The search for meaningful work in biotechnology

Posted on November 10, 2016

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How networking enhances your career path opportunities 

The time to begin your search for a rewarding employment position is the day you register to go to a post-secondary institution. Why? Because the whole point of getting educated is to be able to apply what you learned in school in a job that values the knowledge and skills that you have developed. 

Getting educated is an investment in your future. Finding challenging and rewarding employment is the return on that investment. 

Education and employment go together – each builds upon the other. You cannot secure that dream job if you don’t have the education required to do it, and the getting of education without a strategy for how you are going to apply it leads to personal frustration and missed opportunities. 

I would like to offer you the lessons that I have learned by experience because when I was in your place over 40 years ago nobody told me how to use my time effectively so that I could get to where I wanted to go efficiently. 

Like the majority of young people, I did not have a plan for my future so I tried lots of different jobs until I finally found that one job that motivated me to jump out of bed in the morning and rush to work – not because I had to go, but because I wanted to go. When you find a job that engages your passions, and that you get well paid for, then you have reached success, in my opinion. I want to help you shorten that path to success if I can. 

Networking is the best way that I know to find a rewarding work situation. All else being equal, people tend to hire the person they know over a stranger. Not fair, but true. That is why the expression exists – “It is not what you know but who you know.” 

Networking is the process of meeting people that may be able to help you find opportunities that suit your skills, education and career objectives. A network of contacts in your chosen field of interest and related fields is like having your own professional support group. They are there for you when you are looking for opportunities and they are there when you need mentoring and other forms of professional, and sometimes personal, support. A large network is the best hedge I know against unemployment because the majority of job opportunities go unadvertised but are usually known to people in your network. 

Most young people start out by looking for jobs online and then submit applications and resumes – along with hundreds or thousands of others – and never hear back from the HR department. Using this method to find the job that suits you the best is like buying a lottery ticket; the probability of winning is one in a million. Having a network that you have grown to hundreds or thousands of people over the course of your studies is the best way to increase your chances of finding what you want and need when you graduate. So start building your network for success today! 

Things you need to do

Design a business card 
Do this right away and get 250-500 printed (Vistaprint  or Staples are inexpensive suppliers, for example).

Here is an example of a business card I received from a German student at a conference in Nantes, France where she was volunteering to help out the organizers. If you want to use the back of your business card as a mini resume then you can put your area(s) of interest along with some relevant courses taken and volunteer / co-op placements (year, organization, city). Be brief – use bullets. 

Create a profile on LinkedIn 
LinkedIn is the world’s largest professional network. Take a look at what others have done with their profiles and create yours; be brief but show what you have done and what you can do – don’t be shy to say what sort of opportunity you are looking for. One thing I have learned is – if you don’t ask, you won’t get. Be reasonable. Think of your profile as your online resume and it is easier to refer people to your LinkedIn profile than to email your resume all over the place. In a conversation you can always say, “You can find me on LinkedIn.” And don’t forget to add the LinkedIn profile link to your business card. 

Join professional associations / organizations 
One of the best ways to find out what is happening in your field and start your networking is to join a professional association. These are organizations composed of people that work in your industry with the goal of promoting the interests and goals of that industry. They will usually have a job posting section on their websites as well as e-newsletters that you can sign up for. For example, BIOTECanada and Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO) are major national and international organizations that promote the interests of biotechnology in Canada and the USA, along with LinkedIn discussion groups. When you have your LinkedIn profile you will be able to join these groups and keep abreast of trends, issues and innovations. 

Professional organizations usually have student memberships and are a way to become involved in the various issues of the day. Actively participating where you can is a great way to learn firsthand about the many challenges facing biotechnology in your country and around the world. These organizations host a number of events during the year where members come together from all over the country/world for a day or two or three to share information, discuss important issues, and find solutions to challenges. There are usually a number of social events interspersed throughout these gatherings where you can meet people that you would never normally come into contact with in your daily life. These are some of the best networking opportunities. Hand out your business card and gather business cards from everyone that you meet. 

I have seen many students / young people not make the best use of these meetings because they are shy or don’t know how to approach a stranger. Think about this – except for your family, everyone that you now know was once a stranger to you. So look at strangers as potential friends waiting for you to make contact. Walk up to people and introduce yourself, ask them where they are from and what they do – the conversion will flow from there. It’s really not as difficult as you think. And some of these people may become really good friends! 

Volunteer at biotech and related events 
Volunteering is an excellent way to meet people in the biotech industry and to begin building your network. Not only will you meet interesting people but you will get into these events free, a real value considering the cost of admission to some events. Both national organisations mentioned previously – BIOTECanada and BIO – host a number of events during the year that depend on volunteers to help out in numerous ways. Showing the event organizers that you can be useful to them, as well as mature & responsible, is a sure way to make a great impression, which will come in handy later when you need a reference for a position you are interested in applying for. When attending these events, remember to hand out your business card and gather business cards from everyone that you meet.

Attend biotech and related events whenever possible 
This is a great way to meet more people in the industry as well as learn interesting things about the various and diverse opportunities that exist in the biotech sector, both locally and internationally. These events usually have job boards where you can learn about opportunities as well as post your resume for potential employers to see. When attending these events, remember to hand out your business card and gather business cards from everyone that you meet. 

Interview people working in biotech 
This is a great way to talk to people about their jobs and career path. Instead of asking them if they have a position available, ask them if they have time to talk to you about their career and where they see the trends going, the skills necessary, and the qualities employers are seeking. Because you are not asking them for a job but only information, it is a non-stressful way to pick their brain for tips that you may be able to use in your career search and decision-making. It can be done over coffee at a cafe close to where they work and try to limit it to 30-45 minutes so that it does not take them out of their office too long.

