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Networking for Neurologists: Use a Three-ring Approach to Create Contacts, Friends, and Mentors

Published on: Jan 21, 2020


If you’ve read any career or job search advice lately, then you know how frequently networking is prescribed as the solution to your problems or the pathway to your goals. When you add up all the curative powers of this one process, it’s almost as if networking were the career equivalent of eating your apples and broccoli to stay healthy. (Remember the adage, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away”?) There’s just one problem: Knowing about networking isn’t the same as knowing how to network. Read on. With a few simple steps, you can go from keeping those doctors away to having them accepting your request for help and advice as you progress through your career.


What Networking Is (and Isn’t)

The first thing to know is that networking isn’t a special form of communication or an extra type of outreach. It’s much simpler and more powerful than that. In its purest form, networking is simply the forging of relationships around common bonds or for mutual assistance. If you have a specific need—say, for an introduction to a department chair—networking can be driven by a goal. But in other circumstances, it’s less about reaching objectives and more about creating liaisons that will likely be helpful to both people somewhere down the road.

Also, it’s good to know that, while networking isn’t mentoring, it can be a very important part of that process. For example, when you want to develop a mentoring relationship with a more senior neurologist acting as your guide, having networked with that person earlier can lay the groundwork nicely. And, after your formal mentoring relationship has ended, you both may benefit from meeting people in each others’ networks as you move forward in your respective careers.


Understanding the Three Rings

One of the easiest ways to develop networking as a habit is to envision the process as three concentric circles, with you in the center. In this case, the circles each represent a different aspect of your professional life. (Although for other purposes—say if you needed help raising funds for a charity—you might envision your rings differently.) Here’s how the circles might look for a vascular fellow in a medium-sized city hospital who hopes to build strong relationships for future job search assistance, and for more immediate mentoring.

Ring One—Vascular neurology or stroke department of the hospital. If you were a vascular fellow, this would be home territory, so the people in this ring would already be familiar to you. Still, it pays to take a quick inventory, as it can be too easy to focus attention on only those you interact with closely. It’s likely that your department includes any or all of the following: fellows and chief fellow, of course; physicians, attendings, or residents who may rotate through; nurses; NPs and other advanced practice professionals; professors or academic staff; department chair and others in that office; clerical staff…you get the idea. If you were situated in a hospital as a practitioner rather than as a fellow, this first ring might look the same, but if you were a practitioner in a private practice group, it would probably be much smaller.

Ring Two—The hospital as a whole. Given the high workloads for many fellows, it might seem optimistic to imagine connecting with others outside your immediate line of vision. Even so, it probably won’t get easier to make these connections once you’ve finished training. Now’s the time to be more aware of your surroundings and the people in other parts of your organization. There will be too many to list, so the goal is to better understand this ring in general terms.

To start, it helps to have an organizational chart of departments, as well as an understanding about where your hospital may fit in a larger corporation or grouping of organizations. People in these other locations may be far-flung, but they’re still “kin,” so to speak, since you share the same employer. Again, if you were out of training but practicing in a hospital, your list would look similar to the list a fellow might build. But it would differ if you were situated elsewhere. For example, for a neurologist employed in a university, this circle could also contain the other academic departments, or the broader administrative staff. A doctor in private practice would envision this ring by identifying people in closely-affiliated organizations, such as the hospital where he or she has privileges.

Ring Three—Your profession of neurology. Now things get simple again, even though this circle is vastly larger than the other two. Using the resources available to you as an AAN member, it’s fairly easy to identify the groupings and individuals who fall under the general concept or specialty areas of neurology. But there may still be a twist: If our vascular fellow in this example were coming from an earlier profession—say, he or she started in internal medicine before returning for specialized neurology training—this circle could include an even larger group of professionals.


Connecting with Others— When’s the Best Time?

Now that you have a sense of how many people you could connect with, and a way to categorize them conceptually, it’s time to dig in. The actual process of networking doesn’t have to be intensive, unless you have a time-sensitive issue that you need help with. The goal is to lay the foundation with a few people in each ring as early as possible so that you can stay connected casually and collegially over the ensuing years.

Building a networking mindset while still in training is ideal because it’s usually easier to request brief conversations or advice at this stage. For one thing, if you’re in training now, you’re already in a learning frame of mind. Moreover, others may feel more open to accepting your request for a connection, as they can usually relate to the experience of being in the career stage you’re in now. That said, networking can be initiated or enhanced at any stage of a career. Indeed, the further you get from your training, the more you are likely to value the advice and friendship of others in your field.


How Can You Make the Outreach?

This will be easier than you think, once you resolve any initial discomfort or nervousness you may feel about the process. That’s a very normal feeling, as we often imagine others are too busy to respond or will resent being contacted. In fact, that may be true in a minority of cases, but you can’t control or predict that, so the best way to proceed is to imagine how you’d like to be contacted if the situation were reversed. As a rule, one or more of the following methods will work to reach out to almost anyone:

  • Send a short, polite email introducing yourself and stating that you’d like to connect at a later point to: (choose one) learn more about their department; ask their advice; something else.
  • If the person is someone you see regularly, ask them in person: Would you have time for a cup of coffee in the next week or two? I’d like to: (choose one) feel more connected with people in our department; get to know you better, as I’ve admired your work; ask your advice; something else.
  • If the person is someone you feel intimidated by but would like to connect with, consider asking an intermediary to introduce you.
  • If you’re on LinkedIn or another social media tool designed for professionals, reach out by issuing an invitation to connect. Be sure to word the invitation personally, rather than using the default “I’d like to be connected” option, as this lets them know you’re sincere.
  • If you know that you will both be in the same place at the same time—say at the AAN Annual Meeting, or perhaps a more local gathering—send an email inviting them to join you for a cup of coffee or a brief connection before or after a session.


A Small Investment for a Lifetime of Rewards

Are you ready to add networking to your list of career-building tools? It doesn’t have to take much of your time. Start with just one or two contacts a month—perhaps a total of 20 minutes for reaching out, and an additional hour or two if you schedule conversations. If you create a database or email files to store your contacts, you’ll be able to tell later who might be good to talk with if something time-sensitive arises. You’ll be surprised to see how much easier it is to ask for help when you’ve already got a connection to someone, however casual it may be.

And don’t forget the power of a compliment. Even if you don’t have a purpose for building a particular relationship, a short note complimenting someone on their published article or the poster they presented will never go awry. With our electronic tools, this takes only a minute but the positive effects can last a lifetime— for both parties.