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By Crystal Bailey
You’ve probably heard the phase, “it isn’t what you know, but who you know” when referring to finding new professional opportunities. And even though it might fly in the face of what you have experienced as a physics graduate student—where you’re used to being evaluated primarily on your physics knowledge—who you know is indeed the single most important factor when it comes to furthering your career, whether in or out of academia.
It has been estimated that approximately 70 percent of people have gotten their professional breaks through their network . This means that your chances of being successful at connecting with a potential employer or with someone whose career you’re interested in learning more about in an informational interview depends greatly on how well you’ve been able to build and leverage your own professional network (for more information about informational interviews, please visit our Online Professional Guidebook).
Why “Cold Calling/Emailing” Seldom Works
These days we are all constantly bombarded with requests for our attention through phone calls and emails. Busy professionals are constantly having to decide where to focus their energy based on the return on investment of a response. Some requests merit immediate action (such as those tied to that person carrying out their job responsibilities). Others are less immediate and can be responded to when, or if, the person has time. Still others offer no direct benefit to the person for responding; these requests may be ignored. The problem with cold calls/emails is that they usually fall in the last category—if the person doesn’t stand to gain something from the interaction, they are less likely to respond. The challenge facing job seekers who wish to reach someone in a company is standing out above the “noise” of the requests that bring little to no return on investment for that person.
However, one thing that works to your advantage is our natural tendency to respond to those we have something in common with. Imagine meeting someone at a conference who grew up in your same hometown, was advised by one of your collaborators, or was a friend of one of your friends, as opposed to someone without that common background. Perhaps you would feel more drawn to the person with whom you had a shared experience. The truth is that when we are able to reach out to someone through a shared connection—a mutual friend, membership in a society, or shared alma mater—we rise above the “potential energy barrier” which keeps all those other requests the other person is dealing with at bay. This makes that person more likely to help us by giving us information, or by helping us find the right contact for insights into a job opportunity.
How to Build a Useful Network
One way to build a professional network is to take advantage of membership in professional societies or alumni groups. As an APS member you have access to the membership database, which you can use to search for other members by company, government lab, and other types of affiliation—you can even narrow the search down to your state to identify local contacts. Through your institution’s alumni office, you can gain access to information about what former physics graduates of that institution are doing, along with their contact information. Contacts gathered through either of these means would be a great first step in building more professional relationships. When you reach out to these individuals, be sure to mention your shared connection through APS or your institution.
You should also take advantage of professional society meetings to expand your network. Most of these meetings have built-in opportunities for attendees to meet each other (e.g. receptions, lunches, happy hours). Attend these kinds of events whenever possible, and be prepared to talk to everyone you meet about your professional goals. You will be amazed at how many opportunities you can uncover through informal conversations.
Lastly, you should take advantage of resources such as LinkedIn®. LinkedIn® is a powerful tool because it can give you access to all of your 1st degree (people you know directly) and 2nd degree (people who your 1st degree connections know) connections at a glance. Let’s say you wanted to find someone in a specific company to contact for an informational interview. You could go into LinkedIn® and perform a people search, typing the company name in the “Current Company” field, and checking the 1st and 2nd degree connection boxes in the search window. Each of those search results would show you your shared connections to that person, i.e. your 1st degree connections who could provide an email introduction for you. Having that mutual contact introduce you to this new person takes the guesswork out of how to reach out—and as we’ve already discussed, it will also increase the likelihood that they will respond to your request for help.
Taking advantage of your professional network is the best way to learn about opportunities outside of your immediate sphere of experience. However, if all else fails, and you find yourself in a position where a cold call or email is the only option, do your research and try to contact the person who has experience most relevant to your interests—and if possible, try to offer something in return for the exchange, for example helping them to solve a technical problem or providing them with information on a topic that you have some expertise in. With patience, and through trying a variety of techniques, you should successfully be able to forge a variety of personal connections that will benefit your professional development for years to come.
The author is Careers Program Manager at APS. This article was originally published in the APS Forum on Graduate Student Affairs newsletter. For more career resources, visit the Careers page.
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