Mentorship in Research: What’s “networking” all about?

Over the course of the semester, PCURs will reflect on the professors, advisers, and friends who shaped their research experiences. We present these to you as a series called Mentorship in Research. Most undergraduates have met, or will meet, an individual who motivates and supports their independent work. Here, Bennett shares his story.


When I say “networking,” what do you think of?

Affluent, well-dressed extroverts? Annoying emails from the LinkedIn account you signed up for Freshman year (out of a vague sense of professional obligation)? Shallow, self-serving conversations? The old boys’ club?

There’s a lot going on at this career fair, but networking doesn’t have to be intimidating

There are a lot of negative associations that spring up around the word “networking.” And I understand that – there’s definitely something reflexively uncomfortable about conversations where the participants have ulterior motives. As someone who shuns both uncomfortable social interaction and formal wear, it would be understandable if I wrote networking off as an awkward, greedy affair.

But here’s the thing – that’s not what networking is.

One of the best ways I’ve heard it put goes as follows: what if instead of calling it “networking” we called it “learning from each other”?

Because that’s what networking is. And that’s why this post is part of the mentorship series – if you think of networking as finding and consulting mentors, it becomes a lot more approachable and a lot less uncomfortable.

I’ve had research mentors throughout my time at Princeton, and I’ve sought advice – both academic and professional – from professors. But as my career aspirations shifted from the science I’d studied for years towards writing, I realized I had very little knowledge of what a writer actually does (besides, well, writing), or how to go about becoming one.

My previous mentors had mainly been professors or other teachers – well-suited to advise me about research, academics, or science, but with little journalism experience to share. To fix this, I started a concerted effort to do two things: (1) seek advice from experts who weren’t professors, and (2) find professors whose advice was helpful. I began by reaching out to science journalists – including an alum who had interviewed some of my friends about Princeton’s meningitis outbreak. I also signed up for a class with one of Princeton’s visiting journalism professors, and arranged to meet with others.

20150401_Naomi MurakawaOfficeHours_AH_0101
Office hours are a great way to get to know a professor, and possibly get advice on things outside the narrow scope of a class

When I reached out to these mentors, I didn’t have any specific questions in mind, but I recognized the value of talking to someone with real-life experience in this line of work. And I found that all the people I reached out to were eager to answer my questions and give me advice. It really didn’t feel like a forced or self-serving conversation.

In fact, I didn’t think of what I was doing as networking until I attended one of Princeton’s Career and Life Vision workshops. (I’ve written about these before. They’re pretty great.) The workshops are run by Pulin Sanghvi, the executive director of Career Services at Princeton. One of his suggestions was to think of mentors as your “personal board of directors”: people who know you, and the path ahead of you, well enough to influence your strategy going forward. At the time, this didn’t make any more sense to me than the idea of networking – I wrote it off as a silly metaphor from the world of business school and consulting. But Sanghvi and I stayed in touch, and he helped shape my philosophy as I looked for a post-graduate endeavor.

And when it came time this spring for me to decide whether to take a communications job or go to grad school for science writing, I consulted my “board of directors” – the journalist who had set aside hours over the summer to chat with me about her journey from Princeton to science writing; the professor I met at a talk who told me about the graduate program I was now deciding whether to attend; the professor who recommended me for grad school; and Pascale, the Director of Undergraduate Research and my boss at PCUR – my first regular paid writing gig.

I consulted many others while making my decision – my parents, other professors, my friends. But it helped tremendously to have people that I’d made an effort to learn from – to network with – who could help me make my decision (and direct me to others who would do the same). As I graduate, I’m still not interested in old boys’ clubs or forced conversations full of ulterior motives. But meeting interesting people and learning from them? That I can do.

Career Services hosts a variety of networking and mentorship events throughout the year. Check out the next Career and Life Vision workshop on April 13, take a look for upcoming networking events, and consider scheduling an appointment with a career counselor to figure out how you want to use your networking and mentorship. Career Services is also hosting an event specifically focused on networking strategies on April 10.

Bennett McIntosh, Natural Sciences Correspondent