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Forget about networking

Marc Kuchner argues that if scientists really want to advance their careers, they should concentrate instead on just making friends.

I'm a staff scientist who mentors PhD students and a few years ago I started writing a book called Marketing for Scientists hoping it would help the young scientists in my group find jobs. In the midst of the writing, I attended a conference about science careers that aimed to teach networking skills. Every PhD student at the conference was handed a notebook and a pen and told to gather signatures from other attendees. If you collected at least 20 signatures, you could hand in your notebook at the end of the conference and win some kind of prize. Of course, the real prize was supposed to be the process of collecting the signatures – in other words, the networking.

What a disaster! All day long, students came up to me and shoved notebooks at me to sign before dashing off into the crowd, barely taking a moment to chat. I did have a few non-superficial interactions with students at the meeting. But my overall impression was that the well-intentioned networking game had mostly turned into a farce that reflected a common misunderstanding in the scientific community about how and why we should try to meet new people while we are building our careers.

I say: forget networking. Building the relationships you need for your scientific career is just like making friends when you're a kid. Let me try to show you what I mean.

Making friends: a review
Think about how you used to make friends when you were eight. There's a bit of ritual to it. Say you happen to sit or stand next to someone at the playground and you think you might want to be friends. What do you do? Never mind getting their signature – the first thing you should do is to learn and memorize their name.

Names are really important, though I find that we scientists often neglect to learn the names of colleagues we meet. Some scientists complain that learning names is hard, but I say that if you can learn 10 digits of pi and memorize half the periodic table – and I suspect you have done both – you have no excuse not to learn some new names every now and then when you go to a conference.

The next step in the friendship ritual is finding something in common. What do you like to eat? Macaroni? Me too! Where do you live? Oh, I live near a big tree as well. The questions might become a little more sophisticated than that if you're a biophysicist or an astronomer, but not by much. You can always talk about your work, but the more things you have in common, the better, so it helps to talk about subjects other than physics.

If you meet someone at school and then go home and never see that person again, you haven't made much of a friend, right? So if you meet someone at a conference whom you want to get to know, you have to find that person again – soon. That means finding an excuse to see that person a second time at the conference if possible. Maybe you could have lunch. Or maybe on the last day of the meeting, you could seek them out to say goodbye. After that, building the relationship means following up after the meeting, finding an excuse to work together on something and turning the relationship into a partnership. If you want these subsequent encounters to go well, you will have to listen to this new person you're meeting, and pay attention. Listening is part of making friends, and this is a step that scientists easily forget.

Now, all of these steps take time. You might not get to make 20 new friends at every meeting you attend. This means you'll have to pick and choose whom you want to get to know – ideally it will include some people who are in positions to help your career.

But at some point, if you pick the right people and you stick with them, you will start to feel the warmth of your relationships increase. You'll find you have someone you can share things with – a chocolate chip cookie, a Star Wars figure, maybe even a grant proposal. You may find a new mentor or perhaps a new student. You don't go in and just ask for lots of favours right off the bat, of course. But as time goes by, you may find you want to do kind things for this person because they are your friend, and vice versa. For the sake of your career, that is where you want your relationships to go – because in the agonizing hunt for a job in physics, you need advocates who believe in you so much, they will take the risk of recommending you to their colleagues. That's a much bigger risk than signing your notebook.

Beyond virtual
When I talked to my PhD student, Erika Nesvold, about the networking process, I discovered another pitfall involved in teaching young scientists to network. She told me, "They keep advising us to network, network, network. After a while it becomes redundant. Because we are networked. We're the generation that invented Facebook." Indeed, the newest generation of scientists has grown up immersed in a flood of new communication tools, which make some aspects of relationship-building easier.

But I don't think Facebook is the solution to the networking problem; neither is any social-networking site. Facebook is a great way to keep up with old friends, but have you ever noticed how hard it is to get to know new people when you only communicate online? I think this is because you cannot have a proper argument online. Without the non-verbal communication that you get face to face, what happens instead when you have an argument is more like a shouting match or a flame war. And if you cannot argue and then make up, you cannot have a relationship with any real depth to it. Unless you're very careful or very lucky, your online relationships tend to stay superficial – and, I find, unnaturally cheerful – until you actually speak on the phone, or better yet, meet them in person.

A superficial level of interaction has only limited use for building your scientific career and, ultimately, it is our real friends who bring us satisfaction in life. Nobody wants to die surrounded by a list of signatures, Facebook "likes" or even Twitter followers. We want to be surrounded by real friends. The same principle applies to careers. Like me, you probably went into physics partly because of the interesting people you would get to meet – so don't waste your time "networking" instead of really getting to know them. Just like macaroni, chocolate chip cookies and Stars Wars figures, physics is more fun when you share it.

Marc Kuchner is an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, US, and the author of Marketing for Scientists: How to Shine in Tough Times (Island Press, 2012), e-mail, @marckuchner on Twitter (but bring a cookie)

This article appeared in the February 2013 issue of Physics World.

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