Importance of Peer Networks
Despite progress towards gender and racial parity in the sciences, it can still be tough navigating a STEM education and career when you belong to a historically underrepresented group. Fortunately, surrounding yourself with a strong support network of like-minded individuals will increase your chance of success, and make your STEM career more rewarding.
As you start out and progress in your STEM journey, there are two kinds of support you should seek out. ‘Vertical mentoring’ is when you receive advice and coaching from a more senior scientist, who is often a few steps above you on the career ladder. This kind of mentor will help you prepare for the next stages of your career, and whose advice is informed by hindsight and time.
The other kind of mentorship is ‘horizontal mentoring’: receiving support from people at the same career stage as you, for instance fellow grad students or entry-level biotech scientists. Although they may not have the depth of experience within the field a more senior mentor has, your peers may be more attuned with the current state of the job market and everyday issues you face in your current role. You may find yourself less filtered around peers than a more senior mentor, and more able to have an honest exchange of experiences and ideas.
Your department, university or company may be the easiest place to find your peer network, but it can be challenging if you’re the only student or employee from a particular ethnic or racial group. Fortunately, here is a (non-exhaustive) list of organizations that foster peer networks among scientists. Many of these organizations have university chapters.
Peer Networks for Women in STEM
- AWIS (https://www.awis.org)
- Women In Bio (https://www.womeninbio.org/default.aspx)
- Society of Women Engineers (https://swe.org)
Peer Networks for Racial and Ethnic Minorities in STEM
- Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (https://www.sacnas.org)
- National Society of Black Engineers (https://www.nsbe.org)
- American Indian Science and Engineering Society (https://www.aises.org)
- National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Black Chemical Engineers (https://www.nobcche.org)
- Black In [STEM] Week (Search for hashtags on Twitter). This is not so much a professional society as a collection of grassroots organizations who amplify voices across the breadth of STEM and foster collaboration and discussion on social media. There are weeks celebrating Black in Neuro, Chemistry, Physics, Marine Science, Genetics, and many more!
Regardless of where you are on the STEM career ladder, you’re never too old or too senior for a mentor! A good mentor can guide you into new professional fields, and increase your chances of landing your dream job or promotion. Mentors can act as a “sounding board” for job-related ideas, answer career-related questions, and provide emotional support when things get tough.
Who can be your mentor?
Broadly defined, a STEM mentor is someone more experienced than you who is willing to share their experiences and insights. You can be work colleagues, or be employed at different companies. Although you can be mentored by someone who supervises you (or is in your managerial chain of command), it is often better to choose a mentor who you don’t directly work with, especially if you need to have sensitive conversations about your workplace or job search.
It’s helpful to think about what you need from a mentor before looking for one: maybe you need help navigating your PhD program, or maybe you are considering a career in biotech and want to learn more about the options available to you. In the former scenario you might benefit from an academic mentor, in the latter scenario someone already working in industry might be more helpful.
How to find a mentor
If you aren’t sure where to find a mentor, here are some ideas:
● University or workplace colleagues
● Personal connections: friends, family or neighbors
● Networking events
● Professional organizations related to your STEM discipline
● Formal mentorship programs
When approaching potential mentors, it’s a good idea to explain what kind of advice or support you’re looking for upfront. You don’t need to enter a formal business relationship with a potential mentor – just ask them if they’d be willing to answer some questions you have and see where things go from there, as you would with other new networking contacts.
The act of mentorship can mean different things. You may email questions to your mentor when the need arises, or schedule monthly coffee meet-ups. A mentor in a formal mentorship program could send you away with “homework exercises” to complete before your next meeting. Mentors may be willing to review your job application materials or introduce you to their contacts.
Managing the mentor-mentee relationship
Most STEM professionals are happy to help younger scientists figure out their career paths – and many enjoy doing so. However, not everyone makes a good mentor. Some don’t have the time to discuss potential career pathways, or forget to reply to your emails. Some established STEM professionals may give outdated advice about the job market, or suggest career options that don’t align with your situation and needs. A person who looks like an ideal mentor on paper may be someone you struggle to carry a conversation with, and who you don’t feel comfortable baring your soul to. That’s OK! You’re never obliged to accept or act upon any mentor’s advice – and you can always politely scale back your interactions with a mentor who isn’t helping you.
It’s also important to know that one mentor can’t help you with everything STEM-related, and having multiple mentors doesn’t hurt. Maybe one of your mentors knows nothing about the current biotech market, but gives really good insight into handling interpersonal conflicts in your research lab. Another mentor may not have time to meet with you regularly, but is great at introducing you to useful people.
