Career Network for student Scientists and Postdocs at Yale

Creating a platform for discussion of scientific careers

Month: February 2016

Hate Networking? Give the Speech

The main reason so many people hate networking is because small talk can be exhausting. Before you can make any progress on what you’re really after, you undoubtedly have to start with the simple “hello’s” and “what do you do’s.”

It’s a form of professional etiquette that must be adhered to. Imagine someone walking up to you and starting with their main objective… “Hi, can I have your card so I can talk to you about a job at your company?” If you were the company representative, this opening line would immediately shock you, and you’d be left thinking, ‘wow, that’s bold, and I totally feel like I’m being used.’ Newsflash, you are being used.

This is why the small talk is essential. It creates a soft opening and introduction and gives the two people a chance to learn more about each other before either party dives in to help the other. Importantly, the small talk portion of the networking conversation gives each person the chance to assess the other and decide whether or not they WANT to help the other person. This is why small talk cannot be skipped.

However, the small talk is often the most exhausting part of networking. This makes sense because it’s much easier and quicker to shoot off an email and ask direct questions, whereas nurturing a friendly and mutually beneficial relationship face-to-face with someone you barely know is far more difficult and taxing.

But what if there was a way to avoid the small talk altogether? This would certainly make networking less challenging. Well, while you may not be able to completely avoid small talk, there IS indeed a way to significantly cut down on the amount of small talk you’ll need to do at a networking event…

Give a Speech at the Event

This may seem counterintuitive – i.e., if you shy away from the one-on-one small talk, why would you want to address the entire room all at once? – but by giving a speech (or the speech) at an event, you do yourself a huge favor, and here’s why:

1) Everyone in the room already knows who you are by the time the networking portion of the event begins if you speak earlier at the event. Thus, you can avoid repeatedly introducing yourself to everyone you meet, which saves time and mental energy.

2) You can get to the meat of the conversation much faster since you no longer have to introduce yourself. Skipping the introductions and a bit of the background small talk lets you get to the heart of the conversation more efficiently. In this situation – when the other person already knows who you are – it is much easier to dive right in and ask more direct questions about what it is that you really want to get out of the conversation. This is beneficial for both parties.

3) You won’t have to repeat yourself all night because, again, everyone already knows who you are and little bit about you, so you can skip the “Hi, I’m so-and-so, and I work on XYZ [and proceed to explain XYZ].” Repetitiveness leads to mental exhaustion, which is one of the reasons why so many people hate networking, so decreasing this mental exhaustion, by not having to repeat yourself as much, will make networking less taxing.

4) People will seek you out, so there is less searching to do on your part. Think about it… if you’re at a networking event and a speaker inspires you or sparks some interest for you, you’re specifically going to target them in the networking portion of the event. Thus, if YOU are the speaker, or one of the speakers, the attendees will naturally come to you. In this case, you may not have to go far – or move at all! – during the networking event to meet the people you’re interested in meeting.

5) You inherently showcase your personality and demeanor when you give a speech; thus, recruiters and other potential network connections know before they officially meet you whether or not you’d be a good fit for what they are looking for. One goal of small talk is to get a sense of someone’s personality to check for good compatibility, but if you’ve already demonstrated your personality before you meet someone, you will be able to get to the heart of the conversation faster because there is less need for small talk and personality assessments.

6) You naturally set yourself apart from the others in the room by putting yourself in the spotlight and speaking. With a level playing field of intelligence in the room (i.e., everyone has, or is getting, a PhD), anything you can do to set yourself apart will serve you well when it comes to networking and finding a lead for your next position. By stepping into the spotlight, recruiters and other potential network connections will inherently view you as slightly more important than the rest of the attendees who may have the same, or similar, credentials as you.


Regarding networking and small talk, these are some of the key benefits of speaking at an event.

Although it can be overwhelming to think about speaking at an event, keep in mind that you don’t have to give the keynote speech. In fact, doing so probably wouldn’t draw a great crowd especially if you’re a graduate student or postdoc amongst a sea of similarly qualified jobseekers.

However, you don’t have to give the keynote speech to accomplish the goals stated above; you can simply give a short speech at the event. For example, volunteer to introduce the keynote speaker or the panel of distinguished guests, provide a 5-minute overview of the event’s agenda, give a short presentation on behalf of a student group, or advertise upcoming events, initiatives, and opportunities for eligible attendees.

Any way that you can get in front of the audience, briefly introduce yourself, and speak about something is a great way to cut down on the amount of small talk you’ll need to do in the networking sessions that follow the feature presentation. So don’t shy away from the opportunity to address the audience, and, in fact, you should try to find ways to create that opportunity for yourself!


