Career Advice

Easier Ways to Network

Deanna Montgomery, Ph.D.

What do you picture when you hear the word “networking”? Maybe you’re thinking of pre-pandemic events in overly air-conditioned rooms filled with a lot of nervous energy and hesitation. Or you see people wandering around awkwardly looking for someone to talk to. Or you imagine making uncomfortable small talk while you figure out how to ask someone about job opportunities where they work. Maybe your past even includes attempts that make you cringe and feel that networking isn’t ever going to work for you.

What if, instead, you could think of networking as catching up with an old friend over a Zoom call while eating takeout from a favorite restaurant? Or asking a trusted adviser for perspective on a growing career field? Does that feel a little more relaxed and natural?

Good news! The informal, relaxed atmosphere of a conversation with a friend or someone you trust is exactly what networking is supposed to feel like. Sure, networking can and should certainly be something that takes place at conferences and other professional events. (See this two-part series for advice about navigating dedicated networking events: Part I & Part II). However, expanding your professional network can be done in much smaller, subtler, easier ways.

In fact, the strategies you use to build your friendships are similar to what you should do to nurture your professional network. Like many friendships, professional relationships are strongest when founded on giving and receiving information, insights, or contacts, combined with keeping an open mind toward someone else’s advice or perspective. Viewed through the lens of relationship building, networking can start to feel a lot more natural.

Here are some strategies you have probably used many times to build friendships, along with some ideas for applying and expanding them to create and build your network.

Do Things You Enjoy

One of the best ways to meet people with similar interests is to engage in those interests. Networking does not have to be limited to connecting with other chemists. Whether you’re a cyclist, a knitter, a soccer player, a reader, or a painter, look for an on- or off-campus group to engage with.

Although this may not be the most direct way to meet people in your field, you’ll likely reap many benefits from engaging with a more diverse group of people. We all play many roles in our lives, and there is great benefit to connecting with people who have a variety of life experiences and different viewpoints and who can challenge us to grow.

In addition to making some new friends, you’ll also expand your network to some degree. You never know whom your new connections may be connected to!

Talk to People You Already Know

Not sure what you want to do after grad school? Thinking of making a career change post-postdoc? Want to be prepared to break into your chosen field when you’re ready? One of the easiest ways to broaden and deepen your network is to start with people you know. Talk about your career goals, or about any confusion you’re feeling, with people you know and trust. You may be surprised by how much people want to listen and offer support or advice.

Here are some people you might consider starting career-related conversations with:

  • Your research adviser
  • Faculty in your department
  • Students and postdocs in your department
  • Graduates of your lab or department
  • Faculty, students, and postdocs outside your department
  • Lab/department alumni
  • Friends and family

You can start these conversations as part of your regular routine—say, during a weekly meeting with your adviser. You could also set aside time specifically for career conversations by going for coffee or lunch or setting up a phone or Zoom call. Opening up about your concerns may help you brainstorm or problem-solve, but it will also help you to strengthen your relationships with the people you talk to. Just make sure you set a firm ending time and stick to it. This shows you respect others’ time, and you can always set up another chat if needed.

To widen your network, end the conversation by asking, “Can you think of anyone else I should talk to?” Then follow up.

In reality, the best message is the one you actually send.

Use LinkedIn

If you type “LinkedIn advice” into your favorite search engine, you’ll find a wealth of information about setting up your profile and displaying your brand. Although this can be a useful exercise, the real power of LinkedIn lies in helping you find people you want to connect with. The platform is specially designed to help you find individuals you have commonalities with.

If you don’t have a LinkedIn profile yet, get started. But don’t stop once you’ve completed the initial steps. Here are a few “advanced” uses of LinkedIn that I’ve found particularly helpful for making new connections or reviving old ones:

See where people you’ve known for a while are now. If you’ve been on LinkedIn for some time, consider looking through your own connections. You might be surprised to find that people you’ve been connected with for a long time have new jobs. If you find something that looks interesting, reach out to learn more.

See whom your connections know. Do you have a coworker who seems to know everyone? A friend who used to work at a company you admire? Someone who said they’d be happy to connect you with other people?

One of the most powerful tools on LinkedIn is the ability to see other people’s connections and your degree of connection to them. Anyone you are directly connected to will show up with “1st” after their name. A 2nd-degree connection is a person who is connected to someone you are connected to, and so on. If you navigate to someone’s profile, you can see your mutual connections. You can also adjust the search features to see 2nd- or 3rd+-degree connections, and you can limit the results with advanced search options (e.g., location, current company). If you find a 2nd-degree connection you would like to meet, try asking a mutual connection for an introduction.

Find people who work at a particular organization. Is there a place you would love to work or to know more about? If you use the search feature to look up the organization, you’ll be able to see if you are connected with anyone who works there. Again, you can change the search features to show 2nd- or 3rd+-degree connections or limit the results.

Make contact. Whatever method you use to find people with connections to you or information about them on LinkedIn, make sure to take the next step and actually connect with them. You can reach out with a cold email (or LinkedIn message) or ask a mutual connection to introduce you. Don’t get stuck at the stage of making a list of people you’d like to know.

Stay in Touch

Just as with friendships, you need to keep in touch with your network. Send a quick message when someone crosses your mind. Say “thank you” for a piece of advice. Send an article you think a contact would enjoy reading. Let people know it was good to see them at an event where you crossed paths. Or simply send an update about your life or work to somebody and ask about theirs.

It can be easy to think that you have to craft the perfect message or that you can’t reach out because it’s been too long, but in reality, the best message is the one you actually send.

Strong networks take time to build and maintain, just like friendships. However, it is well worth the effort to build out this key component of your career.