The Power of Networking: A Personal Anecdote
By Michelle Chow
Eleven years ago, I moved from Australia to the United States. The move required me to look for a new job. I had completed my laboratory-based PhD a year and a half prior to this. During my study, I realised that a career in research was not for me. I have always loved science at a conceptual level, but I just didn’t have the right kind of patience for research. Ideally, I was looking for a science-related job that didn’t involve working in a laboratory—possibly something related to communications.
This coincided with an international move with my husband, which meant finding a new job in the science sector in a new country—it was a daunting prospect! A friend told me that the key to finding a new job would be networking. From my experience, networking is something that Americans are very good at doing, but Australians don’t seem to naturally have this inclination. As a reserved person, this initially sounded quite challenging to me. However, I pressed ahead with my new project: finding a job. Specific actions that I took included:
- ordering business cards for myself as a science communications professional to hand out
- attending jobs fairs, seminars, workshops and any meetings that seemed even tenuously relevant
- following up chance encounters with requests for one-on-one meetings
- volunteering for organisations to continue building my skill base, as well as keeping my resume active.
Soon, I found myself developing a new skill set: the confidence to promote myself by approaching virtual strangers in person or via email and say, ‘I’d like to talk’. Some people responded positively and warmly, while others didn’t respond at all. I learned to roll with the punches and seize every opportunity to connect with people.
In the end, the volunteering work was critical to my success on two fronts. I volunteered for a public health advocacy group. My role included writing fact sheets and analysing the current knowledge base and funding situation for lung disease. In the interview for what would become my eventual job, this volunteer work was what my future employer asked about. It seemed a little odd to me—I had only volunteered for about six weeks. The whole experience only accounted for one or two lines of my resume! However, in hindsight it was a really was a great match for the job that I eventually accepted. It was a great example of something that didn’t necessarily seem to be significant at the time, but turned out to be very relevant.
Secondly, I connected with a group of people who had worked together at a biotech company and were building a new non-profit organization focused on sustainability. These people were supportive in all sorts of ways; they provided opportunities for me to write for their seminar series, welcomed me to their grants committee and met with me on an individual basis to talk more about their own careers. One day, someone from the grants committee put me in touch with her friend who was a scientific careers officer at a major research institute in the region. This connection meant my resume was passed to potential employers within the institute—people I had not personally met—and eventually landed on the desk of my future boss: the director of the institute and a Nobel laureate!
Out of the blue, I received an email from the director’s personal assistant, who invited me to ‘come in for a chat about a project that he had been thinking about’. Six months after arriving in the United States, I was offered a position that enabled me to expand my skills in science communications and project management, but also allowed me to work with some of the leading scientists in the region. In that role, I learned many things, but the one thing that I will take with me is the words of my boss: ‘If you don’t know how to do something, then ask someone who does know.’ This is a testament to the power of networking!
While this story ends happily due to my professional success, equally important were the lessons that I learned about myself and what I could achieve through networking and advancing myself. I remember with great fondness and gratitude the wonderful people who helped me along the way—people who were willing to share their knowledge and opportunities with me. It also made me resolve to help anyone in similar circumstances in the future. The process of finding myself a job in a new city—where I had no previous contacts—was challenging, but ultimately fulfilling, both professionally and personally.
I have the power of networking to thank for it!