Go forth and boldly network – it will pay off in a multitude of ways

By Jane O’Hara

A lot of people are scared of the concept of networking. The idea of moving around a room full of strangers , introducing yourself and giving a ‘sales pitch’ for which the product is you, especially when you perceive the people you’re trying to sell yourself to as higher in the pecking order of whichever group or field you are in (or attempting to break into) can be daunting.

When I first moved to Vancouver, arriving fresh off the plane without an offer of a job, I was advised time and time again that networking was my best hope of finding the position that I so desired. However, at that time I had moved from Ireland, where some things are done differently and the word ‘networking’ was barely in my vocabulary. If it featured at all in my previous life or career, it usually involved a conspiratorial chat at a conference or an event run by my university and was invariably conducted informally and over a glass or two of wine, and with people I already knew, or who were friends of friends. And while it seemed that in this new land, networking was a more formalised process, the similarities of how it worked quickly became apparent to the novice me.

What I’ve learned is that it’s about meeting people, getting to know them, chatting and exchanging stories, and so is very reminiscent of socialising for fun, but with a key difference: that keeping these connections, building on them and nurturing them is essential to getting your career on track as well as your social life. If you can meet someone socially and discover that they also enjoy playing volleyball and need an extra player on a Tuesday, then you can also learn by asking friendly questions that they know someone who’s hiring for a position that might just suit you down to the ground.

I have found that if you are genuinely yourself when meeting people and just talk about what you like to do and where you want to go, in terms of career as well as simply shooting the breeze about the best shopping or watering holes in Vancouver, great things can happen. Don’t forget, these people with whom you’re trying to connect are just people too and were probably in your situation once upon a time. In general they will not bite or snarl and will actually want to help you to the best of their ability – it’s human nature, and well, wouldn’t you?

Incorporating networking into my job search meant attending as many courses, workshops and events related to the research and biotechnology industries as I could fit in to each week, in between my shifts in a West Van coffee shop. I also got into the swing of being active in chatting to people attending these events about who I was and what I was interested in doing. And to my surprise, doors started opening for me. My big chance (though I didn’t know at the time how important this would be) came through a conversation with a researcher at a workshop, who was employed somewhere I would have loved to have worked. During the break I followed him from the room (in case he was leaving without me handing over my contact details!) and actually waited outside the bathroom for him, because I was so keen to present my business card and be memorable enough that he would keep me in mind if any opportunities arose in his research institute. It paid off in this case, as shortly afterwards he sent me a job ad that was not in public circulation. This job was a great fit for me and I subsequently got an interview and was offered the job. It’s worked out well for me so far and I owe this outcome to the practice of networking. Some people do manage to get jobs without using networking at all, but it can never hurt. It’s not supposed to be a quick fix but a process of building connections that last;  a network that will be there for you in the future no matter what direction your career takes over time.

A couple of other recommendations:

1. Get some business cards printed up, even if you are not currently working. It looks professional and is far smoother to hand over a card to a new contact rather than digging through your purse to find a scrap of paper on which to scribble your details.

2. Don’t underestimate the possibilities for networking while taking part in activities that interest you, whether it’s volleyball, yoga or a film club. The premise behind networking is that people like to talk! These are places where you can also build connections, in a little less formal setting, which can also be very fruitful.