Don’t let your network be like my garden

Dr. Joseph Barber

I’m not a very good gardener, although I do have some skills. I can pull up weeds, for example. I usually go for the “if it looks different from everything else it is a weed” strategy, which has its drawbacks.  Some weed-like plants actually turn out to be beautiful flowers (or they would have done if I hadn’t pulled them up). I can mow the grass quite effectively, too. I guess slicing off the top half of the grass is similar to pulling out weeds – it is more destructive than nurturing. It seems as if the nurturing part of gardening is the problem for me. I tend to over-water houseplants. “Surely they must need a drink todayI tell myself as I slowly drown them. OK, the fact that my cats chew on them doesn’t help either. Just recently, I haven’t been watering my outside plants enough. I had hoped that my “let’s hope it rains a little each day so I don’t have to water my plants” strategy was going to work, until it stopped raining, and then got very, very hot. My plants now look like this. They are very sad. I started watering them again, but it may be too late.

The network of people you build around you also needs to be nurtured. They are like my houseplants: they need to hear from you every so often, but don’t need to be drowned by a deluge of not-so-relevant information. For example, you might have recently had an informational interview with a researcher at a pharmaceutical company you are interested in, just to find out a little about the company and the person’s role. It is a great idea to keep in contact with this new addition to your network, perhaps by letting them know you have spoken to someone they referred you to, or by forwarding a paper or article that touched on something you both have in common. But, you definitely don’t want to email them every day saying: “OK, now who should I speak with?”, or “I’ve just sent off yet another job application to X Company, just wanted to let you know”. You can slowly kill off your network with too much attention – just ask my houseplants. Most people know when to stop watering their plants or pestering people in their network, but they don’t often realize that too little attention can be just as devastating. You shouldn’t network only when you need something, like a job. You need to be networking all of the time so that when you do need something, people are already thinking about you, sending you leads, recommending you, giving you referrals, and so on. People know when you are just speaking with them to get something from them, and that is not ideal for your reputation.

Networking is about a mutual sharing of information and contacts. It will pay off in the future only if you invest in your network here in the present – before you are desperately seeking a job. If you haven’t spoken to an old PhD advisor for 5 years, and now need her help in writing a letter of recommendation for a job because your postdoc is ending, it is going to be much harder to get them write a positive, convincing letter that you are the right candidate for an editorial position – especially if they had no idea you were even interested in being a journal editor. If you had kept in better contact, she would have known about the various experiences you may have sought out to gain editorial experiences, and she may have even been able to give you the name of a contact at Nature Publishing Group who, quite coincidentally, happened to be her baby-sitter’s father.

The final piece to this whole gardening/networking analogy should be clear to you by now. Whatever you do, don’t let your cats chew on people in your network; it’s not good for the plants, your cats, or your reputation. So, if you don’t have a garden to worry about, then get out there and network today! I’ll join you as soon as I have pulled up some plants that may or may not be weeds, mown the lawn, drowned my houseplants (unlike these ones, mine are all plastic now, so I can water them as much as I like), and had a long conversation with my cats about why eating plastic plants is not such a bright idea.

Author: Joseph

Joseph Barber is a Senior Associate Director at Career Services serving graduate students and postdocs. He has a PhD in animal behaviour and animal welfare, and continues to teach these subjects as an adjunct professor at Hunter College (CUNY).