by John Tuton
A graduate student recently came to see me for a follow-up visit a few weeks after we’d first met. At that meeting, she’d said she was interested in careers outside of Academia, so we’d talked about how networking could help her find out more about them. As we sat down for our follow-up meeting, I began by asking her how her networking was going. She said, in a sort of apologetic way, “I haven’t really done very much; I’m still a little shy about telling other people what I’m looking for.” I responded by saying that networking wasn’t the easiest thing to do, especially if she felt like she was “selling” herself, and suggested it might be easier if she just thought of networking as a quick check-in with friends, or a “light, social touch” just to re-establish contact with people she already knew. She replied, “Oh, I’ve done a lot of that—I must have talked to 20 or 30 of my friends since I saw you.” I asked her what they’d talked about, and she said, “Oh, you know…what sort of job they had, how they liked the company they worked for…things like that.” I immediately said, “Well, that’s the best example of networking I’ve heard in a long time—what did you find out?” After we talked more about some of the meetings she’d had, it was clear that she’d made some real progress in her job search—she’d developed a much better idea about the kinds of jobs she was qualified for and was more focused on the sort of organization she’d like to work in.
The most interesting thing she shared with me though, was that each conversation she’d had—at a family party, a college reunion, a gym etc., had begun with someone else asking her, “What do you do?” Almost always, she’d answered with only one sentence, “I’m a graduate student at Penn working on a PhD in Biochemistry—what do you do?” That answer had triggered a response, which led to her asking another question, which triggered another response. And instead of doing most of the talking, she had just kept listening to what the other person had to say, and asked them to tell her more about it.
I think one of the by-products of education is the requirement to communicate your ideas, answers, etc. in a clear, convincing way, or in other words, when you’re asked a question do most of the talking and do it well. And I think we at Career Services spend a good deal of our time counseling students on how to do just that, especially in a job interview. But how much more effective it would be if we also reinforced a student’s ability to listen, especially when networking or doing informational interviewing. I’m reminded of a poster of an owl that still hangs in my son’s bedroom at our house—it has a caption that reads:
A wise old Owl lived in an oak
The more he heard, the less he spoke
The less he spoke, the more he heard
Why can’t we all be like that bird?
Why can’t we, indeed? Why not try to speak less and listen more? Like the PhD student in Biochemistry who came to see me, you might find out a lot more than you think.