Take a professional development course to explore interests.
Join an industry organization.
Attend events to gain knowledge.
Create valuable contacts that might lead to a position.
Academia is cozy. You go to school and research stuff that will save the world from its own destruction, hang with other grad student friends and take off the occasional Friday without notifying anyone, because, well you don’t have to. If you’re a little lucky, you’re getting a stipend that doesn’t quite cover all your expenses but the freedom of this lifestyle makes up for it by the bucket load.
Eventually though, you think, this lifestyle will have to change. Whether it’s because the prospects of getting a tenured position are slim or you don’t want to invest the time in another degree/PostDoc. Or simply because you have to eat and pay your debt.
The question is, how do you leave this magical world of academia? Who do you talk to? In all honesty, you’d rather not talk to anyone at all. Your office is so cozy… maybe you can just send a couple of emails from here.
There are practical steps to get out into the real world.
Begin simple, like signing up for a different professional development course at your school. Check the library, career center or your graduate student society websites for listings. These courses will give you an idea on what you might be interested in and what you need to work on to get there.
From there on, search out professional organizations in your area of interest. For example if you would like to work in the agri-food business, find a local industry organization that supports agri-food businesses and sign up for their newsletters. Get acquainted with the most prominent companies, people and events by looking up names mentioned in those newsletters.
Attend at least one industry event per month. Most of these are not free and industry organizations often have membership dues that might seem steep on your student budget. Do not avail, email and ask if they have a student discount or whether you can attend events for free if you volunteer your time at the door.
Once at events, pay attention to how people speak i.e. business jargon, key terms in the industry etc. If you don’t already know them, write them down in a notebook and look up those terms and concepts when you’re back home. This practice will build up your vocabulary and, therefore, ability to carry on a meaningful conversation with key individuals. This will be your groundwork for networking.
These first few networking events will be ugly. You will be out of your comfort zone, you won’t know anyone and you’ll have to go up to strangers and attempt to pick their brain about what they do. Once they find out that you’re a student and thus, not necessarily a valuable contact for them, they might quickly gravitate away. Don’t take it personally, like you they are attending these types of events to create high-value contacts.
In order to keep potential contacts interested, give them a short two to three sentence pitch of your work and its applicability to the real world. Avoid scientific jargon since, depending on the event and area of interest, many of these individuals may not have graduate degrees in science.
Keep putting yourself outside of your comfort zone. The more you practice these skills, the better and more confident you will become. In a later stage, consider ordering business cards with your personal contact information: name, personal phone number, personal email address and LinkedIn. Depending on the type of industry, having a business card with contact information may or may not be the standard. Have them on hand to give out when exiting the conversation.
Ex: “It was great chatting with you Mr/Ms X about Y. I had a few extra questions, may I contact you over email to continue our chat?”
At this point, expect to exchange contact information.
Finally, try and gain skills outside of academia. Volunteering or working part-time are some options. Make sure that, whatever you take up has some applicability to the industry of interest.