70 people attended the most recent Pecha Kucha Night. As with the happy hour, “there is no agenda, and nobody is trying to sell you anything. These are all topics that people are interested in and are passionate about.”

Another way to maintain interest is to partner with a synergistic event, as HTHH does with the Forward Technology Festival, or to sponsor a cause. One of the HTHH’s Pecha Kucha events was focused on people doing interesting things in the community and included presentations by Middleton Outreach Ministry and Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin.

Professional outreach is another possibility, as was the case when laid-off technology workers were invited to attend a HTHH to make some connections.

Vanden Burgt has even witnessed business deals being consummated at a networking program, but they can also take root. “I can say there have been some rather lucrative business deals that have been done at the event or through their involvement with the event,” he said. “It’s one of those things where some of the relationships have led to some multiple, six-figure deals that I’m aware of.”

Alex Vodenlich, president of Maven LLC and an organizer of Madison’s Biotech Happy Hour, finds value in the conversations with executive colleagues that helped him solve problems. The Biotech program, which started in 2007, draws entrepreneurs, professors, grad students, and investors.

After an initial splash, organizers invigorated the event by adding a philanthropic element that could someday help the industry. “This is the first year where we’ve made donations to local nonprofits on behalf of the people who come, so we collect donations and try to raise as much money as we can,” he said. “A couple months ago, we had our donation event where we took the money we collected, and one of the main goals was to get it in the hands of organizations helping kids, partly to help close the achievement gap and partly to help kids get excited about science.”

The Biotech Happy Hour is smaller than the High Tech version, usually drawing from 75 to 100 people, but Vodenlich feels the more intimate setting is an advantage for making the personal connections that are vital to business.

These events would not happen without sponsors, and the Biotech organizers have the support of a key state industry group in BioForward and an important venue in University Research Park. The program also has gained some traction from holding happy hours at local biotech company offices, as it will this month when Lucigen sponsors a reception at its new facility.

“Business, to me, is all about personal relationships,” Vodenlich said. “That is how the world works and will always work. We have a lot of tools to communicate with nowadays, but there is something special about meeting people face-to-face. Trust is built that way and trust is one of the key ingredients in successful business partnerships.”

Get your own

In the midst of what some called “The Great Recession,” Craig Sayers started the Business Professionals Happy Hour. Part of his motivation was to promote his businesses, Excel Lending and RateOasis, and partly to help himself and other professionals weather the economic downturn.

He views such functions as a business asset because of their relationship-building aspects. “If someone is trying to make a decision on who they do business with, and he or she has a relationship and a certain trust level with that individual, the business relationship just goes much more smoothly,” Sayers opined.

The BPHH does not change venues – it’s always held at the Madison Club – and Sayers acknowledges there aren’t a lot of bells and whistles, but there is no doubt in his mind the environment is conducive to relationship-building. About 100 to 120 on the 1,000-person invitation list typically attend the monthly program. “We keep the event invitation-only because the people who come take it seriously,” he said, “and use it as part of their business development.”

Occasional learning enrichment is featured, but that takes place before the happy hour so that it remains a flowing mixer for the business owners, bankers, attorneys, and upper-level managers who typically attend. An oysters and vodka party is an annual highlight, and support of nonprofits also is part of the mix, lending the event some community-building purpose. The Wisconsin Women’s Health Foundation is among its philanthropic beneficiaries.

In Sayers’ case, the business benefits of networking have several dimensions. Since launching the happy hour, he has taken
RateOasis national, and he’s planning a similar networking event for the Milwaukee area. “The program,” he said, “has taken on a life of its own.”

Source: http://ibmadison.com/meetings?id=1488