I have been interviewed by students this way and it is usually a good experience. Be aware that not everyone you contact will be receptive to this invitation, so do not take it personally, it could just be a bad day and the timing was not right for them. 

When you meet, come prepared with a list of questions that you would like to run through; that way you have a starting point to go from. Depending on how the conversation is going, you may have to be flexible and go with the flow. The whole point is to learn things and you cannot always tell where this is going to happen so just try not to be too rigid in your approach. A good conversation is always a matter of give and take. Be professional and polite and thank them for their time and allowing you to meet with them. Get their business card and give yours before departing. And ask them for three other contacts in their network that you might be able to interview; it’s a way to get more names to add to your network. But don’t push it if they do not what to provide these, it may be that they want to speak to their contacts first. Always give them the choice to email you later with such contact info.

Always follow up with an email thanking them again for their time and for sharing their experiences with you. Remember, this interview is also another opportunity to make an impression and you never know where this may lead. If they like you and feel that you might make a nice addition to their team, you may get a phone call when you least expect it offering you an interview for a position you didn’t even know was available. Keep in mind that the majority of available positions go unadvertised and usually get filled by people found via networking. 

Create a networking database 
Put the contact information from all of the business cards you collect into a database, such as CamCard or one of the other popular contact database apps/programs available. Some people even use a simple Excel spreadsheet. The whole point is to have a searchable database where you can easily find people using keywords. Use your database to keep in contact with people in your network, to let them know where you are, if you are looking for part-time work, if you are going to an event that they may be attending, and if you have moved and have a change of address, email or phone number. If you are travelling and you know that some of your contacts may have their own network of contacts in the place where you are going, then ask them if they know of anyone in that place that would be available to meet with you to discuss your career goals, etc. Biotech is a global enterprise so there is always something or someone to see when you are out travelling. Don’t ignore this opportunity to meet people and make new friends in other cities in Canada, the USA and abroad. International contacts are very valuable as you begin to advance in your career. Look at travel as an opportunity to expand your network as well as see places - universities, research institutes, companies, etc. - that are aligned with your interests. 

Don’t forget family, friends and neighbours 
It is always surprising to find out that somebody in your extended family or neighbourhood knows somebody in the biotech sector, or a friend of a friend that does. Never overlook family or neighbourhood get-togethers or events as potential networking opportunities. You will be amazed at how many times a simple remark at one such event can lead to an unexpected opportunity. Treat every event as a new networking opportunity and be on the lookout for conversations that mention something in your area of interest. 

Do study terms / student exchanges in a foreign location 
Some colleges and universities offer study terms or exchanges in other parts of Canada, the USA and overseas in collaboration with their network of post-secondary institutions. If possible, this is a great opportunity to live and study in a place where you would never normally have that opportunity. It provides you with the chance to get out of your comfort zone, meet new people, and experience a different culture. Life should be an adventure and this is one of the best ways to have a new experience. Because these programs are set up for international students, you can meet people from many different countries that share some of the same interests as you. Some of these friendships may last a lifetime. They may also have a huge impact on your career path because of the opportunities that may come from these contacts to you via their networks in the countries where they live. 

Prepare for job interviews 
A job interview is a two-way discussion. You are being interviewed for a position by a company, and you are interviewing a company to find out if you want to work there. Do your homework on the company and the position you are being interviewed for. Know as much as you can about the company, its products / services, strengths and weaknesses, major challenges and opportunities. If you know somebody at the company, then find out why the position is being filled, and if there is a lot of turnover in the position. If there is turnover then it could be that the job is problematic, or the manager is problematic, and people leave as a result. Never be afraid to ask questions in an interview. If you don’t understand the question, say so. If you don’t understand something about the position that the interviewer has just said, ask for clarification. When you don’t know something, do not fake knowledge of it because this gets discovered very fast and leaves a bad impression. Try to be confident but never overly so, everyone gets nervous so my advice is always to be you. The worst thing is to try to be somebody you are not, or say things to impress or because you think it is what the interviewer wants to hear. Be genuine, be honest, and be yourself - it is what will give you the edge. You will not get every job that you apply for but do not get discouraged. Every interview is an opportunity to get better at interviewing. Interviewing is a skill, like everything else that you have learned at school and in life. Not getting the job is not a sign of failure, only that you are not the person with the skills that the firm is seeking – at that moment in time. Move on, be graceful – know that your time is coming and prepare for it. 

Timing plays a role in finding a position. Sometimes you are just in the right place at the right time and you get hired without a lot of effort! Be thankful. 

What I have learned is that finding a position is not about what is fair or not fair – life is not fair. You can have everything that you think qualifies you for the position but still you don’t get it. Use that opportunity to gather feedback from the interviewer so that you can use it to get better prepared for the next interview. 

Some things to keep in mind: 

Opportunities don't happen, they are made by people that go out and find them. 

“If you can find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn't lead anywhere.” – Frank A. Clark. 
“I think the biggest innovations of the 21st century will be at the intersection of biology and technology. A new era is beginning.” – Steve Jobs 
"The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones." – John Maynard Keynes 
“The last trillion-dollar industry was based on computer code, the next trillion dollar industry will be based on genetic code.” – Alec Ross (The Industries of the Future)

Dave Conley
Corporate Communications, AquaBounty Technologies