Image credit: C. Aycock/Science based on image by grmarc/iStock
"I got invited for an interview!" Sandra exclaims, doing a small dance of joy.
"Congratulations!" Frank laughs.
"Where?" Dori asks excitedly. The three classmates are all close to finishing their Ph.D.s in conservation biology and are trying to figure out what they're going to do next.
"At that small environmental agency I told you about."
"Ooh, I am jealous!" Dori squeaks. "How did you manage that?"
"I met this woman who is a project leader there. We had an interesting chat about her work and my ambitions. Last week, I decided to submit an unsolicited application to the head of the department I'm interested in. I sent my resume and mentioned in a cover letter that I had a great conversation with the project leader. The agency just phoned me to invite me for an interview!"
"Apparently, it really helps if you know someone in the organization," Frank says. He attended a career coaching session a month earlier where the coach suggested that the easiest way to get a job is to tap your network. It had left him with an awful sinking feeling. He worried his network isn't strong enough to land a postdoc, let alone a job outside the ivory tower.
"I am sure the informational interview helped," Sandra agrees.
"I wish I had put more time into networking before this pandemic," Dori says.
Frank nods. "I haven't met anyone in the last year! All events are either canceled or online these days."
"That doesn't mean you can't network!" Sandra exclaims. "I met this woman a few weeks ago, online. She was one of the speakers at a virtual event about water management. I just wrote her a message afterward and asked her to meet for a virtual coffee. To be honest, for me, networking has gotten much easier since the pandemic."
She remembers the challenge of wriggling through crowded conference room happy hours in search of a conversation partner. She enjoyed the chance encounters but found the setting draining. "I am not at my best between long sessions of scientific talks. The balancing act of pacifying my growling stomach and having an engaging conversation isn't for me."
Frank and Dori nod in agreement.
"I hate it when the other person asks me something at the very moment I take a bite," Frank says. "I chew as fast as I can, not even tasting the food, just to be able to answer."
"Not to mention that nobody smells like roses after a long day of conferencing—myself included," Dori adds.
"During online meetings, you don't have to fight through a crowd to get to the person you want to talk to," Sandra says. "On top of that, I really like that we can skip the whole empty small talk opening act. Because the conversations are planned, I know who I'm talking to. I've already seen their profiles on LinkedIn or on their organization's website. I write them a message saying what I would like to talk about, and then we meet for an online coffee. It's less spontaneous, but also less random."
"How do you select people to contact?" Frank asks.
"And what do you write them?" Dori adds.
"I mostly write to speakers, sometimes to other attendees. I say that I really enjoyed their talk or found their comment thought-provoking. Sometimes I ask a question or share an article they might find interesting. It is a quick thing to do!"
"And then you ask them to meet?" Dori asks.
"Just some of them. For the people I'm really interested in connecting with, I know that exchanging a few words over email or in a chat during a meeting won't be memorable. So, if I have the feeling it would be fun to talk to them, I invite them for a virtual coffee."
"But still, you meet fewer people online than at an in-person conference, right?" Frank asks.
"In a single day, yes. I don't attend any conference dinners where I talk to five or six new people at once. But I attend more meetings these days than I normally would. Without travel costs, it's financially feasible. And I don't have to worry about not knowing anyone and awkwardly sitting by myself the whole time," Sandra laughs. "I also meet interesting people in LinkedIn groups and on ResearchGate."
"With conferences, I can see how you find interesting people to talk to—they give an inspiring talk and you follow up," Dori says. "But I find it quite hard to identify interesting people on social media."
"It's a bit more difficult," Sandra agrees. "What works for me is asking for advice. I post questions about techniques, papers, protocols, writing—whatever's on my mind. That offers an easy way to forge a connection. I reply to all the responses I get and follow up with a few of them."
"You need courage for all that!" Frank says.
"I was hesitant at first," Sandra agrees. "But my flatmate encouraged me. She does it all the time. She's a freelance science illustrator and gets lots of jobs this way. And now I have an interview! I better start to prepare."
The moral of the story
At first glance, the COVID-19 pandemic may seem disastrous for networking. Upon closer inspection, though, this new environment offers some benefits—if you can adjust your approach.
Get comfortable with the technology. Invest 10 minutes in learning the features of the conference platform. Get familiar with your camera and your microphone. Make sure people can see and hear you! Sign in with your full name, so people can Google you and get in touch afterward. If a conference is using buggy or dysfunctional software, consider skipping it. If you can't communicate properly, how can you give and receive valuable feedback?
Engage. The chat function in most conferencing and social media software elevates networking opportunities to the next level. You can ask questions at any time. You can answer questions other people raised; build upon their input; and share information of interest, such as a link to a related paper, with the entire group. You can also send private messages to make one-on-one connections—for example, "Great seeing you again!" or "Great comment. I'd love to discuss this in more detail; drop me an email at … ."
Follow up. Finally, take the initiative to invite the people you are most interested in connecting with for a virtual one-on-one. If you're feeling hesitant, remember that we are all in the same boat, looking for opportunities to meet new people and network in this virtual world, so it isn't a strange request. Don't be afraid to ask!
Philipp Gramlich (NaturalScience.Careers) and David Giltner (TurningScience) contributed to this article. Philipp combines industry and academic experience in his workshops and talks for scientists. David teaches scientists how to design and build rewarding careers in industry.
Karin Bodewits is an author, a speaker, and the co-founder of NaturalScience.Careers.