Career Options Job Hunting Tips

Networking for PhD Students.

How begin networking effortlessly whilst still maximising your career prospects.

Networking is by far the most powerful weapon to have when it comes to finding a job. Even more so when you are looking to career change out of academia. Majority of advice on the internet is to ‘attend conferences’, ‘attend networking events’ and so forth – however this can be extremely daunting and can quite frankly feel like a waste of time. But we keep doing it anyway because that’s the advice that has been given to us. However, networking is quite a loose term and there’s actually a lot of different ways to go about it. Being a PhD student, I have my own take on how to do this ‘most effectively’. In other words, you want to be able to invest as little time and energy as possible but at the same time generate the best possible return.

Firstly, networking is, in its most simplistic term “the action or process of interacting with others to exchange information and develop professional or social contacts”. When looking for career prospects, you network with others to try and get insider information about job opportunities, maybe they can pass your CV onto someone important, or they can pull some strings behind the scenes wherever they work to get you ‘seen’ by someone. In theory, this all makes sense and I’m on board with it. However, being told to attend ‘conferences’ or ‘networking events’ probably isn’t the best way to go about it. We’ve all been to those conferences and come back feeling as though it was a complete waste of time. But why is this?

It boils down to a few simple things. These interactions with complete strangers are not organic. They are forced, orchestrated, and quite rigid conversations about what you do, and potential opportunities. In my personal experience, the best opportunities or job offers I received have come from people I work with closely on a day to day basis, or people I socialise with outside of work, or people who I can relate to on a more personal level. It’s usually the most successful when I’m having an informal conversation with someone about my job or career – after we’ve finished talking about cats or something else that’s really unimportant – and then they put forward an opportunity that I might be suitable for. Alternatively, nothing happens, and then months later they get in touch about an ‘opportunity that I would be great for’. Boom. Organic, natural, and it feels effortless.

‘Yo, check out this cat’

To achieve similar situations in your job hunting you want to break this down into 4 simple steps. First thing first, get honest with your career goals. Even if you haven’t got a clue about what you’re trying to do long term. Admit that and be aware of it. This might take some time, especially if you are divorcing the idea of being an academic. Once you’ve taken ownership of your current situation it allows you to be more open and honest with other people. Moreover, don’t be shy about it. When you’re catching up with friends over dinner, or you bump into someone in a training session at your University, or you meet a friend of a friend at a party, they might ask you ‘so what do you do’, or ‘what are you going to do when you finish your PhD’, this is your chance to just say it how it is. No bullshit.

The amount of times I’ve said to people that ‘I cannot wait for my PhD to be over’, or ‘once I’ve finished, I’m going to career change’ or ‘I have no idea what I’m going to do next’ is countless. Most people find it quite relieving to hear that someone ‘with a PhD’ hasn’t got it all figured out, but on occasion someone will say to me, ‘oh really, well there’s this job at so and so which you might want to think about’, or ‘I had a friend who did that, now he works at X’, or ‘I work for X, if you apply I can give you my referral code’. Bingo. These are the interactions you want and is a sign you’re networking in the right way. Because you’re being genuine with people, they’re way more inclined to be genuine with you and offer some constructive help if they have any. Similarly, because they know you on a more personal level – as a friend, acquaintance or colleague – they’re more likely to help you out. In other words, just be a nice, sociable person, interact with others, make friends, be honest about your career and sew them seeds.

The second key thing to bear in mind is just a basic statistical concept called probability. The same goes for networking events, or networking conferences, but the more people you network with, the higher your chances of one of them paying off. Taking the previous point into consideration, you should be telling everyone you know about your current job situation, not because of self-pity and you most certainly shouldn’t be banging on about it. Nobody likes that friend who wallows in their jobless life. But when people ask, you should mention it, when people ask how your life is going or what you’re up to at the moment, don’t be shy to throw the subject in. The more people you make aware of it in your informal interactions and social situations, the higher chances you have of someone helping you out.

The third ingredient is ‘diversity’, and not the kind of advice you give to your HR department #SorryNotSorry. But on a more serious note, telling other PhD students, or other academics that ‘you’re looking for a job outside of academia’ will only get you so far. What you’re actually doing is just shouting into an echo chamber. The advice you get back will mostly be the same, or they won’t have any clue about leaving academia, they might recommend post-docs (which you shouldn’t do), the connections they have will be mostly the same, and this will only limit the number of opportunities you are exposed to. At the start of your career change, you shouldn’t be too fixated on one particular job role or company, you want to be open minded as possible. You do not want to make career changing harder than it already is (I mean PhD students do seem to like suffering), but also because you’ve been stuck in academia for so long, you probably haven’t got a very good understanding of what is actually out there. This links back to the other two points, be honest and tell everyone. By talking to people outside of work, or conferences, or networking events you’ll get greater exposure from people working in different fields or industries. You’ll get a mixture of insights and job prospects that you wouldn’t have otherwise got if you continued to tell only the 3 people who sit next to you whilst you write a publication. The diversity and different types of people you tell about your current situation is key. This may also help you work out what you want to do if you’re unsure, some people may tell you about jobs that sound awful to you, others might tell you things that seem intriguing or spark your curiosity to find out more. All of this is part of the process when career changing and networking.

To recap, don’t put all your eggs in one basket and hyper focus on conferences or networking events. Take advantage of your social circle and the people who care about you on a more personal level. Take ownership of your situation, be honest with others, speak to as many people as you can, make sure you speak to different types of people and most importantly, good luck!

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