Nothing but networking

When my son was born this summer, my wife posted the standard isn’t-he-snuggly photo of the newborn in his white hospital hat on Facebook. “So beautiful!” commented her high school friend. “Congratulations!” wrote a colleague from work. Then there appeared a slightly weird comment, which I’ll reproduce in its entirety:

“Ha ha looks smurf.”

I hate the concept of networking. It just feels icky.

This comment was posted by someone in India. Someone I’d never met. Someone who saw the photo and simply had to remark that my second born, my beautiful son, looks smurf.

Who was this mysterious person? And how did he even have access to my wife’s photos, which were not posted publicly? He was my friend.

Not my friend. Just my “friend.” My Facebook friend. Someone who read my column, saw me on television, or maybe just did a Facebook search for people who like , and sent me a friend request. So why on Earth had I accepted the friend request of someone I’ve never met, someone creepy enough to comment on photos posted by my wife?

The answer is one word, and it’s a word that makes me sound callous and careerist, though it’s something we’ve all been told we need to do: networking.

I hate the concept of networking. It just feels icky. You schmooze with strangers, subtly selling yourself while not selling yourself. “I’m pretty great,” you tell them, “though I’m not, you know, the sort of person who claims to be pretty great.”

You “connect” with people you have no interest in as people. You “build relationships,” when in fact you’re not interested in having relationships. You practice an effective handshake like some sort of Jack Russell terrier. You distribute and accumulate worthless business cards. You hope others will judge you based on a deep appreciation of your gestalt, but you also hope they’ll judge you (favorably) based on your nice clothes, forced formality, and the fact that you’ve refrained from sucking stuff out of your teeth during your brief conversation.

You assume that everyone wants to help you, simply because they meet you once or because they graduated from the same college 15 years earlier. “We have a strong alumni network!” boast colleges, which translates to, “We have alumni!”

You work on maintaining eye contact. You prepare an “elevator speech,” though elevators are places where people vehemently avoid eye contact. You say things like, “Hi, nice to meet you. Can I use you as a reference?”

You attend events for “professionals,” even though this is a meaningless term intended to make you feel like you’ve accomplished something by attending. You read books on networking that advise you to offer to help the other person first, which sounds noble, except that you’re only offering to help them because of the potential dividends. You ask for permission to “pick someone’s brain,” which in most circumstances would get you arrested as a psychopath. You endeavor to be memorable (as in, “I remember that dude. He had no pants”). You cold-call. You spam. You aspire to turn “relationships” into “alliances.” You widen your circles.

You accept Facebook friend requests from random strangers in India who think your son looks smurf.

You hope they’ll say, “Wow, that person who dropped a CV in my lap and winked? Next time I’m seeking to bestow a fabulous opportunity upon someone, I know who I’m calling.”

There are happy hours, roundtables, mixers, and meetups. There are “informational interviews,” as opposed to interviews in which the exchange of information is forbidden. There are networking events, networking workshops, and the 1976 film , starring Peter Finch and Faye Dunaway.

Is networking even as important as we’re told? Here’s how a lot of people believe networking works:

John gives Jane his business card. Jane returns to her life of privilege, a position at a big fancy science company where everyone loves their work and enjoys a fabulous quality of life. (So, Scandinavia.) One day, Jane’s boss reveals that a vacancy has been created in the field of fancy science, and an advertisement will be published. “Wait!” cries Jane. “Do not appeal to the masses! For we will receive CVs from violent offenders, grammatically incapable undergraduates, and possibly literal baboons!” Who, oh who, can spare the company from such a fate? Jane withdraws John’s business card from the platinum case in the center of her desk, where she’d kept it safe for just such a moment. John is contacted and offered the job on the spot—a job he turns down, because John handed out 250 business cards, so John has 249 other offers.

That’s the networking fantasy. In reality, at least in my experience, networking works like this:

John gives Jane his business card.

That’s it.

I mean, holy hell. I just Googled “networking,” and here’s an actual piece of advice that appeared: “Keep in touch on a regular basis. Your networking contacts are interested in keeping abreast of your accomplishments and career journey.” Really? Are busy professionals actually sitting at work thinking, “Oh, I hope that college junior e-mails me again to tell me whether his frat won the Greek Games”?

The worst part, though, is that networking feels like spending time marketing yourself in lieu of doing science. I went into science partially because I don’t like the icky bluster that so many career paths seem to value. I once sat on a train behind three high-powered realtors dripping with hair gel, and all they did for the entire ride was loudly boast to each other about how their own smart decisions resulted in financial gain. Ick.

As scientists, we’re trained to take “I” out of the equation: The chemicals were mixed, and here’s what happened. We’re even encouraged to use the passive voice in our journal articles, because it’s our results, not some phony pitch, that matter.

That’s why I cringe every time someone advises a room full of science trainees that nothing is more important than networking. Even when you’re doing it right, networking can too easily become a goal rather than a means.

Perhaps the term “networking” has come to encompass too many meanings—kind of like the word “friend.” There are valuable steps you can take to support your science career that some would call networking, but you can just as easily call them what they are: attending conferences, learning new things, having interesting conversations, meeting people. You can do all of these things without “Where’s the value for my career?” at the front of your mind. Just do them, enjoy them, and become a better scientist.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to save my son from Gargamel.

A double dose of advice

Elsewhere in Science, 24 October 2014