I work in a lab at the Institute for Computational Medicine and a few weeks ago, I attended our annual retreat. The morning itinerary included the usual academic retreat activities — opening remarks, research talks, food, etc. — and the afternoon featured a networking workshop hosted by the Johns Hopkins Medicine Professional Development and Career Office (PDCO).*

At the sight of a scheduled networking event, I usually groan internally and conjure up in my mind the image of overdressed businessmen enthusiastically self-promoting and exchanging business cards. While I certainly appreciate the need for making good connections (as the adage goes, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”), intentionally setting out to increase my own visibility as a predetermined activity strikes me as artificial. In spite of this, the PDCO workshop changed my perspective, and even yielded some practical and authentic “networking” skills I’d like to share. In fact, it recast the term “networking” with a much more palatable definition: making mutually beneficial connections.

With this new perspective, I learned the following lessons:

  1. Every discussion is a chance to make connections. After redefining networking, our workshop group brainstormed places and opportunities to make mutually beneficial connections. As our list grew to include everything from casual get-togethers with peers in the cafeteria to professional academic meetings, it became apparent that a good “networker” is someone who is always looking for a chance to build mutually beneficial relationships, no matter the time or location. In particular, effective networkers aren’t afraid to “give” more in the early stages of a relationship, acknowledging that they don’t know when (if ever) they may need to call on their newly generated social capital.
  2.  Informational interviews are a natural way to learn and “network.” Our workshop instructors suggested holding “informational interviews” when exploring career options, to learn about a career while pointedly identifying your interest in potential employment. We were given a list of roughly 30 Johns Hopkins University alumni in nonacademic positions and were challenged to select one for an informational interview. While not currently looking for employment (my second-year research, with all of its woes, is a full-time job), I decided to contact a former Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine student now federally employed as a bioinformatician. I was met with a rapid response and subsequently an informative discussion. During the informational interview, I learned how she came to that job, what it’s like on a daily basis, what she enjoys about it, and some of the drawbacks. I was surprised how easy it was to set up the interview and how much I learned. After just 20 minutes, I found a previously unknown career path worth considering. I would highly recommend such “informational interviewing” to anyone uncertain of future careers (if you want the list of alumni, a quick email to Pat Phelps, director of the PDCO, should do the trick).
  3. Your network is closer than you think. Near the conclusion of the event, those of us in attendance were asked to each come up with a “do you know anyone who… ” question. We were then given two minutes to ask this of as many fellow attendees as possible. Curious about science policy, I asked, “Do you know anyone who works for the FDA?” My very first ask — to a fellow program student — yielded a positive response and possible connection. The activity had its intended effect — the connections we are looking for are probably closer than we think. We simply need to ask!

By gaining a fresh outlook on networking and some new practical skills, this workshop was well worth the time. If you think you need to redefine your relationship with networking, consider attending the next PDCO workshop!

*If you haven’t heard about the PDCO, I recommend checking out its website for upcoming events right away. For any kind of career you might be interested in, the PDCO probably has an upcoming talk or seminar on it. A favorite of mine is the training on using Twitter and other social media effectively as a scientist.


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