With many campuses closed, internships canceled, and employers working remotely, you might be tempted to move networking to your post-pandemic to-do list. However, in a challenging job market, making career connections is now more important than ever. The good news is that virtual networking opportunities are still out there. And none of them cost the price of a plane ticket.

Build your network now

Networking is not about finding that one perfect contact who is going to land you a dream job. It’s about getting to know people who share your interests and are open to exchanging advice and insights at any career stage. Therefore, even if you’re not currently searching for a job, the time to network is now.

“I consider networking to be building relationships with people,” says Jana Markley, senior scientist at the pharmaceuticals company AbbVie. “If you think of networking as simply reaching out to another person—maybe with a similar story but just at a different point in their journey, it becomes less intimidating.”

Networking is critical for helping you understand what sorts of positions are available and which would be the best fit for you, says Samina Azad, an ACS career consultant and the R&D manager at the Illinois-based company PLZ Aeroscience, where she specializes in consumer packaged goods (CPG) research and development. When you have questions such as, “what is it like to work in academia versus industry or government?" says Azad, "the best way to find out is by talking to people.”

The people that you connect with now might vouch for you when your résumé is on the table or give you a heads-up about a new opening before it’s posted. They could also help you understand what is expected of you in a new position, which could ease new job jitters. 

Before beginning her first industry job, Azad thought that she needed to know everything about how to perform her role on day one. “Really that’s not the case. What industry is looking for is somebody smart and willing and able to learn very quickly,” she says. “I was very worried before I started and, unfortunately, I didn’t network and ask people the right questions.”   

Make the most of the virtual meeting

Reaching out to new people, especially those senior to you, can feel intimidating whether in a conference space or cyberspace. When you attend conferences in person, you might rely on a mentor to introduce you to potential employers. You might even happen to find yourself in line for coffee behind your dream graduate advisor and (deep breath!) muster up the courage to ask a question about her recent paper.   

Networking can feel unnerving, especially for introverts, says Alayna Johnson, who graduated from the University of Illinois in spring 2020 with a B.S. in chemistry. In person conferences forced Johnson to move out of her comfort zone and talk to new people. “If someone is at your poster, you have to talk,” she says. After the ACS Spring 2020 National Meeting was canceled, she still shared her poster online via ACS’s SciMeetings platform. But she didn’t feel the same push to network.

With many conferences moving online, making connections will require a little extra work. Some, including the upcoming ACS national meeting, help link students with potential employers through virtual career fairs. Azad suggests that students review the list of career fair employers and begin reaching out before the conference to ask what it’s like to work at that organization. 

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