Everyone knows the saying "it's not what you know, it's who you know." As scientists, we've spent a lot of time learning what we know, and we might prefer to think that the old adage works only in the business world and not in ours. After all, the sheer weight of our education, training, and accomplishments should be more than enough to land us the position of our choice, right?
As noble as this concept seems, it is naïve and no longer realistic, even in the world of science. Fewer than 25% of postdoctoral fellows now follow the traditional route of becoming a research professor at an academic institution. Many postdocs become staff scientists in industry or follow one of any number of alternative career paths. Often, these positions are in the business world, in which the saying above holds some truth. Even when applying for an academic job, knowing somebody on the inside certainly can't hurt. All of these situations emphasize the importance of networking for scientists. Other articles have more thoroughly covered the details of networking (see the related links below), so let's look at what postdoc associations and offices can and are doing to promote networking opportunities.
The term "networking" may carry with it some negative connotations (a sleazy salesman working a room comes to mind ...), but it need not. Networking is simply the process of getting to know people and building an address book full of individuals who may someday be able to help you, whether it is with getting a job or establishing research collaborations. We are psychologically prone to be much more likely to help out someone with whom we have some connection, no matter how tenuous, than a total stranger.
Career Seminar Series
Many institutions have become more realistic in realizing that scientists now go on to pursue a variety of different careers. Postdoc associations and offices have begun exposing postdocs to the possibilities available to them by holding seminar series or panel discussions featuring scientists who have done something besides become assistant professors at academic institutions. These are typically informal events featuring a short talk by the guest followed by a discussion session, and they are great networking opportunities.
What makes these career discussions great networking opportunities? This is your opportunity to ask questions about a career or industry and meet someone "on the inside." Don't be afraid to express interest in front of your colleagues--odds are if they are at the session, they are also considering an "alternative" career. Once you have met the speakers and had the opportunity to chat with them, be sure to ask for a business card. The card will provide you with all the information you need to make a follow-up phone call or e-mail. And you can use your subsequent follow-up as the opportunity to ask for the names of other inside contacts.
If you are interested in a particular career, these seminar series give you the opportunity to take your networking one step further. Tell the seminar series' coordinators about your interest. Or, better yet, volunteer to find an appropriate speaker and host the visit. In searching for the speaker, you'll need to contact at least a handful of scientists in your area of interest, allowing you to network with each one as you search for your speaker. This is a great way to learn more and make lots of contacts in a completely nonthreatening way.
Interactions With Local Industry
While alternative careers series certainly help promote networking, at least one postdoctoral organization is going even farther. An innovative program at Scripps takes advantage of the plethora of biotechnology companies in the San Diego area, which collectively represent a wealth of career opportunities for postdocs. The Society of Fellows (SOF), the Scripps postdoc association, has realized this and is attempting to introduce the two groups to each other. A consortium of companies called BIOCOM holds monthly meetings on topics of interest to the biotech industry. Scripps postdocs are welcome to attend the meetings, and the SOF will pay the entrance fee for one postdoc per month. Such a meeting is a great place to meet many important people in the industry.
The Harvard Biotechnology Club flips the successful SOF model by bringing local industry to the university. This well-healed group is run by graduate students, but postdocs are welcome in their activities. The club has formed relationships with many components of the thriving Boston area bioscience industry, going beyond biotech companies themselves to include representatives from venture capital, consulting, investment advisory, and law firms. They have frequent speakers from industry and special interest subgroups, and they even sponsor business plan contests. Their activities are completely supported by the biotech industry. For ideas and inspiration, or to join the club, check out their Web site. Similar programs could be promoted anywhere there is a concentration of pharmaceutical or biotech companies.
Postdoc Alumni Databases
Another tremendous networking resource available to institutions is the postdocs themselves. A fellowship is (supposedly) a transient position. So, why not keep track of departing postdocs and tap them as a resource for current trainees? While most institutions have long kept databases of this sort for internal or governmental reporting purposes, these data have not been readily available. This is starting to change. For example, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center is currently building FredNet, a career development resource that will list contact information for center alumni. And the University of Pennsylvania is beginning to conduct exit interviews of departing postdocs, in part to obtain job and contact information for a similar database of alumni. An established example of a networking database can be found at JobNet, the National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) version of an alumni networking resource. JobNet is also beginning to include contacts obtained from permanent NIH employees, not just departing postdocs.
Efforts at Fox Chase Cancer Center
Our efforts here at Fox Chase Cancer Center ( FCCC) to promote networking opportunities are well under way. We just completed our first Alternatives to Academia Career Seminar Series. Spearheaded by Professor David Wiest, it was a great success. All sessions were well attended and resulted in spirited discussions and numerous questions. Our first speaker, the director of business development at GlaxoSmithKline, was interesting and insightful in his own right, but he also put us in touch with the company's venture capital arm to provide a possible future speaker. And he suggested that GlaxoSmithKline's human resources department might be interested in paying us a visit. Our one contact with the director of business development turned into at least two more contacts--networking at its finest!
We have also started building a networking database that is accessible from our Web site. Currently, it includes speakers from our alternative career series, as well as several other contacts provided by Professor Wiest. We plan to greatly expand this in the near future. While FredNet and similar contact databases in the works at other institutions focus on postdocs who go on to other places, we believe this is only the tip of the iceberg. Why not tap into the potentially far deeper resources of the principal investigators? They have been around longer and are likely to know many more people than postdocs. Additionally, the people they do know are likely to hold more influential positions. We plan to e-mail FCCC's PIs and postdocs, asking them to provide contact information for scientists they know at companies and institutions who would not mind answering a few questions or looking at a CV. We believe including the PIs will lead to a more immediate and extensive list than relying on postdoc alumni alone.
A built-in networking resource at many institutions is the director of technology transfer or business development. This person helps patent, develop, and commercialize technologies invented at an institution, and consequently will know thousands of people in every conceivable aspect of science. He or she will more than likely be happy to share a contact list with a postdoc organization. Furthermore, the technology transfer office receives invitations to gatherings of pharmaceutical, biotechnology, finance, and venture capital companies called "partnering meetings." We are working with the tech transfer office at FCCC to extend these invitations to interested postdocs.
Between hosting seminars, interacting with local companies, and constructing alumni databases, postdoctoral organizations are beginning to help postdocs develop the networks they need to transition to their next position or career. If your group has other innovative ideas, please feel free to share them with me at MS_Campbell@FCCC.Edu and with Next Wave's Postdoc Network at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michael Campbell received his Ph.D. from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and now studies mitotic regulation as a postdoc at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia.