It is without a doubt that we live in a meritocracy; i.e. a society that has a built in rank and opportunity based on certificates, degrees, and records to determine worth. This is not unique to the realm of science, where indeed we are pigeon holed by our degrees, but can be seen in all sectors of our society. However, we are not just bound by our degrees but by our institutions and our associations. While this may not be ideal for your self esteem, it establishes a simplification of social dynamics that is almost formulaic in nature. Given that we can not radically alter our scholastic training, from scientist to engineer; nor institutional associations, from Mayo to U of MN; we can assume those variables to be fixed. What is left in the equation is our associations. How can we rise above the mass of others who have obtained the same degrees and fit the same requirements for a given job? How can we rise above the meritocracy of civilized society? The answer is networking. I am not the first to promulgate this point and several others have done it better than I, so I will leave it to you to examine some of the other articles on this subject to get the larger picture. (Here’s just one) However, below are four simple points to help you on your way.
1. Set up a LinkedIn Profile. Connecting with others on professional networking sites like LinkedIn is like having a live Rolodex (that was this thing that those ancient scientists all had on their desks about 100 years ago that kept track of people’s information and business cards). All anyone has to do now is update their own profile and everyone else can see where you published and on what topic, what institution you are at, and what advanced training you've received. You can even easily provide a link to the PubMed abstract of your work. And many company job sites now use LinkedIn profiles to populate their applications, which will make applying for jobs that much easier. They are easy to update and show up on all the major search engines as well. Lastly, this is not Facebook, and does not need to be associated with your Facebook account so your friends and your associates can remain separate (Your associates don't need to know what your cat is up to these days and your friends have no idea what a chemokine receptor is).
2. Get a business card. A business card does not have to be that intricate. It should simply have your name, email, phone number, highest level degree, and title as well as any additional information that you think will quickly represent your skills. This small piece of paper is the key to networking efficiently. Having several in your pocket when you give a presentation, attend a meeting, or explain your poster will allow you to dole out your personal credentials to almost everyone. Even if they don't have a job for you, they may know someone who does. A grad student from Ohio State may talk to you at a poster session and take your card. Weeks later, his mentor may mention that he really needs a post doc with skill in tetramer construction and as it just so happens our dedicated graduate student might respond with, "You know, I met a student at the Super Amazing Science (SAS) Conference last month that does just that. And I think I have her card. Here you go." (It works exactly like this every single time).
3. Attend conferences and talk to people. (See above.) Don't just give your cards out, but get them in return. Sometimes just the act of distributing your polished piece of personal advertising is enough to elicit a card in return. Otherwise, it is perfectly okay to ask for one. If the contact doesn't have a card, write down their name and contact info in your smart phone for later use. And then, follow up on any leads that you have established. (Most of your very important PIs (VIPIs) love getting emails out of the blue from students asking about post doc opportunities that they can't afford to give out because the NIH failed to renew their R01). You will have to do more work than that, but this is typically the beginning of a beautiful friendship. I would first inquire before sending them your full CV, latest publication, and glossy glamour shots; but it doesn't hurt to inquire. And it never hurts to tell someone how cool you think they are (professionally speaking that is). Sometimes they will remember your name and sometimes they will be at the next SAS conference and you can reintroduce yourself and your willingness to work for peanuts for their greater glory.
4. Connect to people though social networking. It all circles back around to social media. We live in the internet age, which is a great advantage for the advancement of knowledge and network associations (as well as for finding pictures of cats). If you spend any sort of time getting to know someone in person, send them a networking request on LinkedIn. This is not too forward, you are not asking them over for pastries, you are saying, "I met you professionally and I would like to keep in touch." This is a perfectly legitimate thing to do and a lot easier than keeping a Rolodex, like they did in the time before penicillin. If you are really ambitious you can join groups with others that share your interests and make comments on others posts or post something yourself. This is another exercise in advertising, which just may pay off. But by and large, connecting with others via social media is a passive way to keep in touch and requires very little daily effort on your behalf.
This set of rules may seem simple and they are. The advent of social media and computers make maintaining associations rather easy. And, as knowledge workers, however busy our lives may be, it is always good to know those who are in our field and even better to know what they are up to. Early in your career these associations will help you get a job and get funding and later in your career they will help you do better science. Above all, networking allows you to be more than just a statistic in a meritocratic ranking system, but a person with soft skills and motivations that are hard to establish by looking at a piece of paper.
You can find me on LinkedIn (look me up and connect) or follow my blog at http://www.transductionist.com.