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Career Exploration


The art of networking—an often undervalued skill

by Marenda Wilson-Pham, Ph.D.

Learning the skill of networking is something like learning to dance with ever-changing partners. To dance well together requires both hours of practice and a great partner to create a moving piece of art. Since you can’t predict whom your networking partner may be, a combination of practice and a focused approach will help to ensure a positive outcome – if not a moving piece of art.  This is well worth the effort since success in the dance of networking may truly result in an opportunity of a lifetime.  Defining your goals, finding the right people who can help, and initiating professional relationships are key steps.  While these may seem like daunting tasks, they are absolutely essential to succeed, especially in markets where jobs may be elusive or even unlisted.

Scholarly communication is critical to the scientific community. While many scientists have successfully embraced the format of scientific presentations, we - the scientists - are lagging behind in adapting those same skills to the art of networking.  The disconnect between these two forms of social interaction, and the equal importance of each, was made clear in an event hosted by the GSBS to celebrate the school’s 50th anniversary: a panel discussion with GSBS Distinguished Alumni.  Our GSBS alumni emphasized how important networking is to researchers. The title of the discussion with the GSBS Distinguished Alumni panel was Finding your Passion…Personal Catalysts and Steps to Career Success.  I had the honor of serving as one of the hosts for this panel, along with Robert Tillman, PhD, and was surprised by what I learned from each panelist. While I was fully expecting most of the discussion to focus on how to move toward specific career paths, there was an interesting turn in the conversation during the student Q&A period. The major take-home message for me was that networking is one of the most valuable tools that scientists need to hone during their careers.

GSBS Distinguished Alumni Panelists:

GSBS Distinguished Alumni Panelists

Eugene Gerner, PhD (1974)

Professor, Departments of Cell Biology & Anatomy and Molecular Biophysics

SPORE Director, University of Arizona Health Science Center

Founder:  Cancer Prevention Pharmaceuticals Inc.

2003 Distinguished GSBS Alumnus

Advisor:  Ronald Humphrey, PhD


Cathy Wicklund, MS (1993)

Director, Genetic Counseling Graduate Program

Northwestern University

2010 GSBS Distinguished Alumnus

Advisor:  Jacqueline Hecht, PhD


Hugo Barrera Saldana, PhD (1982)

Science and Technology Commercialization Specialist

Founder:  IC² Institute-UT-Austin and ITESM

1998 Distinguished GSBS Alumnus

Advisor:  Grady Saunders, PhD


Cherie Butts, PhD (2003)

Associate Director, Immunology Research

Biogen Idec, Inc.

Advisor:  Ralph Freedman, MD, PhD



Here is a brief overview of what they had to say:

A twist on “work, finish, publish, repeat”

While a strong work ethic is something that is necessary to succeed in any arena, each panelist agreed that obstacles and failures were absolutely essential in building their work ethic “muscles”.  The panel members encouraged the audience to pay attention to their successes and to think about what worked, but they emphasized that it was those times of stress that helped them understand their strengths and weaknesses and to realize that great scientists are never bound by their hypotheses.


Have a plan

I’m guilty, as are many of my colleagues, of putting off the dreaded “career plan” until finishing some important task: a paper, a scholarship/grant application, or the next committee meeting, etc.  These delays can result in last minute realizations about how I “should have, would have, or could have” been better prepared for Jobs X, Y, and Z.  Thus, devising a flexible (emphasis on flexible) plan is essential.  And the sooner, the better!  A plan allows you to do several important things at once:

  • Know where you are in the Big Picture
  • Think about/predict your future
  • Gauge your abilities
  • Allow for concessions in your plan

Communication skills are keys to success

Confidence in verbal and written communication is an important skill for any scientist in the job market.  If you don’t have confidence in yourself, then why should anyone else?  However, there is a really fine line between confidence and arrogance.  Know the difference.  Major decisions are made when you are not in the room.  Thus, it is important that those speaking on your behalf remember you, but for all of the right reasons.


Industry Contacts

Sponsorship/Mentorship - make yourself known to those who have influence.  Get out of the vacuum and engage the world.  I am the poster child of the importance of having contacts.  Every job that I have ever been offered has been because I was able to use contacts and relationships that I have built over the years—each of which was built on my initiating the conversation.

Exposure—the strength of attending graduate school in the world’s largest medical center is that there are leading scientific experts, in just about every field, available at your fingertips.  To make the job easy, there are many calendars containing seminars occurring in the TMC on a daily basis.  Your lab, department and program usually do a great job by providing you with access to seminars that are within your interests, so why not check out some of the other resources available in the medical center to explore those that are outside of your comfort zone but are of general interest?  You may be surprised by what you learn and who you meet.

Professional Organizations—consider experimenting with new possibilities shortly after graduation.  There are opportunities for new experiences all around you…locally and abroad, if you take the time to look for them. 


Professional networking should be just that—professional.  Unfortunately, this may mean making significant changes in how you use your social networking accounts, such as Twitter and Facebook.  An ugly truth is that many companies regularly search social networking sites to weed out applicants.  While you may think that broadcasting your weekend antics is a source of humor to your friends and family, it may cost you the job that you’ve been in search of for the past year or two….a price that no one wants to pay.

In summary: Networking to find your best career

Some years ago, scientists may have been able to live at the bench in a cycle of “work, finish, publish, repeat” that was applauded and encouraged by abundant funding and job opportunities.  However, with drastic changes in the career landscape, this would spell certain disaster in today’s society where only 6% of all postdoctoral fellows obtain positions as Principal Investigators (as stated during the GSBS Super Panel, reference unknown). One argument is that there are just not enough positions available for the number of PhD students being trained, resulting in scientists pursing non-academic careers.  Another argument is that decreases in funding by granting agencies created a bleak outlook for newly trained scientists, who rejected the idea of a risky future and began searching for alternative opportunities.  Regardless of the reason, the facts are undeniable, many scientists are pursuing a variety of non-traditional career paths, and the ‘work, finish, publish, repeat’ routine may not be the best route to finding a job.  It also suggests that with new opportunities for scientists in non-traditional sectors, we have to be less rigid in both our choice of career path and in how we follow the path we choose…again, underscoring the importance of networking. 

Whether you dislike the idea of meeting new people, initiating conversations with people you don’t know, or have a fear of rejection, ignoring their importance is a luxury that you cannot afford.  One way to think about networking is that it is very valuable in terms of return…because most of the time it’s free!  Remember, it’s not always about whom you know, but who knows you, right?


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Student Associations


As a student of GSBS, we encourage you to take advantage of student memberships available through the institution. Professional memberships provide students with many helpful resources and networking opportunities to aide in your career planning and development throughout your time at GSBS. 

AWIS - Association for Women in Science

NPA – National Postdoctoral Association (membership is free if you use your institutional email address to become an “Affiliate Individual Member, Graduate Student”)

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