6 Mistakes PhDs Make When They Network

I sat in on a how-to-get a job seminar in the second year of my PhD that stressed the importance of networking for non-academic careers. I nodded and took notes.

The instructor looked us in the eye and said, “Don’t wait until you’re done. Start networking now.”

I once again nodded and filed home, determined to start networking long before the end of my degree came.

Four years later, I had my first networking experience. I swiped right on the app Shapr (after creating a nice profile) and not long after was having a coffee with an economist who took the time to give me some advice on Ottawa. It was great!

But I don’t know what took me so long.

I swear by networking for building non-academic careers. If you’ve taken a look around this site, you’ll see that there are no guides to writing resumes (yet). (For example, this post on how to build your non-academic network.)

Resumes alone don’t get you jobs. Especially when they’re being thrown on a pile with a hundred others.

Networking does. Virtually every job I’ve had has been from networking. HOWEVER, there are some critical mistakes students make when they’re networking. So I’d like to put a few of these to rest right now:

1. They only network with academics

This seems pretty self-explanatory, but your number one source of advice on non-academic careers should probably not be someone who’s spent their entire career in academia. Some academics might have good ideas and good contacts, but it’s imperative that you use these as a springboard to talk to people outside. Most supervisors are not reliable points of contact for information about how things work outside of academia.

2. They put it off until they “decide what they want to do.”

Don’t do what I did.

The whole point of networking during your PhD or other degree (often called an “informational interview”) is to figure out where you might want to go, eventually. Don’t think of meeting people outside of academia as a job hunt. Think of it as a mapping expedition for non-academic careers. You’re really just trying to see what’s out there.

Some people use the fact that they don’t know where they’re going as an excuse for inaction.

Don’t.

Meet everyone. I don’t care what their job title is. You never know what will radically change your perspective on the world, and you’ll never find it unless you think broadly. It’s essential to building a great non-academic career.

3. They get hurt when people don’t respond

I’ve sent more LinkedIn notes than I can count, and a good portion of them have been ignored. In the beginning I would sulk about it. That old feeling of imposter syndrome would kick in and I would tell myself that they were rejecting me because I WASN’T GOOD ENOUGH.

And maybe I wasn’t.

Or maybe that person is just crazy busy. Maybe they’re dealing with family trauma and don’t have the bandwidth to give advice right now.

If you reach out to someone and they don’t respond, don’t take it personally. Just keep going.

I certainly can’t remember the people who didn’t respond to me during my reach-outs. But I remember those who did!

Because they changed my life.

4. They see networking as transactional

I hate the idea that networking is just transactional. It doesn’t have to be.

Fundamentally we all want to connect to other human beings. I love sitting down with someone new and finding out what makes them tick. Occasionally I get good friends. At the very least I hope a good conversation perked up their day and showed them how valuable and interesting they are.

Imagining networking as some sort of transaction will kill your soul. If you see it as a beautiful chance to connect with other humans and find out about their world it will set you free.

5. They feel like they have nothing to offer

I know I just said networking isn’t transactional–but okay, fine. Sometimes there is a bit of a transactional component to it. The natural response for many students is to feel like you’re worthless, or that you have nothing to offer.

This is wrong.

You never know when you’ll get the chance to help someone you networked with. I found myself in the odd situation of being able to do this only a few months after meeting people and feeling like I had nothing to offer. When I’ve been able to, I’ve brought people from my network value. And I look forward to doing this even more in the future. A career is a long time. You never know when you’ll be able to throw someone a bone or even a juicy steak.

By the same token, you never know when or where you’ll run into people. So be kind.

If you can’t pay them back directly, pay it forward! Take the time to help someone who needs to learn from you. We all need a hand now and then.

6. They see networking as something you do once

Don’t stop networking.

Never stop. I repeat, never stop.

Well actually, if you hate people and you get into a cushy research job you want for the rest of your life—you do you. But a career is life-long, and so is networking. I still try to meet people a few times a week. Of course, I’m one of those people who gets energized and inspired from meeting people. So know yourself. But there’s no need to think that networking is something you do til you get a job and stop.

Incidentally, a lot of my networking now is meeting people younger than me starting their careers. It doesn’t matter.

If I can help them, great. I meet people because enjoying our shared humanity and turning a stranger into a friend is one of the most amazing things about being alive.

(I’ll stop now—I can hear the introverts swearing at me)

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