Above all – don’t feel shy asking for help! Your mentor may not know what assistance you need until you ask, and as long as you remain polite if they’re unable to help, you won’t damage the relationship. Navigating into new STEM careers can be difficult and confusing, and everyone deserves to receive help along the way.
Searching for your first biotech job? Much of the career advice for aspiring scientists focuses on creating and polishing tangible documents: CV, cover letters and a LinkedIn profile. Less discussed, but perhaps more important than anything else when it comes to job hunting success, is the creation of your personal brand.
What is a personal brand?
Your personal brand is composed of the qualities, values and strengths other people associate with you. It is both the image you actively promote, and the impressions of you people get from your online and in-person presence. The author Cynthia Johnson identifies “personal proof, social proof, recognition, and association” as the four pillars of a personal brand.
Why does my personal brand matter?
The biotech job market is competitive. A biotech company may receive hundreds of applications for every entry level scientist position advertised. Not only will a clear personal brand help your job application stand out, but it will give time-pressed hiring managers and recruiters an immediate sense of who you are as a candidate and what you can bring to the role.
How do I cultivate and market my personal brand?
1. Be authentic
Although it might take time to discover your personal brand, you should never pretend to be something you’re not, or misrepresent your accomplishments. A ‘strong’ personal brand is not a reflection of how impressive your accomplishments are, it’s about the consistency of your messaging, and whether the broad strokes of the brand you promote matches the evidence showcased in your CV, website, etc.
2. Identify your strengths and accomplishments
When starting their career, scientists are often taught to be modest about their achievements and present work experience in a ‘neutral’ fashion. In the world of personal branding, you are allowed to brag a little! Your wins and your talents should take center-stage on LinkedIn and your other professional websites and social media accounts. If you win a research award…post about it online. If you’re great at working in cross-functional teams…point that out in your job application.
Once you’ve written down your technical and personal strengths, it’s easy to translate the former into your area of expertise. Recruiters and hiring managers definitely want to see your achievements, but even more important is a demonstration of cohesive expertise in your research field. That expertise is what will get you an industry job.
3. Focus your brand
There are two meanings of the phrase ‘focused personal brand’ – and both are important. You want your personal brand to be concise: it should boil down to a couple of sentences and adjectives. An example might be “Creative microbiologist who specializes in E. Coli.” It shouldn’t take you five minutes to explain to a recruiter who you are and what you do.
In the other sense, your personal brand should be focused into a sub specialty, with a defined target audience. While it’s understandable that you don’t want to narrow your career opportunities down to nothing, your personal brand can’t be so broad that nothing about you stands out to recruiters and hiring managers. For instance, saying you’re “a medicinal chemist” may be true…but it’s less helpful than saying you’re “a medicinal chemist who specializes in oncology drug development and has experience using solid NMR.” Now you’ll attract the attention of recruiters seeking to fill oncology and solid NMR-based medicinal chemistry roles.
4. Build an online and in-person presence
Once you’ve decided upon your brand, it’s time to market yourself. Update your professional website, job application materials and LinkedIn profile to highlight your core skills, values and career objectives. When you aren’t posting about yourself on your professional social media profiles, you should be sharing and interacting with content that reflects your personal brand (e.g. breakthroughs in your area of expertise, news from the kinds of companies you wish to work for). You don’t have to produce a lot of content or be active on LinkedIn 24/7: but you should make a commitment to posting or sharing content on a regular basis, be it once a week or once a day.
Of course, you can also publicize your personal brand through in-person and virtual networking [insert link to networking blog]. When networking with recruiters and peers within your field, your elevator pitch should encapsulate the strengths and expertise already outlined in your personal brand. Once developed, consider engaging in professional activities that reinforce and publicize your personal brand, such as presenting at conferences or taking on leadership roles in professional societies.
When looking for your first industry role, the biotech job market can seem intimidating and overwhelming. Fortunately, the experienced specialist recruiters at Sci.Bio are here to help. Get in touch with us to discuss your career goals today.
As the number of COVID-19 cases drop and social distancing measurements relax, in-person networking events will start returning. For many scientists and science students, their understanding of ‘networking’ is at best a foreign concept with no applicability to their career path, and at worst they think there’s something almost underhanded about schmoozing your way into a job.
