We all know that professional networking is an important part of climbing the ladder to success. What might you gain from building a network of colleagues? You may develop comradery, friendships, confidants, and mentors to help guide you in your career. Networks may expose you to new ideas, provide scientific collaborations, expand your influence, and alert you to opportunities. But how do you build this network? Networking can be awkward and time-consuming, and conflict with your struggle to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Don’t let this push networking to the back burner. If you sit back and wait for the network to come to you, it might not come knocking on your door. You must be willing to devote time and energy to building your network. What if you are shy or introverted? Do you really need to get out there and get to know people in your scientific field? The answer is a big fat, YES! The best way to have a strong professional network is to build it yourself. Look for successful women in science, introduce yourself, and ask them questions about their path to success. Build a mentoring and professional network to help you navigate the next step in your career. Dismiss the myth that asking for help means that you are weak or incompetent. It is important to recognize your strengths and weaknesses; to capitalize on your strengths and find ways to improve your weaknesses. In fact, knowing who and when to ask for help could provide you with the “leg up” that you need to navigate the path to success. Asking for help communicates to others that, although you may not have all of the answers, you are willing to find out strategies to address these weaknesses. Use these relationships for exchange and promotion of ideas and information. Continue the networking conversation by following up with someone you’ve recently met at an event. For a network to be successful, the interactions should be continued over a suitable period of time and not just a one-time meeting. You might send them an e-mail when you return to work and make arrangements to meet during upcoming events. Say yes to serving on committees, and be an active and vocal member. Learn the names of the people on the committees and contact them outside of the committee service. You must be willing to do the work and ask for the type of help that you need, or you may be passed over when it really counts. Mentors may not know what you need as a mentee. Since your mentor may be your research advisor, a postdoctoral fellow in the next lab, a faculty member in the department, or a scientist you met at a national or international meeting, you may need to help each other figure out what type of mentoring relationship will provide the best outcomes. You want to feel connected, supported, and inspired as you build the professional network.
Advantages of Connecting with Women
For some female scientists, they may not perceive an advantage of gaining a mentoring relationship with female over male scientists. Male mentors might predominantly focus their efforts on your scientific goals, whereas female mentors are more likely to focus on guiding your life inside and outside of science. Many female scientists have experienced novel guidance from female mentors and role models. Female scientists are positioned to share their personal experiences with conscious or unconscious gender discrimination in science. By sharing their stories, female mentors may prepare their mentees to handle these types of encounters if they occur in the future or help mentees look in retrospect at discriminatory events. Female mentors may encourage you to be more direct in asking for what you need and in making your career goals clear to those around you. Women often need to be encouraged to value their knowledge, skills, and contributions to science, and not to underestimate their value and worth. Don’t be afraid to ask successful women in science to share their secrets of how they have succeeded in a male-dominated career. Learning how the “good old boys” club works is not likely to be shared with you by male mentors; instead, women who have discovered how the system works can guide you into making strong connections and gaining experience. Don’t wait to be invited as a scientific symposium speaker; propose a symposium and place yourself as a speaker. Don’t patiently wait to be asked to give a research seminar within your institution or outside of your institution; chair a scientific session, serve as member of a committee, review abstracts, or serve as a judge. Volunteer your services and get in the middle of science instead of looking in from the outside. Many female mentees find that women mentors are able to share their experiences in maintaining a healthy life and work balance. Because these women have gone through the challenges of handling marriage, pregnancy, and child care with the demands of a scientific career, they may offer concrete suggestions on how to manage these many demands on your time. In fact, time management is very important, since it will focus your efforts on what needs to be accomplished in the laboratory in the upcoming week so that you’ll have time for your personal life.
Connect Informally with Women at Your Institution
I have found that getting connected with women in science is important for guiding my career forward and providing me the forum to mentor junior women in science. I hope that you are inspired to take a closer look at the women in your institution that may serve as a part of your scientific network. I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to be mentored by many successful women in science. I’ve found that it is worth the time and effort to seek out and serve on committees that are designed to serve women in science as well as committees to serve the department, university, societies, and organizations. My exposure to the benefits of meeting female colleagues, finding out the types of research that they conduct, and sharing difficulties and successes in science began as a first-year graduate student at Tulane University in New Orleans. At the time, there was one female faculty member in the department of physiology. She invited the female graduate students to lunch, and I was the only student who was available. I was amazed that a senior faculty member could take the time to get to know me. These lunches grew to include female postdoctoral fellows, technicians, and faculty. I looked forward to these times to get away from the campus and have a nice lunch in a nearby restaurant. I had the opportunity to really get to know the graduate students, fellows, and female faculty in my department. Also during this time, she arranged for women faculty in the school to meet for lunch on a regular basis. At these networking events, I was able to learn from basic and clinical scientists about strategies to balance work and family, maintain resiliency, and become a successful woman in science. Maintaining a positive outlook and preventing burnout are important behaviors to learn in the highly competitive field of science. When the senior scientist left Tulane, I took over the role of continuing the physiology networking lunches until my departure. Now, I’ve begun a “Junior Women in Physiology Faculty Networking Luncheon” at LSUHSC and enjoy our time together. You may want to start your own networking luncheons at your institution. Also, I hope that you’ll accept invitations from members of your department and institution to participate in social networking events. These meetings may provide a forum to discuss issues related to 1) authorship order on manuscripts, 2) strategies for grant proposals, 3) collaborations on research projects, 4) promotion and tenure, and 5) work and life balance, to name a few. Be sure to start close to home and connect with women in your department and institution.
