Safety goggles, dirty lab coat, and pocket protector. Sloppy jeans and T-shirt. Awkwardness at parties, except when talking about their research. Difficulty making eye contact and connecting sentences coherently in a casual conversation.
It's an unfair stereotype, and it's largely untrue; but there are, indeed, more introverts with weak verbal communication skills in scientific research than in many other occupational fields. If you're one of them, this is a luxury you can no longer afford. It's time to develop those skills if you want to find the ideal job!
My last article  introduced some ways to learn about the world of work via written materials. But, fact is, despite the best efforts of publications like this one, much of what you need to know is not in print. It's only in people's heads, and you need to get it out where you can see it. There's only one way of doing this: You need to find those people and talk to them.
Hundreds of articles are available about informational interviewing and networking as ways to learn about jobs and uncover insider information about hiring processes and available positions. (See the sidebar for a sampling of those articles.) But reading about it is one thing; actually doing it is another. Whatever you want to call it--informational interviewing, networking, or just asking questions--you need to start talking to people if you want to learn about the huge variety of positions that are available to scientists.
Personally, I'm a big introvert. When I used to read articles about networking or informational interviewing, I got a little panicked. I didn't think I could do anything like that. But I could, I did, and it wasn't so bad. In fact, it's fun, once you get started. My goal in this column is to present ways for you to get started talking to people about their careers and your possible futures. This will allow you to develop both your knowledge and your skills; you'll learn about the world of work and gain confidence by talking with others about jobs. For those of you talkative extroverts who can start a conversation with a stranger with no difficulty, your conversational skills may not need brushing up, but you can still benefit from these suggestions; the idea of making an effort to explore the world of work isn't obvious to most people, no matter how comfortable they are in their skin and how much they like to talk. And if you are uncomfortable initiating conversations with people about their jobs, these suggestions--especially the first ones--will help. And even if you dread the thought of initiating conversations, you're likely to get lots of help from the people you approach, because everyone likes to talk about their career path and offer advice!
If you're an introvert, this is a good place to get started. But casual conversations with social groups are more valuable than just that: A surprising number of job leads arise from casual interactions. There are all sorts of casual groups where you can talk to people about the job market, career paths, and other job-market topics. This will also give you practice expressing your own career goals. Be polite, listen well, and respect the time of the people you're talking to. And enjoy the conversations!
Conversations like this, whether with family, friends, or total strangers, help get you started talking and thinking about careers in a useful way. They help you define your preferences and give you practice asking questions. After several of these conversations, you'll begin to recognize skills that are common to many different kinds of jobs. You'll also learn strategies for getting hired, many of which you probably hadn't thought of; chances are Joe didn't find his job in a newspaper. These conversations are also great opportunities to pour yourself a drink and have a pleasant conversation ... and that's nothing to sneeze at.
When you begin to approach individuals at a higher professional level, or complete strangers, it's important to be a bit more careful. Be clear about your intentions, respect their time, and be prepared with questions. And don't ask for a job; that's not what an informational interview is for.
Don't wait until you're desperate for a job; get out and talk to people now! If you're uncomfortable doing it, that's OK; but do it anyway! I've emphasized the importance of collecting information, but there's another advantage: You're establishing a network of people who know you and who know you're serious about your professional future. That can only work in your favor.