Unfortunately for those scientists, networking is critical to securing jobs inside and outside academia. For STEM students and postdocs who are uncertain about their future career path, networking can provide opportunities and insight that academic mentors are unavailable to provide. But the good news is networking doesn’t have to be awkward or embarrassing. In fact, it can be informative and fun.
Here are some tips and tricks that any scientist – or introverted person – can use to help network more effectively.
What is networking?
A common misconception about networking is that it’s all about trying to get a job. Networking is a conversation. It’s about forming a mutually-beneficial professional connection. When defined like that, you can see networking takes place all the time on a large and small scale. A 5 minute conversation with a visiting lecturer is networking, but a 5 minute conversation at a family BBQ can be networking, too! Presenting a poster at an international conference is definitely a networking situation. Research collaborators and colleagues within your department are network contacts, but any people you meet and interact with have the potential to be network contacts as well–you never know who other people know.
Networking rarely yields immediate results: it can take months (or years) for the benefits of networking efforts to show. Recruiters at the mixer you attend may not know of suitable job openings right then, but several weeks later when a job opportunity arises they may – if you networked successfully – remember your name.
Because of this, it’s helpful to begin networking 6-12 months before you finish your PhD or postdoc, the earlier the better. It takes time to build connections and become comfortable networking with others.
Getting the most out of networking events
While a lot of networking can happen organically, dedicated networking events are a great opportunity to meet new people you wouldn’t otherwise encounter within an academic research setting. These events might take place in conjunction with symposia and conferences, or be organized by professional societies.
Before arriving at a networking event, think about your career goals and how other attendees could help you. Are you actively looking for a job? Or still trying to figure out what you want to do? Distill your objectives into a couple of sentences and get comfortable explaining them.
“During my first networking event at a career fair, I was nervous and not quite sure what to expect or talk about. After a few interactions I realized that all I had to do was introduce myself, have a candid conversation, exchange contacts, and then I had a networking connection.” Carter Lewis, Sci.bio Recruiting Associate
Despite the fact you need a game plan, it helps to go into networking events with an open mind. Everyone in the room has the potential to help you meet your career goals, or introduce you to new opportunities you hadn’t considered. Show the same level of interest and courtesy to everyone you meet, and find out what you can about their job. What do they enjoy about their work? How did they get into the field? What advice would they give to someone looking to break into the field? While you may not be interested in biotech consultancy, perhaps a labmate is considering such roles and would benefit from any insights you can relay.
As scientists, we tend to be very detail-orientated and thorough when talking about our work. In networking situations, people may not be familiar with your field and could be pressed for time, meaning you must be concise. Develop a ‘high-level’ elevator pitch that describes your work quickly in broad strokes. If the other person wants to learn more, they’ll ask follow-up questions.
When talking to someone new, avoid monopolizing the conversation. Pause and ask questions. It doesn’t sound like much, but simply seeming interested in other people is one of the best ways to leave a good impression. Don’t forget to think about what YOU may be able to offer THEM; networking and building connections goes both ways.
The great thing about networking events is that everybody who attends wants to have a conversation with you! Even if you’re naturally more reserved, there are many people in the room, such as recruiters, who enjoy meeting new people and are experienced at navigating these kinds of social interactions.
Business card and follow-up
“Thanks, it’s been great talking to you – here’s my contact information.” You don’t have to devote a lot of time to any one person at the networking event. If it seems like you don’t have much to say to each other, it’s fine to politely bow out of the conversation and look for someone else to talk to. Be sure to collect the other person’s contact information and share yours. Business cards are the traditional hallmark of networking, but some people generate QR codes that link to their LinkedIn profile or online CV. At virtual events all you need to do is drop your contact info in the chat. Most people who attend networking events are open to connecting electronically afterwards. You can also send a short email the next day thanking them again for their time and re-emphasizing how much you enjoyed talking to them.
“Even if [recruiters or my new connections] didn’t have an immediate job opportunity for me, I still had someone that I could reach out to in the future.” Carter Lewis, Sci.bio Recruiting Associate
As mentioned above, networking doesn’t immediately bear fruit. You want to cultivate your network over several months; interacting with new connections on LinkedIn (e.g. commenting on their posts) and keeping your name fresh in their minds without becoming a nuisance or spamming them. Maybe this new contact knows one of their contacts has a job vacancy, or perhaps they can help you with something unrelated to your job search? Either way, you won’t know until you’ve made the connection!
Networking can appear daunting, but recruiters at Sci.bio are happy to help you expand your circle of contacts and take your career to the next level. Get in touch with us today.