When you think of networking, what comes to mind?
Do you see a young entrepreneur striking up a conversation with a senior executive? Does it occur in a certain setting? Can only certain people network effectively? Are scientists capable of networking with the big shots? These are all questions that come up when exploring networking in the academic setting. Rest assured, you don’t have to be Richard Branson in order to form great professional connections (if you don’t know who he is, look it up). As with all communication skills, networking is easy to understand once you get the core idea. However, many scientists face a hurdle that prevents them from even getting to this step.
For your average scientist, networking or talking to leaders in the field is pretty intimidating. The thought of having such a conversation may flood the system with anxiety and stress; giving you a mini heart attack. The potential for failure may cloud your mind and dominate your thoughts. It may even make you panic and silently scream on the inside.
HEY! I REALLY LIKE YOUR WORK. WANT TO TALK?
But you know what’s far worse? Never trying to connect.
For this post, I hope to ease the panic-stricken scientists and help them succeed in the face of negative thinking. The first step in this process is to understand the concept of value. Then, we can discuss some subtle strategies for connecting with those big wig scientists.
What is value?
Value seems like an odd word to use here. It tends to be associated with things you would purchase on Amazon (or whatever shop of choice).
That TV looks awesome? How much did you pay for it??
Is that dress $600? It definitely isn’t worth that much!
You paid $500 for that piece of cheese? You’re insane!
It was damn good cheese.
Value in social contexts isn’t quite like this. How is it defined in connections and interactions? Value refers to the benefit you bring to another person or group of people. When you have a lot to offer, it makes forming connections easier. For example, think of someone like Elon Musk. He offers a lot of value through his companies, creations, and ideas. People want to meet him because he offers large potential benefit to another person.This would be in contrast to not offering value and being seen as someone who is trying to take more value than they have.
The interesting part of networking is how the two parties assess value. How is this kind of value assessed?
Assessing value in an interaction is fairly similar to the idea of pricing items. However, value doesn’t have to be something monetary or physical. It can be (and is typically) offered in the form of a skill, service, or some knowledge that the other person lacks (i.e. usually the reason students are admitted into grad school/postdocs). However, value can come from another source. It could be advice or guidance in an area of a person’s life where they are struggling.
Want to know a secret? The best relationships and connections are typically formed in the latter, not the former. Part of the challenge of networking and creating connections is finding out what the other person may be lacking and helping them fill that need (professionally or personally).
Why put in all of this extra effort? For this simple reason: you could develop a lifelong collaborator and friend versus someone who you may email every once in a while. Which one seems like a better connection? I’m betting most of you would love to have the former.
The bottom line is: having a strong network of people to bounce ideas off of and gain advice from sounds pretty awesome, right?
Assessing the three areas of need
I originally read about this idea in books focusing on entrepreneurism. They emphasized developing strong, rapid connections that help accelerate a founder’s progress in the business world. The authors propose a model which categorizes the three primary needs people have. This runs under the assumption that when all of these needs are met, a person is “fulfilled”. These three categories fill various physical, mental, and emotional needs which account for everyday well-being. Check out the diagram below:
Health: This is anything involving physical health and fitness. This includes daily exercise rituals, mindfulness, and diet. Fulfilling the needs of health tends to be a large struggle in Western countries. To put this in perspective, millions of dollars are spent every year on dieting books, health products, and personal trainers to fill this need.
Relationships: This area can be seen as the social area. This area consists of connections with friends, family, and intimate partners. This can be a struggle for both aspiring and practicing professionals. Many life coaches thrive in this area because the demand is so great.
Work: This encompasses what a person does for a living and accompanying finances. However, it’s not just the career or money; it’s the fulfillment they get from performing their craft. This tends to be where many people in their 20-30’s struggle and why the mid-life crisis can set in the 40-50’s.
Remember when I said that a person would be fulfilled when all these three needs are sufficiently met? Unfortunately, it is rare to have all three completely met. Even Fortune 500 CEO’s and big wig scientists struggle in at least one of these areas. Meeting the needs in each area is a constant challenge and requires large amounts of energy to maintain.
This brings us back to networking. You need to ask yourself a simple question. What could you bring to this person’s life that they may be lacking? When you’re able to recognize a potential need and you can make it easier for them to fulfill it, it creates a powerful connection. This is where great networking takes place.
Great, how do I recognize a potential need?
In being genuinely curious of how a person operates, it can be fairly simple to find where a person may be lacking. Most of the time, seeing potential areas where they may be struggling comes through normal conversation. Once you recognize it, you can do a mental assessment on whether you can help fulfill a particular need they lack.
Pictured: scientists communicating in their natural environment.
It is up to you to determine if you can go beyond offering just a skill and provide assistance for a particular need. It doesn’t have to be groundbreaking advice or input; it can simply be something that you have implemented that has been effective. You don’t need to be a fitness guru, family therapist, or motivational speaker. Talk about what works for you and offer it as a potential solution to their problem.
Let’s take a look at how we can approach some common examples:
If they talk about health, do they have a ritualistic workout plan? Or do they lament finding time to go to the gym?
Let’s assume that they want to get in better shape or change their diet, but just cannot find the time to do so. You may recognize that you had recent success with working out early in the morning and having pre-cooked meals ready for the week. You may even have a resource that helps busy professionals be healthier. Talk about your experience and how it worked for you. When you offer a suggestion with personal experience, it won’t seem pushy or forced. It will seem like it naturally came up. From there, if they want to know more, they’ll ask for it!
If they discuss family, do they talk at length about their daughter’s piano expertise? Or do they wish they had more hours in the day to see their kids?
Let’s assume that they want to spend more time with their kids. If you’re a family person and have figured out a great time management method, talk about it. Offer it as a potential solution to their current dilemma. In general, this area is a bit tougher for graduate students to relate to (many of us don’t have children). However, if you know a friend that has implemented a great strategy, offer it as a potential template. Again, if they want to know more, they’ll ask!
If their career comes up, do they sound happy, fulfilled, and full of energy? Or do they sound like the soul is getting sucked out of them?
Personally, I think this is the most fun to discuss and dig into. If the person doesn’t light up when they talk about their research or work, find out what does. Discover what they truly love in life and let them talk about it. Once you have a good idea of what they truly love, then start discussing ways they could potentially include that in their lives. If they already do what they love, try to figure out where your skillset could help them further boost that energy. This is my personal favorite to find out and explore.
Be curious and find what makes people tick!
This is the biggest lesson in assessing and offering value. If you find out where they could fill a need and you may have a solution, offer some guidance. Encourage them to pursue something that will fulfill one (or more) of their needs. You shouldn’t see this as a way to just climb the ladder in academia/industry/etc. It’s a way to create deeper connections and enrich people’s lives who would otherwise stumble in the dark. Be that person that makes them the best they can possibly be. And you never know, this person may resonate with your words so well that you become great friends. This is great networking. When you make strangers and professionals your friends!
With this in mind, go and create some new connections today. Your future self will thank you later.
Thank you for reading. Apologies for the delay, please let me know your thoughts. I would appreciate your input!