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One of the most frequent questions asked by Next Wave readers is "How do I network?" Our response has been to point to a large selection of articles in the archives of Next Wave, now easily accessible, that deal with this topic.

After reading these archives, some still feel that we were not specific enough in the actual "how to" area. At a recent seminar I conducted, Dr. Susan Schade of the University of Alabama, Birmingham, had the guts to grill me in the Q&A session about the hard specifics. I vowed after being under fire that I would break this activity down into its pieces. (Thanks go to Susan for the inspiration!)

Got questions about networking? Ask Dave!

Because networking is an ingrained habit, it isn't something that is easily put on paper. If you were asked to write an article called "How to Drive a Car," you would most likely focus on safety and the rules of the road. But if the reader had never been in the driver's seat, that would not suffice. What would be needed would be an article describing the actual hands-on-the-wheel process -- a list of "to do's" in numerical order, starting with "Get into the driver's seat and put your hands on the wheel."

Just like writing an article for the first-time driver, this article for the first-time networker has some potential problems. While it is easy enough to write up a protocol for driving, I wouldn't want to be anywhere on the road near the person who learned to drive in this manner. Similarly, if you are learning to network, you'll find that this is a living, breathing activity with a mind of its own. How it will fare for you depends on many outside factors, as well as a significant amount of determination and persistence on your part.

If networking isn't yet a habit for you, you'll need to start somewhere. It is my goal in this two-part series to get you as comfortable as possible with the process so that you can begin to form a habit. Like driving a car, networking should become such a part of your life that you don't even need to think about it. You may consciously put a campaign into motion when you need a job, but good networking is so much more than just a job seeker's tool.

Remember as you read these two articles how you felt when you were learning to drive. You had to think about each step in the process, and feel quite uncomfortable, before it became something that you didn't even need to think about!

Part One: Develop Your Networking Database

  • Setting up a networking database will be an important first step. This can be in hard-copy format as simple as a Rolodex file (you can find them at many discount office supply stores or even garage sales) or preferably on a computer. You can also use a database program or a spreadsheet. The ideal tool would be a telephone contacts manager like the software program ACT (Symantec). Set up your format with the following information: contact name, title, company or institution, address, phone and fax numbers, e-mail address, and an area for miscellaneous notes. This section will contain a record of your last contact date, the person's interests, reprints or CVs sent, etc. Many people also classify each contact by priority. Example: Priority 1 contacts are the ones you would want to call ASAP, while Priority 4 would be contacts that you plan to only write. Priority 2 and Priority 3 labels would be used to tag referrals that you get from other people during your first wave of phone calls.

  • Ask your adviser or mentor for help in developing a list of contacts. Put them into your database, but don't call them just yet. Remember that your mentor will have a particular viewpoint about which of these contacts are the most valuable. As a general rule of thumb, disregard all opinions and log every contact for future action. Be respectful, but remember that you are collecting names at this time and not opinions. An academic adviser will often think only of contacts that they would prefer you make in academia. You should also try to think of a way to ask for the contacts of industry people without upsetting the delicate relationship you have with your adviser.

  • Go to the other committee members and scientists that you work closely with and get their input. At this stage, you are not interested in limiting your contacts to any one type or another. Don't assume that because a contact is in Iowa that it isn't worth making because you are interested in working only in California. The longer the list, the better. Make sure that you ask everyone about former graduates out of the same lab -- even department secretaries! He or she may have contact names and addresses of earlier graduates, many of them industry employees.

  • Do you know who the top people are in your field? If you are a molecular biologist with experience in baculovirus expression, who are the top 30 people in baculovirus systems internationally? In my business, we call these rare folks the "center of influence" for their area of technical expertise. This means that they are the first people contacted by professional networkers (recruiters, human resources people, and hiring managers) when a position is being filled. You should be writing to these people as you start your networking process, so do your research and get their address and contact information into your database. While you may not be contacting this level of person by phone, you will be writing a specific type of letter (described later).

  • Contact the career center at your university and ask them what resources they might have to assist you in your networking. You'll want to pay particularly close attention to the following: a) names and contact information of alumni who have offered their help through the career center, and b) directories of possible employers in the geographical areas that you are intending to target. Directories of companies are sometimes very expensive, and they are usually reserved for either the library or the career center. Use them wisely, and fill your networking log with contact names of people who are shown in these directories with a wide variety of position titles. I realize that you don't know these folks and that they have not been officially "referred" to you. You will still need to record them for later telephone or written contact in the next phase of this process. Disregard the names of company presidents -- the frustration of getting past their secretary will not be valuable to your positive mental attitude.

  • When you do start making networking calls, there will be a real temptation to contact vice presidents and directors in targeted companies. While this is entirely acceptable, sometimes you can get a lot farther with someone who is only a couple of years ahead of you on the same career track. Always keep an eye open for contacts that are more junior than the directors and VPs who are listed in these directories. You will encounter much less hassle reaching them -- and they provide a unique view of the career track onto which you are heading.

  • Start researching attendance lists for various meetings that you have been to in the past, and look through meeting announcements (many of them printed in detail on the Web) to identify names of speakers. Add these to your contact database. In general, any meeting attendance list that shows names, affiliations, and titles of attendees is worth its weight in gold. (Send them my way when you are done with them!)

  • In part two of this series, we'll take the next step and begin contacting the networking leads you have been assembling into your customized database. That will be the toughest part for many Next Wave readers, and for most, it will be the single most important factor in their eventual success.

    A writer and speaker on career issues worldwide, David Jensen is the founder of CareerTrax Inc. and managing director of Kincannon & Reed Global Executive Search.