** Don’t be shy – speak at the event and let us know how the networking portion goes for you! **

Share your thoughts below by clicking the “Leave a Reply” link or by clicking the chat bubble in the top right of the post.

The One Skill You Need: Ambiguity Tolerance

With a PhD, it’s understood that you’re smart enough to handle any job you face. What sets you apart from the competition are your “soft” skills – i.e., people management, self-directed discipline, communication skills, etc. Often it’s these soft skills, not your intelligence, that will make you successful in your next position. This is true for both academic and non-academic positions, although soft skills are certainly weighed much more heavily for non-academic positions.

Amongst these soft skills, there is one skill that is rarely discussed that is arguably THE most important skill you’ll need in ANY job. What is it? Ambiguity Tolerance.

Ambiguity tolerance is the ability to accomplish a goal when that goal is completely undefined and vague.

You may be wondering how on earth you could possibly complete a task successfully when you don’t know what that task is, however… as a scientist, you already have this skill. 🙂

When you join a lab, you know you need to find a research project, discover something new, and ultimately publish your findings, but at the start of that journey, many scientists have no idea what that project will be or where it’ll take them; yet, they are often successful in completing this task. Sure, your PI may want you to investigate a certain pathway or follow up on a lead from some preliminary data, but there is very little direction involved, especially if you’re a postdoc. Being successful when the task is vague and unclear is exactly what ambiguity tolerance is.

Here’s an example of ambiguity tolerance in a non-scientific scenario:

Jeff Selingo, award-winning columnist and best-selling author of College (Un)Bound and There is Life After College: Navigating Your Time in School So You Are Prepared for the Jobs of Tomorrow, shares the story of his first job interview after graduating from college. He had applied for a job as a journalist for a local newspaper in Wilmington, NC, and the interview did not go as he had expected… Here’s Jeff:

“The managing editor of the newspaper picked me up at the airport, and after a quick lunch, he dropped me off on Front Street, the historic main thoroughfare along the banks of the Cape Fear River. He told me to go find a story.

It was a Friday afternoon in late August, and I had to report and write the story by 5 pm. I had never been to Wilmington before, I didn’t know anyone else in town, and I didn’t have a car. All I had was the notepad and pen the editor kindly gave me. For the next several hours, I roamed the streets talking to business owners, local residents, and tourists. I eventually found a story – about a tourism campaign the state was undertaking after a close call with a hurricane – and filed it on time.

But as the editor later told me, the article itself was not the test. It was my reaction when he dropped me off – he wanted to see what I would do in an unfamiliar situation. Other job candidates, he said, either panicked and asked for a specific assignment or they figured out how to get the job done. He wanted employees who could cope with the unknown on a daily basis.

As artificial intelligence increasingly makes many jobs obsolete, success in the future will belong to those able to tolerate ambiguity in their work. Too many recent graduates, however, approach their job descriptions the way they did a syllabus in college – as a recipe for winning in a career. They want concrete, well-defined tasks, as if they were preparing for an exam in college, but ‘Excelling at any job is about doing the things you weren’t asked to do,’ said Mary Egan, founder of Gathered Table, a Seattle-based start-up and former senior vice president for strategy and corporate development at Starbucks. ‘This generation is not as comfortable with figuring out what to do.’” (Original Article)

Jeff highlights a very important point – that, unlike standard classes, there is rarely a syllabus for each semester, season, or quarter of the year for a given job. There may be certain overarching goals the company or institution wishes to achieve, but the way to get there is rarely, if ever, defined. However, employees are still expected to accomplish these monumental tasks.

Ambiguity tolerance and seeing these tasks as challenges, not obstacles, is what will set one employee, or job candidate, apart from the next. As a professional, you are given the job so that you will be the one to figure out how to accomplish these goals for the company/institution. If the path were clearly defined, as Jeff alludes to, a computer or a monkey could do the job. Thus, the ability to embrace ambiguity and achieve goals without knowing the steps involved to get there is the most important skill that you can bring to the table in any job interview.

Work to hone this skill by accepting new challenges with gusto and volunteering to help with new projects, specifically those that are new and different to you. For example, your range of “projects” could include taking on a brand new research project or starting a new project based purely on a literature search to something as diverse as offering to plan a meeting/small conference or host a seminar speaker without having ever reserved a meeting space, booked a caterer, or organized an event requiring pre-registration before.

Any task/goal that would require you to step outside of your comfort zone will be valuable practice in tolerating ambiguity. You will then be able to speak to this skill in the future and perform under pressure if your next job interview takes on an interesting and unexpected format.


** Learn to tolerate ambiguity. Take on new challenges and let us know how it goes! **

Share your thoughts below by clicking the “Leave a Reply” link or by clicking the chat bubble in the top right of the post.