We are engineers, try not to be nerds

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Yao Nie
Yao Nie
McDonnell International Scholar Academy
Washington University in St. Louis

–Meet with Alaina G. Levine, author of “Networking for Nerds”

As a Ph.D. student, majoring in Energy, Environmental and Chemical Engineering, I have never realized the power of networking until I went to Alaina’s talks at 2017 American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) Annual Meeting. As stated in Alaina’s Linked-in headline, she is a “keynote speaker, STEM career consultant, science journalist, comedian, entrepreneur: author, networking for nerds.” It surprised me that she has already stepped into so many different fields and did so well, even though she is still very young. She got her bachelor’s degree in Mathematics. However, she didn’t want to go to graduate school after graduation. She asked for advice about what she could do, from one of her teachers in Math class. Surprisingly, the answer she got is “NOTHING”, which made her very disappointed. After thinking for a while, she realized that the reason is because the teacher himself hasn’t tried anything but stayed in academia. The horizon of that teacher is limited to his own experience. Anything is worth trying if you have confidence and interests. However, it doesn’t mean that you can easily succeed only with confidence and interests. You need skills as well. Networking skill is one of the most important skills you need to master, especially if you want to create something from nothing. There are always many opportunities waiting for you, but most of them are not easy to find out. Networking is a bridge you can make use of to reach or even create these unique opportunities. Unlike students in business school, who are taught how to network at the first day, there is no related course for students in science or engineering major. From Alaina’s series of talks, I gradually gained a little bit sense of networking.

Yao & Alaina
Yao Nie (left) and Alaina G. Levine (right)

In one of her presentations, she talked about how to brand yourself through Linked-in. Linked-in is considered to be the most professional and widely used social media for job searching these days, including both academic and industrial opportunities. She mentioned her conversations with some HRs about the use of Linked-in when they are looking for candidates. Sometimes, they even prefer to check the candidates’ Linked-in profiles, than the resumes. So it is very important to open a personal Linked-in account and manage it property. Always keep the account dynamic, including updating the most recent personal information to match the resume, and posting your professional experience. It is also suggested to try the Premium function of Linked-in six months before the graduation. Good to know who has viewed your profile and reach out to those potential “useful connecting nodes”. The search and group features of Linked-in are also useful for you, to find alumni or people who share the common interests. Contacting persons from Linked-in could be your starting point to build up your own networking circle. Try to attract more flow to your profile and increase the exposure to the potential recruiters. Start with 10 persons per month at the beginning, and ask for a 15 min coffee chat or phone call if possible. At first, you might only get less than 50% response from those persons, but don’t give up. Remember to ask for at least one more recommended contact person from each of them. After some time, you will gain more and more resource.

Alaina had another talk the following day, and the topic is “Networking for Nerds”. She talked more details about the networking skills. It is worth noting that networking is a spectrum of continuous actives. It never ends after the first meet. Sending “Thank you” notes is the first and very important step you should take to follow up. In addition, you need to organize and maintain your network and stay connected. However, always asking from someone else is not helpful to maintain a good relationship. Try to offer to be assistance. In Alaina’s book “Networking for Nerds”, there are detailed networking strategies you can use for different occasions and different networking stages. I just started to read this book and will take this book as my very first teacher to this new networking field.

After Alaina’s talk, I stayed for a while and stepped forward to convey my thanks to her and had a short discussion with her. I surprisingly noticed that her book was forwarded by a Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt. I wondered how she made that, and she told me that she made it by networking, just as how she obtained most of her career opportunities. She met Brian Schmidt twice at conferences and was interested in his works. She just caught up with him and asked if he would like to write the foreword for her new book. It turned out that he is a very nice gentleman and glad to do so. It seemed like impossible at the beginning, but she just went ahead and tried, then she made it. Networking is very important, but it can only be useful when you have enough other hard skills. Try to be valuable to others. As a Ph.D. student, never stop promoting yourself by publishing papers, attending conferences and learning new knowledge.

Back to my Linked-in home page, only Ph.D. candidate is listed in the headline. This is my final year in the Ph.D. study, and I am in the job market now. I will try to build up my own networking and finish my Ph.D. at the same time. People tend to look forward and follow a direct two-dot path, they used to think this is the only way. In fact, when they look around, they will find two walls standing beside the path and block the sight. At this moment, it is your decision whether to break the walls and try the other possibilities will totally change your future career. We are engineers, and we build our own ways.

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