Isolation and lack of information is one of the biggest challenges for many postdocs. A research career is tremendously complex with many different possible paths to take. On top of this rules and benchmarks change constantly, such as for grant applications or what it takes to be competitive for an upcoming job.
Therefore, gathering information from those ‘in the know‘ is an essential part of how you want to use your network. In the first part of this blog post I’ll give you some ideas for types of people to add to your network and where to find them. In the second part I’ll introduce a good way to ‘pick the brain’ of these contacts by conducting informational interviews.
There are two common scenarios for the kind of insights you are after:
1. You want to apply for a grant / fellowship or teaching position in the next couple of years
Find people who have recently won these grant or have been appointed at the level you are aiming for. Hearing about what they had to do to win is some of the best ‘intelligence’ you can gather. It can also be a great motivation booster if you realise that you are not far off being competitive for a win like this. Or you may find that you have to improve dramatically in a few areas – which is why you want to gather this information well ahead of your actual application.
Where do you find these contacts? Start with your own place of work as grant winners or new teaching staff are usually announced by email. Ask administrative staff in the human resource section or those dealing with grant administration about recent winners or new staff members. If you cannot find contacts there, grant agencies usually provide a list of their winners on their website. Find out about new staff members from friends or colleagues in organisations that offer the kind of academic positions you are interested in.
Find senior people who sit on the selection panels for the grant or positions you aspire to. Since you are not currently in the running for a particular job or grant there is no issue of conflict of interest. So these contacts should be happy to provide you with general advice and discuss what kind of track records and other achievements are expected to win the types of positions or grants you are after.
Where to find these contacts? For academic jobs you do not need to look far beyond your current institution. Winners for lecturing positions are usually selected internally by senior colleagues, so this may include your supervisor or other senior academics you know. Panel members of funding bodies, especially large national funding bodies, might be a little harder to find and meet. Often institutions will provide information session for specific funding sources where they invite panel members to talk about their experience. These sessions are well worth attending, even if your own application date is some time in the future.
2. You want to find out about your career options beyond academia
The main two options, remaining in academia as a full-time researcher or as a lecturer are obviously well represented where you work, so finding people who can tell you about these career paths is -relatively- easy.
However, while working in an academic institution it can be surprisingly difficult to identify people with research background who have moved beyond academia. So where do you find people who can tell you about other career options?
- Within your institution look for people who are not in an academic position but have a PhD. So obviously they have a research background but may be working in grant administration, as a staff researcher responsible for high-tech equipment or are in research administration roles.
- Ask your friends, colleagues and family about people they know in different careers.
- Go to networking functions of industry associations in the areas you are interested in, for example associations of scientific writers, research commercialisation, or industry associations that deal with your specific research area such as health, technology or the environment.
Once identified, how do you meet these important contacts and ‘pick their brains’?
You arrange an informational interview. The term sounds rather formal but the idea is to meet up with someone, either in person or on the phone and ask them about their experiences and insights. It is important to remember that in an informational interview you are not asking for a job, or trying to impress them with what you do. You ask them to talk about themselves and their experience.
The great thing about this type of networking is that the pressure is off you (since you don’t need to perform) and the other person feels valued and gets to talk about their successes and experiences. What a great start to a potential professional relationship!
So how does an informational interview work?
– Use email or other messaging (such as LinkedIn) to make the first contact and arrange a meeting either in person or on the phone. If you have only a couple of short questions to ask then an email exchange may be sufficient. For any more extensive questions you are unlikely to get a comprehensive answer via email and you won’t have a chance to really build a relationship.
– Meeting in person is usually the best option for building relationships. Arrange to meet for a coffee or visit the other person in their office if appropriate.
– A phone or skype exchange is a good idea if your contact can’t meet you in person because of distance or time constraints.
How do you conduct an informational interview?
– These conversations should be relatively short (20-45 min) so you are not taking up too much of the other person’s time (especially if you have just met them).
– Prepare your questions beforehand so you make best use of the time.
– What questions to ask? Here is a good list of questions for academia and non-academic informational interviews.
– Keep an eye on time. Ask how much time the other person has available and try to finish the meeting on time.
– Who pays? Usually you would at least offer to pay for anything consumed if you met at a coffee shop for example. If the other person insists on paying (because they are very senior to you for example) you can then negotiate or just say ‘thank you, that is very kind of you’.
– Thank-you note. Always write at least a thank-you email within a couple of days after the meeting. You may decide to be ‘old-fashioned‘ and send a thank-you card, which is usually over-the-top for a short 20 min meeting but would be appropriate and well-received if the person spent considerable time and effort on your behalf, for instance invited you to see their workplace and arranged meetings with others. Since people rarely receive cards these days you will stand out with your good manners.
Informational interviews are an excellent way to expand your network with useful contacts and gather up-to-date ‘insider’ information at the same time. It might take a little courage to get started if you don’t do this kind of networking naturally, but the benefits are well worth getting into the habit for.