Career Skills: Networking

Guest post from Aimee Wilde, Employer Engagement Officer, King’s Careers & Employability

At some point we’ve probably all been told to ‘network’ and nodded our heads along like we know what this means. But do we actually? Is it really that simple as walking into a room and collecting a load of emails? Not quite – but it is achievable and can be very valuable.

If you’re considering a move from academia to industry, then networking is your No.1 tool. It’s a great way to start researching about non-academic professions, and speaking with people who have already transitioned into commercial roles can be a lot more useful than reading a company website. On top of this, it gives you the opportunity to learn the jargon associated with your chosen industry. Employers want to hire ‘work-ready’ people wherever possible, and knowing the lingo can make it seem like you’re halfway there.

So how do you network well? Take a look at the tips below and see what results come from putting them into action.

1) Start early

You will not find your dream job overnight. Okay, a few people might, but this is unlikely and it’s better to start planning early. If you know you’re going to be finishing your PhD in a year’s time, start making friends in the right places now. And once you start, don’t stop! Maintaining a strong professional network is something that will help develop your career throughout your working life.

2) Be direct

If you don’t ask, you don’t get. One of the most effective networking techniques is to make contact with senior management at places you’re interested in working at. Of course, spamming emails to hundreds of CEOs is not productive – but a carefully crafted email to the right manager can get you noticed.

NOTE: If you’re thinking, ‘but managers never have their emails on company websites’ – you’re right, they often don’t. But they aren’t gold-dust either! It’s pretty straightforward to ‘guestimate’ someone’s work email address and even easier to find it on their LinkedIn profile.

3) Don’t talk just about your PhD

This might be a hard pill to swallow. Yes, you’re spending your life immersed in this and it is a hugely valuable asset (see below), but employers will also be keen to hear about other experiences. Can you demonstrate that you’re a self-starter outside of your degree? This doesn’t have to be completely unrelated to your university life and a great example could be establishing a society. By mentioning this, you show employers that you can use initiative within a variety of contexts.

4) If you have to talk about your PhD, repackage it

Okay, okay, this is exaggerative – of course you are going to want to (and should) talk about your studies. But when you speak to those outside the academic world, consider your audience carefully. Unless you’re planning on going into a niche industry, the specialist knowledge you’ve gained during your PhD isn’t of much interest to employers.

So what is? ALL the skills you’ve acquired along the way. We’re rarely taught to contemplate the new attributes we gain, but this is the most important thing you can do to market yourself well. Resources such as StrengthsFinder 2.0 can help you achieve this and make sure you stand out amongst an academic crowd.

5) Set clear goals

Networking isn’t the elusive art it’s made out to be. Like most things, it can be made more attainable by establishing goals. Qualify and quantify what you want to achieve! Next time you’re at a networking event, decide before what information you need; are you looking for guidance on getting an internship? Do you need to know what skills are most important in a certain industry? Giving thought to this will mean you’re able to ‘chat with a purpose’ and not end up on a tangent far from your original goal.

It’s also a good idea to consider how many people you want to connect with whilst at an event. It’s always going to be impossible to speak with everyone in the room, and it can be very easy to get engrossed in one conversation. Aim to building meaningful relationships with three or four people within an evening and be strategic about this – find out who’ll be attending and who’ll be most useful for you to engage with.

6) Follow up

Collecting business cards might make for a fun side-activity at conferences, but on its own it has no utility. Don’t sit by your phone waiting for the interesting manager you spoke to last week to call. They probably aren’t going to, but this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t. Reach out to the contacts you make regularly and they will remember you over other people that they meet. Then when a suitable opportunity arises, you’ll be one of the first people they call.

7) LinkedIn is your friend; realise it!

A lot of people don’t seem to like LinkedIn. ‘Oh, but LinkedIn isn’t for academics’ I hear you say. This isn’t true, and even if it was, it doesn’t matter because it is for professionals. Dirk Kruger, who studied a PhD in Bioengineering and Biomedical Engineering at KCL, was approached for a position through the site and is now employed as Executive Editor at BioMed Central. He therefore views it as a ‘valuable career tool’ and advises anyone looking to move away from academia to ‘get LinkedIn savvy’.

LinkedIn’s chief purpose is for networking, not for plain job-hunting. I’ve recently spoken to a number of PhD students and post-docs who consider the job function to be useless and often this is the case. It isn’t the best job board but this doesn’t mean that its other uses should be discredited too. Utilise it to keep new contacts warm, and to gain further insight into sectors that interest you. Joining relevant groups can be a great way to raise your profile and gain industry relevant knowledge.

If you’re a bit of a LinkedIn novice, don’t panic – you can learn more about how to use this site through our Grad School webinar series which can be accessed here.

8) ‘Be kind and be useful’

According to Barack Obama, these are the two things you should do in life to get ahead. It might seem at odds with the cut-throat corporate world you’re trying to break into, but remembering this whilst networking is important. Audacity is admirable up to a point, and then it’s just a bit annoying. We’ve all been at events where people have hounded speakers, and whilst we all remember them, it’s not necessarily for the right reasons.

Helping other people get what they want can really help you in getting what you want. Next time you meet a useful contact, consider how you could be useful to them. Do you know someone who might be able to help them with a problem they currently have? Is there an article that you read recently which relates to their work? Spread the love and see how it quickly comes back to you.