27 and a PhD

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Daily Archives: April 4, 2012

On networking, a non rant

Finally, after goodness-knows-how-long I have a break to sit down, check my Twitter stream and blog a bit. Life is going good, lots of work, lots of learning, and lots of lab things breaking and in need of repairs, which is what has kept me off my favourite sites for a while. That, and I took the plunge, listened to honey and got Netflix, and I’m trying the streaming thing (even though I really prefer DVDs ….. sue me) and I’m catching up on a bunch of shows and movies I wanted to watch since way back when.

So, last week, Scicurious wrote a great entry on networking and how she dislikes it and how some of the big ass profs are unapproachable at conferences and other places and how to get the most out of it.

It got me thinking that for a while I’ve been meaning to write on this topic too, but from the perspective of someone that’s not shy at all, and can’t keep her words to herself, ie. me. Yes, I’ve told PIs I love them, and  their work, and I’ve been known to hug and kiss structural biology instruments (after making sure I won’t damage them). I’ve been known to introduce myself to Nobel laureates and ask them all sorts of quirky questions, totally unrelated to their Nobel-worthy science awesomeness. Oh yes, I’m special.

I’m a special kind of scientist. I’ve been described as bubbly, crazy, insane, enthusiastic, passionate, etc, etc. If I like someone’s research a lot, I will tell them, and I won’t shy away from it. I love talking and I love learning about people’s scientific (and occasionally personal, too) life. I like seeing people as a whole, as the whole package, not just the scientist. And because I read about all sorts of crazy, whacky or “useless” info, I think I have sort of an ease when opening up a conversation with different kinds of people.

I don’t know where this comes from. I do know that my father is very outgoing, and I get a lot of it from him. He talks to anyone and everyone, and makes friends really easily. Most of my PIs have encouraged my “crazy” side, and my current boss (though annoying at times) always says “go for it” when it comes to promoting our place of work and capabilities and approaching people.

No one taught me these things, but it did take a while to embrace my inner (and outer) crazy and be comfortable enough to talk to people, regardless of their status on the academic (or job) ladder.

Even if I’m outgoing, it’s still hard to approach some people, especially those that are famous (or infamous) for being bona fide assholes. Those I simple label as idiots, and never talk to them. But I’ve found that the average scientist is happy to talk to you and is equally nervous about making an introduction, using a non-cliche line to open up a conversation and make that conversation a meaningful exchange of ideas.

After I started at work I immediately looked for conferences I could attend and start meeting people. Based on my postdoc experience, even though I did get to meet with some high profile scientists, I didn’t come out of my shell much, mainly because I was so uncomfortable at the time. But at the new job, I get to interact with a lot of people and with different levels of expertise. Sometimes you’re collecting data for the PI, other times you train their people and let them do their thing. But because we also have a lot of instrumentation, you get to talk to people about using instruments, you get to interact with sales people and coordinate demos, and talk to engineers about issues and solving them, and talk to applications people and complain about how come you need to get a patch to cover for their stupidity (not really, I’m exaggerating a bit here).

For me, networking and talking to people comes natural, but I know it’s not for everyone. My immediate boss, though extremely talented and competent, is the shiest person you’ll ever meet. He hates to be on the spot, but once you get him started, he can pretty much swing on his own. We went to this meeting a few weeks back and I met some of the sales people and some of the apps people from one of the companies we use the most. Turns out we were having some issues and some of the apps people there were really knowledgeable. Not only that, they were eager to help. So, poor shy me started talking to fancy-pants engineer and eventually introduced the boss and after listening a bit to some of the more technical details that I wasn’t really interested in, I left them alone, talking and exchanging information. Eventually, during the social hour, we caught up again and in a more informal environment talked a bit about beer, the city and our instruments. My immediate boss even scheduled a skype call to show some of the issues we were having, and that led to a free software upgrade from the company and the promise of a visit from said engineer later on.

I’d like to take a bit of credit for said interaction, and I honestly love connecting people. I love meeting people and talking to them, and learning from them. But more than anything, I like bringing people from different backgrounds and expertise together, people who wouldn’t otherwise know each other and that way they get solutions and build up a relationship with each other. I knew some people like that in grad school, and I definitely learned some of those tricks from my PhD PI, others I just refined. But I’m happy and comfortable in some scientific-social situations and I love not only talking to people, but connecting with them, and with others.

This all boils down to asking my fellow extraverts out there to take some of the introverts under their wing and help them get out of their shell and talk to people. To the extraverts, don’t go overboard. To the introverts, it may seem scary and silly, but a lot of other people are just as scared and shy as you are. It’s hard to put yourself out there, I know it. It took a bit of time for me to feel comfortable introducing myself to people (or tagging along with other extraverts) and making connections. But I’m so glad I did. Always take time to introduce everyone, and feel free to connect people. I always try to keep in mind people’s expertise, because I know that there are things I can’t do, and for those, I like to have my handy (hard) and e-Rolodex and connect people, talk to them and bring them together. This is what science and collaboration is about, opening up, connecting others and bringing different levels of expertise to make projects better, well-rounded.

I may not get to write grants or be a first author paper, but I feel just as satisfied when I get a sincere thank you from two or three people that got to know each other due to a simple introduction.