10 Networking Event Hacks for Transitioning Academics

As a career changer with a PhD, it is crucial for you to branch out and meet professionals working in your sector of interest. Networking events, even in their virtual format, are one of the ways in which you can meet professionals as you transition out of academia.

Attending networking events, when done well, can be worthwhile. One of the advantages is that you get to meet several people in a short amount of time. However, they can be stressful, especially if you are not sure what to expect.

Here are ten tips to help you prepare and get the most out of the networking events you attend.

1. Practice talking to people about your post-PhD career transition

If you are fortunate enough to talk openly about your post-PhD career transition, practice talking about your transition.

Polish your elevator pitch in low-stakes environments before you attend. Practice with your siblings, tell your significant other, talk to your friends. You never know who might have connections to someone working in your desired industry. (It could even be your academic advisor.)

Test out your elevator pitch on multiple people to see how they react and work on refining your presentation so it makes sense to non-academic employers.

2. Choose networking events strategically

When transitioning to a new career path after your PhD, you need to do a lot of networking. Professional networking events can be a great place to start connecting with professionals who are working in your sector of interest. If you already have some local connections in the field you are targeting, it’s good to ask which networking events are worthwhile. Your connections’ inside knowledge and experience can save you time and energy.

Sites like Meetup.com and Eventbrite will list events searchable by interest and location. Many of these events are now online due to Covid-19. It’s best to choose groups that are hosted by local companies or professional groups. Many Meetups are actually amateur groups or social clubs, so read carefully.

You can also search for events by following companies of interest on social media (e.g. Twitter, LinkedIn).

Professional conferences are another type of networking event you may want to consider. Some major conferences have volunteer programs that will let you attend for a reduced rate. If you are still in your PhD program, ask about student rates. You can also request a discount code, which can help defray the cost for cash-strapped contingent academics.

3. Set realistic networking goals for yourself

Make yourself a networking event calendar that is reasonable. Consider your stamina level and how much time you can realistically set aside to attend networking events.

Select those events that you judge worthwhile, those that in business terminology would give you the biggest return on investment (ROI). Your energy and your time are valuable (and limited!) and you need to use these resources wisely.

Before attending an event, set yourself a measurable goal, whether it is a time limit (e.g. “I’ll stay for an hour, then leave”) or a specific number of people with whom you would like to meet. Two or three meaningful conversations could be a great starting point.

“Zoom fatigue” is a real thing, so even if participating in virtual networking seems easy, don’t overestimate your bandwidth for attending online events. With experience, you will understand what your personal limits are and work around them.

4. Prepare before you arrive

To manage your networking anxiety, prepare as much as possible.

Set aside a half hour before the event to do some preparatory research. Read some details about the hosting company or group on their website, on LinkedIn, or on social media. People may ask you if you are familiar with their company, and you want to be able to say that you are.

The hosting companies could have recruiters or directors present at the event. Attending the event is your chance to ask informed questions about the company and see if it could be a good fit for you.

If you’re attending an in-person event, design and print some professional business cards. You can easily make your own business card using a free design tool site like Canva.com. Canva offers a printing service, but you can also download your design and have your cards printed at a local print shop (e.g. Staples) for a reasonable price.

Prepare a brief introduction for yourself. Having your introduction ready will greatly reduce your fear of not knowing what to say when people start interacting. The people you meet will want to know who you are as a professional, where you work, how you heard about the event, and why you are at the event. Depending on the type of event you attend, you may be asked to present yourself to the whole group.

5. Stick out in a good way

It can be intimidating to walk into a room or virtual chat full of people you don’t know, especially if everyone seems to know each other. Try to use the novelty of your presence to your advantage. People are naturally curious and they’ll want to know who you are and what you do. Make eye contact, smile, and let the friendly people come to you.

6. Meet the organizers or hosts

Try to meet the organizers of the event. If you signed up for a Meetup or professional association event, you might be able to look up this person’s information ahead of time.

Event organizers will be happy you showed up and may even introduce you to others. 

7. Let others do the talking

It’s quite normal to feel unprepared when attending a professional event in a different industry. You are used to being an expert in your field, and the experience can be unsettling.

People will be using jargon that is unfamiliar to you. There may even be a different dress code that will make you stand out from the crowd.

To manage the anxiety, try re-framing the networking event as a learning opportunity. After all, you have a PhD and you love to learn. You are in a room full of subject matter experts who really know the field you are interested in pursuing. Ask many questions. People love to talk about themselves and what they do. You will come across as interested and curious.

8. Collect information and follow up

Bring a notebook and pen with you and jot down notes when taking short breaks or immediately after the event. Store any useful information you collected about the people you met, companies, or potential leads.

Some people will give you their business card or contact information. You can jot down a few words about your conversation on each one to help jog your memory. You will be thankful you took those notes when you follow up with your new contacts on LinkedIn or by email.

You have a PhD and know how to keep track of a vast amount of information. You’ve got this!

Reach out within a few days of the event and send a LinkedIn note or an email to thank every person with whom you had a good conversation.

9. Ask for a one-on-one conversation

The ultimate goal of networking is establishing relationships that are genuine. Foster those connections that seem more meaningful in an authentic way by continuing your conversation with them.

If you meet someone at the networking event that has potential advice or that may be a good contact in your post-PhD career transition, you can ask for a one-on-one conversation. Schedule an informational interview with this person. You’ll have the chance to prepare additional questions before your next conversation.

10. Reward yourself and recharge

Networking, when done well, is worth your time, but it can also be exhausting and stressful.

After meeting your networking goal for the event, leave and give yourself time to recharge. Reward yourself with something you enjoy: a quiet walk, a chocolate sundae, a good book, or a phone call with a friend.

Make sure to get sufficient rest before you move on to the next scheduled event on your calendar.

Meet other PhDs who are transitioning to industry and expand your professional network by joining the Beyond the Professoriate Community on LinkedIn.

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