Career Talk

Getting to Know You

January 2005

The next few columns will focus on the role of networking in career development. This month's column presents an overview of the topic. Next month, we'll discuss the issue of establishing a professional identity.

Networking. The very term seems distasteful to many, conjuring up images of toadies selfishly currying favor with the powerful simply to advance their own agendas. The academic culture often reinforces the illusion that it is enough to simply "do good work", and that time spent cultivating contacts is time better spent pursuing research. However, the truth is that nothing will come of the good work if no one knows about it. But networking is not just about "selling" yourself or your ideas, nor does it sully the intellectual purity of the academic endeavor. We're not talking about superficial, self-centered socializing for the sake of personal gain; rather, networking is about developing relationships with people in order to achieve a common goal. It is not just about politics and power. It is about community building. A strong, thriving community is built on a sense of shared values.

Networking is an integral part of establishing your professional identity. As a trainee or junior faculty, most of your attention is probably focused on the senior faculty in your division and department. Your identity is defined by the small world of divisional and departmental politics. But, look at your senior faculty. Look at the time they spend traveling, going to conferences, meetings. As a trainee and even as a junior faculty, you may look askance at these activities, feeling that the time senior faculty spent outside the division is time taken away from building the local community. Now, senior faculty are not supposed to ignore junior faculty or treat them badly but consider that they are also responsible for maintaining the division/department's relationships with the external professional networks vital to the organization's success. Study sections, committee meetings, conferences all contribute to establishing the division within the larger world of medicine and science, thus creating a vital two-way flow of resources - information, money and good trainee applicants.

Developing an independent professional identity depends on the relationships you forge in the outside world - within the school, university, professional organizations, funding agencies. "Knowing the right people" sounds devious but consider that it is through knowing the right people that you keep up-to-date, obtain resources and ideas that let you do the things that you most care about doing. These outside relationships can provide critical support during times when your own community may not appreciate the importance of what you are doing. Networking has several positive indirect benefits as well. It improves your communication skills by forcing you to focus your own thinking and concisely express the themes that focus and drive your community's work.

Not even the most well-connected mentor can "give" you a network. The fact is, if you want to be independent, if you want to promote a cause, if you want to be a leader, or if you simply looking for sources of moral support, you will have to invest time and energy in building your own network. You have to give first in order to receive. And you should do so with integrity and sincerity. Give freely, without the hidden intention to get anything in return. As you build your network, you are also building your reputation. Remember, "it's a small world." Hence, how you treat others will have repercussions far beyond the immediate relationships you are cultivating. In other words, person "Z" may offer you a job or job interview even though s/he has never met you, but knows of you through others.

START EARLY. Network building is multiplicative. If each of your friends or contacts knows 10 people, then think how many people you know through them. So just like investing in a retirement account, starting to network as early as possible will reap you the benefits of compound interest building. Hallway conversations, meetings, lectures, job interviews, telephone, email and homepages are but a few of the many ways to make yourself known and to get to know people. Some of us are lucky enough to be born "charmers" and intuitively know how to work a room in a few minutes. Some of us are lucky to belong to a strong community - a research group, clinical practice group--that functions much like the professional guilds of the past and enable "apprentices" to meet and learn from "master" tradespeople. But, if you're introverted and without a built-in community, or if your community is weak, you will have to go out and build a community -- one person at a time. Networking, the practice of seeking out and getting to know new people as a part of achieving personal and professional goals, can be learned. Over the next few columns, we will explore the concept of networking and in particular, focus on how to utilize a variety of readily available communication tools to establish a professional identity. The idea is to create a positive learning and working environment in which you can thrive and succeed.

Getting Started

1) Know Your Goals: "... the great thing to learn about life is, first, not to do what you don't want to do, and, second, to do what you do want to do." - Margaret Anderson

Academic life can be isolating for trainees and junior faculty who may often feel pressured to conform to certain ways of thinking or research. Meeting people who share your passions and values can be inspiring and liberating!
It is important to figure out what you really care about. OK, so now you are a pulmonologist. What next? Are you trying to achieve tenure? Organize a conference? Seeking additional resources in order to do the work you need to do without constraints? Be PTA president? Systematically identifying and prioritizing your goals requires time and effort. Clear goals not only help to prioritize and focus your time and energies, but also serve as a beacon to help re-direct you when you get overwhelmed or lost.

2) Identifying contacts:

Just who are you supposed to get to know? This absolutely depends on what you are trying to do. From a research point of view, the process of figuring out who is "relevant" can start with the reference list for your most recent paper or grant. Whose work are you citing? Become familiar with their names and (if they are still living!) mentally make a note to get to know them. Ask others in your field, scan conference proceedings. Listen to other people. One of the great things about going to conferences is that you can sit and listen to a bunch of really smart (and not so smart) people talk about your topic. Pay attention to those people whose values you share.

Think outside the box. While it is easiest to look for and find people who do research on exactly the same topic as you do, talking to people who are not directly involved in what you do can be a surprising source of fresh ideas. Sometimes the most "naive" questions about our work are the most stimulating since they cause us to re-examine fundamental assumptions we may be making! Similarly, just because you are looking for a job in California doesn't mean that that person from New York City won't have anything to offer. When you meet someone, you are also "meeting" their friends and contacts. The corollary to this is: Be sincere and treat everyone with respect. Don't have tunnel vision. Just because someone does not seem immediately "relevant" when you first meet them, don't assume that s/he is not important at all. I read of one study of 300 professional, technical, or managerial workers in which 56% of people got their job through personal contacts; however, 83% of these contacts were someone they did not know well.
Also, while an advisor or mentor may be a good place to start in terms of building a networking database, remember, that his/her perspective may be focused on helping you build an academic career. Thus, take his/her advice as to who are the most valuable contacts with the proverbial grain of salt.

3) Meeting people:

OK, this is the tough part. We'll talk about strategies for meeting people in the next column!