“You never get a second chance to make a good first impression”, so the saying goes. In other words, it’s crucial to get your initial ‘presence’ correct first time and present the best version of yourself, otherwise you will have to work hard to undo any negativities you might inadvertently have created the first time around.
More and more, doctoral and postdoctoral researchers are being encouraged to network by career professionals (including myself) to help raise their profile and employment opportunities. However, before even starting this process of engagement, it’s vital to ensure that you’re presenting yourself at your very best.
For example, if you go looking to connect with people on LinkedIn, or if you’re researching the profiles of professionals whose jobs are of interest to you, the likelihood is that they will look back at you. They may Google you, click on your LinkedIn profile or look you up on your university website. Whatever means they use to view you, the questions you need to ask yourself are: What will they see? Will I look professionally ‘attractive’ to them? Am I creating the right impression?
Things have changed over the past decade or so. Gone are the days of in-person only networking opportunities where conferences and invitations were the main avenue available to meeting people of interest. The internet has made networking much more democratic, with influential people being more accessible at the global level and at the click of a button. However, it’s all too easy to become frivolous and blasé when working in virtual reality, and even those who are intending to participate in a real physical conference can be complacent and miss the opportunity to present themselves at their best (I’m thinking of scruffy T-shirts and flipflops :)).
Every time you meet someone new, whether it’s in-person or on-line, you are showcasing your ‘brand’. That may sound a bit ‘markety’ and not relevant to your average researcher going about their everyday business. However, we all create impressions of ourselves wherever we are, so ask yourself: Am I being professional when it matters? Do I come across as being confident within my area of expertise? Am I approachable and friendly? Do I take myself seriously in relation to my career ambitions?
So, to avoid the pitfalls of a mis-managed personal brand, both on-line and in-person, here are some tips to help you to get it right first time:
Take control: Don’t rely on your institutional profile to promote your ‘brand’ as this is sometimes limiting in terms of showcasing your experiences and skills. Many PhD and postdoctoral researchers are only listed on their university websites, with no detailed accompanying profile, so creating your own profile elsewhere can ensure you are showcasing yourself more fully.
Be consistent: Consider your ‘brand’. Are you interested in a functional/practical/technological type career, or are you looking to move into communications, policy, enterprise, management, etc? Whatever your personal and professional career goals, your brand should reflect this. Therefore, make sure that all your on-line profiles are consistent with the CV you are building, as you move on to your next position.
Include a photo: When creating your online presence, ideally, try to include a professional looking photo (some universities offer a free photography service to staff and postgraduates). It can be more or less formal according to the type of platform you’re using (e.g. Twitter tends to be more informal than LinkedIn). You may also have the opportunity to create a background image too, reflecting your work environment or interests. If you’re uncomfortable with using a real photo, consider exchanging it with a graphic instead.
Title yourself: The title you give yourself online doesn’t have to match exactly with your real job title. For example, you may be a postdoctoral researcher looking to move into industry (where this job title is rare). You can re-title yourself, for example: Research scientist | Data Analyst | Bioinformatician | Project manager to fit more with the relevant roles within your companies of interest.
Write a profile with impact: It’s great to see so many early career researchers on-line, but without a profile their impact is limited. Identify some keywords that reflect your career interests, skills, passions, values, etc. and develop your profile around them. I recommend that you look at other people’s profiles and use them to help you build your own. My profile has altered over the years to reflect my changing and evolving interests and yours will too. Don’t think of it as a static entity and revisit it regularly to make sure it’s reflecting your ‘brand’.
Engage with people: As described in my blog ‘Get engaged’, it’s important to be active on social media. It’s not just about linking with people and trying to leverage your network. Consider contributing content, reacting to others’ posts and learning new information and skills. In this way you start to establish yourself within particular communities, especially those who are looking at entering non-academic careers.
Badge yourself: Sometimes conference organisers can make networking more difficult for its delegates. For example, name badges attached to long lanyards can make it impossible to read the name of the person to whom you’re speaking. Trying to dart your eye down to their waistline seems rude and, when conversing over lunch with the name badge tucked under the table – impossible! You can get around this very easily by tying a knot in your lanyard to make it shorter and elevate your name badge so that it’s readily readable by all. Equally, if names have been printed formally and in tiny lettering, take a marker pen and re-write your name to your liking.
Dress to impress: Different occasions call for different dress codes. You wouldn’t wear a scruffy T-shirt to a wedding and, equally, you should aim to dress professionally for conferences or other in-person events. I’m not saying you should wear a suit and tie, but if you look at what the more senior academics or staff are wearing during the event (usually smart-casual), aim to reflect their level of professional attire as you are more likely to be taken seriously.
Level up: One of the barriers to successful networking at conferences can simply be people’s height. It’s hard to look someone in the eye, or even be able to hear them properly, if they are towering above you or vice versa. You can’t change your height, but you can level things up by inviting your conversation partner(s) to take a seat. Most conferences provide plenty of seating in the social areas or you can even stroll over to a nearby café.
Leave your card: It may seem inappropriate for academic circles, but taking business cards to conferences is fast becoming the norm. You can get them printed relatively cheaply nowadays and some institutions will even offer to do this for you free of charge. They are useful to exchange with delegates, exhibitors and other people you meet in person. You can also write a small note on those you receive to remind yourself of what it was you were discussing, in case you forget when you get back home. Use them to follow up with an email or connect on LinkedIn so that you don’t lose a potentially valuable addition to your network.
Sign off: We all use email to communicate with each other on more-or-less daily basis. However, quite regularly, I receive emails from PhD and postdoctoral researcher without a full signature sign off at the end of the message. This is not only frustrating – not really knowing who this person is – but it also looks less professional. Make sure you create a signature for yourself with your title, university department/address, contact information and links to social media.
And on that note, I’ll sign off and wish you all the best with your networking adventures. Feel free to connect with me on social media and add any additional ideas to my LinkedIn post on the subject (2nd November 2021).