Few words could make me wither the way "networking" did. I understood the concept. I understood its importance. How could I not, after hearing it so often from advisers, colleagues, and speakers at countless career development workshops? And yet, I still had trouble connecting to it and putting it into practice.

Those networking workshops usually included icebreakers, opportunities to practice what the instructors were teaching. For me, these exercises usually led to stilted conversations that ended in awkward silences. I just wasn't good at it. Those other people—advisers, colleagues, and speakers at events—were excellent orators and brilliant scientists. They had something to say, something worth hearing—but not me, right? Take one part introvert and mix in a hefty dose of impostor syndrome, and you get a person for whom the idea of walking into a room and striking up conversation with a stranger—with professional stakes on the line—often provoked a fight-or-flight response.

But over the past several months, something has changed. I have entered rooms full of strangers without strategizing an exit plan as I walked in the door. I have pushed past my discomfort and talked to people I didn’t know—and then noticed that I was actually enjoying myself. Networking has become exciting—even, dare I say, fun.

What changed? Several things.

I became more comfortable in social situations. I had been carrying tremendous uncertainty and anxiety about my career, my life, and myself. So I took stock of what I had accomplished and what I was looking for. I thought hard about what I wanted from my career, what I wanted to contribute to science, and how all that fit with the rest of my life. While I could envision many career paths, my interests cohered into a long-term objective, still broad but also tangible and focused. This objective became the focal point for discussions about my career direction. Because I had a clearer idea of what I wanted to do, what I had to offer, and what I had to say, I began to speak with more confidence, ease, and conviction.

Practicing online—although I didn’t know at the time that that’s what I was doing—made me savvier about networking. Through my Twitter page and my blog, I connected with students, postdocs, faculty, and others around the world. Online chatter coalesced into conversations and led to lasting relationships. Some of those people—people I met online—provided important feedback, mentoring, job leads, and other opportunities. Even recommendations.

Online is an incubator space, a place to experiment, develop, and learn. It may be electronically mediated, but social media is about connecting with people over shared experiences and interests. Online, I found that I didn't need an agenda—to be offering or seeking anything specific—to benefit from an interaction.


Courtesy of Melissa Vaught
Melissa Vaught

Then I realized that networks in more tangible spaces—offline—could be built in much the same way. I could remain approachable and engaged even with anxiety lurking beneath the surface. So I looked for ways to reduce the pressure I felt in real-world situations, and I sought reasons to participate. I leveraged the network I already had—friends, colleagues, and mentors—and found they were willing, even happy, to introduce me to others.

I learned to choose events where networking was a bonus feature and not the explicit purpose. I picked symposia at local universities, forums at research hospitals, and events sponsored by local interest groups and companies where I could learn about career-relevant topics, like commercialization and science communication. I knew I would take away information relevant to a potential career interest, so it was a "win" even if I spoke to no one. Yet, I knew that at events like this, I was likely to meet people with interests similar to mine—and that made it easier to start and continue talking. Often these people were scientists of a different sort, a kind I would not encounter in the lab: working in administration, or development, or communications.

I started to engage more with peer groups. I got involved with my institution’s postdoc association and a local organization that bridges science and social media. I volunteered to help organize and run some events. Taking an active role in these organizations made me more accountable: My responsibilities ensured I would attend events and stay for the duration, rather than bolting as soon as possible. My involvement also gave me opportunities to connect with established professionals in the area and to build relationships with fellow organizers.  

These offline, peer-to-peer networks felt accessible. These weren’t principal investigators or other big, scary people. They were postdocs like me or people I met on Twitter. But peers are connections, too, and in coming years, they will fill influential positions in academia, industry, government, and nonprofits. They will constitute important parts of my growing professional network.

Soon I stopped worrying about whether I was talking to the right number of people at events—or even the "right" people. If there was someone I wanted to meet, I sought that person out, but I wasn't filling in a tally card.

Sometimes I would strike up a conversation directly. Other times I would inveigle my way into a circle of discussants by placing myself nearby and allowing my interest to show. As a conversation finished, I would offer a business card, and I would typically receive one (or several) in return.

Finally, I learned that the art of follow-up was simple. All it took was a short, prompt e-mail in which I expressed my pleasure at the encounter, referred to a specific point from the discussion, and thanked her or him for chatting. Follow-up often led to correspondences, phone conversations, and face-to-face meetings—new relationships that will now mature and grow.

I used to worry: "What do I say?" "What if I get it wrong?" "What if they don’t like me?" Today I trust myself to be affable and thoughtful, so the worst that can happen is I get "no" for an answer, or no reply at all. I can survive that. Far more often, the answer is "yes," and sometimes it includes a suggestion or introduction I wasn’t expecting.

Soon I will move to a new city once again, start a new job, and embark on a new career. As I move to the next chapter of my life, I carry these lessons with me and expect to learn many more. I look forward to cultivating the relationships that have been seeded recently, and to discovering new ones. The time it takes is worth it.

The thought of networking used to make me wither. Now I see networking as an opportunity to flourish.

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Better known online as Biochem belle (@biochembelle on Twitter), Melissa Vaught is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School. She will soon begin her new role as a scientific editor for PubMed Commons at the National Center for Biotechnology Information in Bethesda, Maryland. Opinions expressed here are her personal views

10.1126/science.caredit.a1400063