February 8, 2014 By Bryant Kirkland
Networking Happy Hour | New York, NY | January 30, 2014
Last week I took the train to New York to attend a networking event specifically for PhD-holders who do not work in academia. I’m not yet a PhD, but like many a PhD student or candidate, I’m not averse to getting a little ahead of myself. I wanted to find out more about the people who constitute PhDs at Work, what they are doing, how they talk to and help each other, and how they might assist any of us after we finish our degrees.
Also like many a PhD candidate, I’m a planner. I knew I’d be walking in cold to an event in the sense that I knew no one. But I didn’t want to walk in with cold lips (though it was freezing out). How would I start a conversation? If things felt awkward or creaky in meeting a stranger, how could I defuse that feeling? Even if networking events have a kind of bald purposefulness to them, what actions could I take to make the whole thing feel more natural? Part of networking is not only stating facts about yourself and articulating your skills and interests; it’s also about indicating as far as possible a kind of natural ability to interact with, and show interest in, others.
The first thing to report about the networking event is that it was disarmingly fluid. Fluids helped. It was happy hour at the Flatiron area bar. But what I really mean is that people were interested in enabling a flow of conversations. My first conversation partner and I spoke for about fifteen minutes before he said, “I think you might like talking to a woman I know across the room. Let me introduce you.” The next thing I knew I was talking to that woman across the room and my first contact had folded himself into a different conversation circle. About an hour later, after I’d spoken to many others, I found myself conversing with a woman whose professional interests made her, I thought, a suitable connection to that first fellow I’d met. I introduced them. The networking was already beginning to come full circle.
So from that standpoint, anyone attending an event like this should be prepared for rapid changes of conversation and conversation-partners. Be prepared to talk to anyone. Pretend like you’re at pre-Oscars party — and you’re one of the stars. Complete strangers come up and talk to you. They want to know what you do, what your background is, and what you’re looking for next.
All of this may sound superficial, and to some degree, it is. One thing to keep in mind at a networking event is that building a network takes time. Talking to people for the first time does not mean they will immediately become your best friends or an automatic link to a job. Remember, you already have a network before you go to a networking event. So when you arrive you’re not so much starting a new network as you are extending the one you have. You become a link between the people you meet at the new event and your existing network, the one already a part of your life before you arrive. So it’s good to think patiently, to take cards and names and emails, yes, but also remember that it will take further following up, further contact and exposure, to build that professional relationship. But by going to a blind-date style event like the one I’ve described, you’ve laid important groundwork for future interaction. Sometimes, getting your foot in the door at a job means first putting your feet in many a doorway that lead to rooms full of strangers.