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Building an Effective Network to Achieve Your Career Goals

Srikant Iyer, Ph.D.
Associate Director, Science Alliance, New York Academy of Sciences

Srikant Iyer, Ph.D.

Associate Director, Science Alliance, New York Academy of Sciences

By Srikant Iyer, Ph.D., NYAS Staff


No one knows who first coined the popular saying “It’s not what you know that counts so much as who you know …” although there is some evidence it was first used in 1914 in The Electrical Worker, a publication of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union. Origins aside, there is a good deal of truth behind these words, and most career guidance experts will agree that the most effective way to advance one’s career is by leveraging a network of contacts.

Networking helps cultivate relationships that pave the path for our future. However, many STEM professionals just starting out find the idea of networking daunting. Thoughts like “I don’t feel comfortable asking for help”, “I don’t want to bother people”, “My research is very niche and I can’t dumb it down” become self-imposed barriers towards shaping one’s career journey and often prevent individuals from exploring new career opportunities and connecting to potential colleagues.

MAKE IT EASY FOR PEOPLE TO REMEMBER YOU

Networking is defined as the exchange of information and ideas among people with a common profession or special interest, usually in an informal social setting. Shruti Sharma, Program Manager at Stony Brook University moved from India to the U.S. for her Ph.D. “In the U.S. the culture of being a self-promoter felt foreign to me,” she said. “I was raised in a culture where one’s work is supposed to speak for itself.” She identified networks like Science Alliance Leadership Training (SALT) where she found the safe space to navigate the cultural differences. “I realized that for my work to speak, I needed to communicate my skills and achievements to build a community of allies and advocates,” adds Sharma. This helped her leverage both the individualistic and community-based cultures to her advantage.

Satish Rajaram (SALT Alum), Engineer and Scientist at TRI Austin, says, “It is important to articulate your story for your personality to show, and to separate yourself from others with similar backgrounds.” As a Graduate Writing Consultant and mentor to undergraduate students, Rajaram recommends the value of being specific about one’s experience — it provides context to conversations and makes you more marketable — an important trait when applying for a job.

SUCCESS TAKES TIME AND EFFORT

Effective networking requires strategic preparation and being mindful of leveraging assertive ways to succeed when building relationships. Arthee Jahangir, Assistant Director, Postdoctoral Affairs at New York University School of Medicine, believed that by being a consistent high performer the merit based system would reward her, and her gender would not be a hindrance. But despite being a lead entrepreneur, Jahangir, like many women in science, experienced systemic barriers of being overlooked in favor of her male colleagues at networking events and pitches. She says, “I started to become [aware of] unconscious bias and micro-aggression that permeated the bubble I lived in, and learned strategies to counteract it by controlling my own narrative.”

Getting others to talk about their own career path facilitates conversations and builds relationships. Monika Buczek (SALT Alum), Business Development Manager and Scientific Project Leader at Champions Oncology Inc., used the “identify common ground approach” to connect with, and cold contact, individuals on LinkedIn. In her informational conversations Monika would ask such questions as: “If you could change anything about your path what would you change?” and “What would you tell yourself at the beginning of your journey?” to cultivate relationships.

Networking is a skill that needs to be practiced. Regardless if you are an introvert or an extrovert, practicing talking to your immediate circle, e.g. friends, colleagues, supervisors and even vendors, is a first step to building your network.

Join professional associations and attend conferences to build a portfolio of people you’d like to meet. Cultivate your narrative to feel confident about approaching people. Email leaders in your field you admire and request a meeting. You may not always get a positive response, but it’s a “no” if you don’t ask!