Why might networking be beneficial?

I personally find the idea of networking at events to be daunting and when I attend congresses I will be the person standing on their own looking a bit lost. However, when I do talk to people I will find that I will have a great conversation and not be at all terrified. What is holding me back is fear of the unknown and worries like: What if they do not want to talk to me? What if I sound like an idiot? What if I have nothing to say that they want to hear?

This fear of the unknown has held me back at many times during my life. I have not joined clubs that I maybe wanted to; I have not spoken to somebody and regretted it later; I have resisted using a technique that eventually turned out to be extremely beneficial to a project. If I had been courageous enough to do these things, the first time the opportunity presented itself I can safely say that my life would have been completely different. Nowadays, I have taken a few steps towards overcoming this problem, the first of which was admitting to myself the reason why I was not doing things that I wanted to.

Indeed, talking to people I do not know at events has become a bit easier since I realised one thing. That one thing was that many of the people I could talk to at events are in exactly the same position as me. They do not have anyone with them to talk to, but worry about talking to strangers. If they are at the same specialist event as me then we likely share some interests and this can be used to initiate a conversation. If this is a congress and they are presenting a poster, then often you have to be present at least for a while and will often be keen to talk to anybody. The exception to this I always feel is the big names in the area, who will know lots of people and will have lots of people wanting to talk to them. There might not be an opening for you to introduce yourself. Nevertheless, once again there is a way, you can use your own contacts to introduce you. It might be that you have a colleague who knows them, or can introduce you to someone who does. Often specialist communities are quite small and you will likely have some degree of connectivity. Even if you don’t, by talking to other attendees you may meet someone who could eventually introduce you to a person who could change your career.

Networking does not have to be done in person, and can also be done online. If someone has done work that interests you and you have questions you want to ask, you can always write to them and let them know. They will appreciate your effort and if you are discussing the work then they are more likely to respond to you. This can lead to a ‘conversation’ and a connection to someone who you have never met in person.

Why you cannot succeed unless you are ready to fail

When I was younger I didn’t enjoy trying new things and meeting new people (truth be told I still don’t enjoy this), so I didn’t join clubs that I might have enjoyed or speak to people I did not know. I lived my life doing the things I knew and sticking to them. I was afraid that I would try something and fail or make a fool of myself, and this even extended into my work during my PhD. I was loathe to try new techniques because I would have to admit I didn’t know what to do and ask for help. However, when I eventually did learn a new technique it might not work for what I was doing at that time, but could open up new avenues of research to explore and discoveries to make. I shied away from using HPLC and LCMS for these reasons and in the end they were what helped me complete my PhD.

What did I learn from this?

In the end I looked back at what I was doing and realised what I was missing out on; how this fear had made my life less than it could have been. I decided that I would try new things and be prepared to fail. I might not make a big impression, but am willing to approach people at conferences and try to start conversations, or learn a new skill that might help my work. By spending my life not trying things, I learned that even not trying I might fail as I have not even had a go. This new approach to life is not easy as I regularly fall back on old habits of avoidance, I am often the person standing on his own in a big group of people. It is at these times that I have to remind myself every day of the things I have accomplished by trying more things. I have worked with interesting people and learned new skills, and my life feels fuller because of this.

What should you do?

So my advice would be to put yourself out of your comfort zone and try something new. It does not have to be a large step, it might just be saying hello to someone whilst in the queue to get coffee or visiting a next door lab or office to introduce yourself. These little steps will steadily grow your comfort zone and each little success or failure will teach you something, even if it isn’t what you thought it would be.