Career Networking—During a Pandemic?

For health care providers, the practice of networking can frequently become an afterthought. If you attend professional get-togethers regularly, such as the AAN’s Annual Meeting, a certain amount of networking is going to happen naturally. You only need to talk to the person sitting next to you and you’ll likely have a new acquaintance. But what happens when attendance for in-person meetings is limited or events are moved to only online?

Welcome to the pandemic. The need to maintain social distancing has challenged our abilities to travel, attend events, and even work. Depending on your specialty and job situation, it may already have been months since you’ve seen a colleague—or patient—in the flesh. Is this really a good time to consider networking? Oddly enough, the answer is yes. This may actually be an excellent time to initiate or rekindle relationships with colleagues. Read on for some of the reasons why, as well as tips for making the most of the unique circumstances presented by the pandemic.

Reasons to network now

While it’s true that some health care professionals are incredibly busy right now, it’s also true that others have been furloughed or reduced in their hours. If you belong to the latter category, making good use of your “extra” time should be front of mind. Not only will you be better able to schedule these contacts right now, but it’s also possible that others may welcome them more than usual. In a time of isolation from colleagues, being remembered by someone in your professional circle can carry extra impact.

That said, random contact without an evident purpose would feel strange at any time. You need to know why you’re networking, and so will the person you contact. Here are some ideas to help you determine your reason for reaching out to someone:

  • To reactivate a relationship that has gone dormant—perhaps with a fellow student or professor from an earlier training program, for example.
  • To stay in touch with a more recent colleague, perhaps to stay informed on what’s happening in a shared workplace.
  • To compliment someone on a published article or other achievement.
  • To create or build relationships with potential partners for future work or research projects.
  • To seek advice or initiate a mentoring relationship.
  • To initiate contact that could later lead to job opportunities or career advancement.

Getting started: Methods and tools

While connecting with others at a conference or meeting is more challenging during the pandemic, you have a number of other networking options to choose from. Probably the most reliable process is to reach out with an email. This might contain a simple “thinking of you” message, or it could present an invitation for a real-time conversation by phone or video call. If you’re connecting with someone local, you might even offer a socially-distanced walk in the park or cup of coffee at an outdoor café.

Social media presents another opportunity for connection, ranging from sending a LinkedIn message to following someone on their Twitter or Facebook accounts, to sharing posts via another platform. And of course, there’s always the direct and handy connection you can make by simply dialing someone’s phone number. In the end, your method of outreach might be determined by the contact information you have for your colleagues.

Choosing who to contact and crafting your message

By now you might be wondering how you’re going to come up with people to network with, and what you’ll say. Both are good questions, and each is more easily solved than you might expect.

To choose others to contact, start by making two lists: People you already know, and people you’d like to have in your circle. In the first case, you just need to populate the list of current and former colleagues with some form of contact information and you’re ready to go. To identify people for the second list, you’ll find that your AAN membership provides you with an excellent starting point. The AAN’s SynapseSM online communities, committees, and task forces are on tap with just a little exploration of the Academy’s web site. You’re also likely to discover articles, webinars, and blogs of interest to you, with authors and presenters who might be available for networking.

Once you’ve made your lists, the question of what to say in your outreach needs to be resolved. As a starting point, go back to the beginning of this article where various reasons for networking are noted. Are you reconnecting with someone you’ve lost touch with? Perhaps you’d like to compliment someone on their article or further the conversation they’ve started in a blog. When you’ve identified your topic or reason, now it’s a matter of tone and wording. For example, with someone you haven’t seen for awhile, you might go with a warm and sincere reintroduction, combined with a brief reference to the pandemic and an invitation for further contact. Here’s an example:

“Joe, it’s been at least four years since we were together in residency, but I think about you often. I finished with my epilepsy fellowship and began working in a clinic, which was an excellent start for my career. Luckily, I’m still able to do some of my work remotely. How about you? I’d love to know more about how you’ve been faring, especially over the past few months. Here’s my contact data; just reach out when you have a few minutes and we can catch up.”

As for the people on the other list—those you don’t know yet but would like to know—the message will likely be a bit more formal. Without a previous connection to rely on, there’s no point in “catching them up” on your circumstances. Instead, focus on what you’re requesting (a conversation, for instance?) and look for a shared interest or other experience to reference. For example, you might have gone to the same university, which can make an entrance point for your request to video chat. Or, perhaps you share the same specialty, as in this example:

“Professor Jackson, we haven’t met but I wanted to compliment you on your recently published article on epileptic seizures. The points you made were of special interest to me and I would like very much to ask a few follow-up questions if you have time. Would you feel comfortable with a brief video or phone chat in the next few weeks? I’ll watch for your response and, in the meantime, I hope you are managing well with our current circumstances.”

Final Tips

How much networking to do naturally depends on your situation. If you are seeking work, connecting with a number of people is an excellent idea. If, instead, you are already working but realize that you’ve lost touch with those in your past, your networking might be confined to just a handful of individuals. Whatever your reasons or process, these final tips might be helpful:

  • Challenge yourself by setting a pace. Perhaps one outreach a week, or more if you are job seeking. This will help you set a networking habit, which will benefit you for your entire career.
  • Be patient and kind-hearted when others don’t get back to you. These are very challenging times and you may not know which of your contacts is struggling to cope. Simply renew your invitation, perhaps a few weeks after the initial outreach, and then let it go if you don’t hear back.
  • Master at least one video tool, if you haven’t already. Zoom, Webex, Google Hangouts, Skype—having an account already set up in one of these tools will make it easy to extend the invitation if someone agrees to “meet” with you.
  • Update your online identity if you have the time. Establishing or revising a LinkedIn profile is an excellent place to start. By letting a new (or renewed) contact see what you’ve been doing professionally, you’ll make it easy for them to feel connected before they agree to actually connect.

One last thought as you prepare to refresh or initiate your networking practice: There’s literally no geographic barrier to the meetings you can join right now. You can network with people anywhere in the world as easily as you can with someone down the street. That’s at least one silver lining from our pandemic coping mechanisms that might create benefits for years to come.

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