Connect Formally with Women at Your Institution
You might be surprised how serving on a committee at your institution may provide a unique perspective of success in academics. Serving on multiple committees for the school of medicine has fostered my interaction with basic scientists, clinicians, and university administrators. Working in these capacities has provided the forum for me to develop relationships with members of the school that I would not normally encounter if I focused all of my attention on my own department. Serving on committees may help you gain the bigger picture of what is going on at your institution. By sharing information, practices, education, and experiences, women can accelerate the advancement of women in science.
Connect with Women in Your Scientific Societies
It is never too early in your career to develop a supportive network. Be sure to develop friendships with fellow graduate students who share common research interests. Like you, they will become the scientists of the future. They may be able to help you find the right person to answer questions about methods, strategies for advancement, finding a fellowship, and how to gain teaching experience, to name a few examples. They can also be life-long friends with which you can share your successes and challenges during your entire career. As an assistant professor, I was appointed to the American Physiological Society Women in Physiology Committee. This was my first experience serving as a member of a scientific society committee. At the time, I thought that I was too junior to serve on a societal committee and almost declined the invitation. Many scientific organizations have trainee members on committees and may have an entire committee run by trainees and devoted to the specific challenges of graduate students and fellows. I learned a great deal from the women chairing and working on the committee. These successful female physiologists taught me how to positively impact the career success of women in physiology by implementing the symposia we hosted at the Experimental Biology meetings that were specifically designed to address issues related to being a successful female physiologist. I did not realize that my serving on one societal committee may lead to my serving on another committee in the same organization. Later, I was appointed to the American Physiological Society Membership Committee, for which I served as a member for 2 years and as the chair for 3 years. I worked closely with the members of the committee as well as the American Physiological Society staff. I gained confidence in leading a team, implementing new initiatives, and realizing that I could make a difference. During my time as chair of the committee, I had the opportunity to attend the annual summer council meetings, which broadened my circle of colleagues and my knowledge of their scientific area of expertise. At the time that I accepted the position of chair, I did not know that I would have the opportunity to attend the summer meeting with my fellow committee chairs, councilors, and presidents. Name and face recognition provided me with an extended scientific family. Looking back, I can see that saying yes the first time opened the door for my continued participation in the mission of the society. During this time, I was appointed to the American Society of Nephrology, Women in Nephrology Programming Committee, for which I served for 8 years. My major contribution to the mission of the committee was to organize scientific symposia topics that included female speakers for the annual American Society of Nephrology meetings. In addition to attending the business meetings held during the annual meetings, we also gathered each year for a group dinner. The conversations at the dinners were often the most informative for gaining strategies to optimize my career success while balancing the time that I needed to have a rewarding and fulfilling personal life. As a member of this committee, I was able to connect with female nephrologists and renal physiologists. Continued service to the American Physiological Society as a member of the Education Committee cemented my relationships with the society staff members and physiologists with a commitment to further education initiatives in K-12. Without serving on these committees, I would not have developed long-lasting female scientist mentors who have assisted me with research ideas, strategies for career advancement, and invitations to give seminars and symposia, as well as provided letters of support for promotion. At the time that I said yes to serving on the committees, I did not realize the positive impact these women would have on my career trajectory. Be proactive in your volunteer service to societal organizations. Many committees would welcome a new member who is enthusiastic about contributing to the mission of the society. Trainees and junior faculty need to find a balance between the time commitment spent on research and service. Be careful that your time devoted to service does not hinder your career trajectory.
Connect with Women in Your Geographical Region
More recently, my time has been spent as a founding member, active participant, and secretary of the Southern Louisiana chapter of the Association for Women in Science. The chapter is dedicated to empowering women in science and technology by providing a platform for networking opportunities and career development programs, and to promoting an interest in science among girls and young women. In many ways, my service to this chapter is a compilation of my efforts honed while a member of societal committees. I’m in the position to gain mentoring from senior female faculty and to serve as a mentor for junior women in science in the geographical region. There is an intangible benefit to getting to know both the scientist and the person. Developing a working relationship with female scientists from basic and clinical science in the region has provided a larger and more diverse professional network. Contributing to education outreach and professional development programs offered by the chapter has provided me with a venue for me to reach out and mentor young women in science. It is rewarding to have a positive impact on the education and careers of young women in science. You may not have to look very far to find an established group of women in science in which to participate in your geographical region.
Networking expands opportunities within company walls and externally. It allows women to find role models and mentors inside the department, institution, region, nationally, and internationally. Of course, one can have many mentors, male and female; to help grow into the scientist, teacher, and person you want to be. Social connection and professional engagement can make your job more interesting, rewarding, and enduring. I hope that you will look for and engage in formal and informal gatherings that promote women professionals connecting with each other. Take a break from your desk or bench and get out to meet and learn from others. Invest more of your time building relationships instead of keeping your head to the grindstone. I hope that you find many new avenues for career development, advancement, and self-fulfillment by building and maintaining an effective professional network of mentors and colleagues.
Lisa is grateful for the assistance in the preparation of this article provided by Michael G. Levitzky, Kathleen H. McDonough, and the members of the Southern Louisiana Chapter of the Association of Women in Science.
Lisa M Harrison-Bernard, PhD is a New Orleans native who graduated from the University of New Orleans in 1984 with a Bachelor’s degree with a major in Biology and a minor in Chemistry. She graduated from Tulane University in 1990 with a doctorate in Physiology and continued with 4 years of postdoctoral training with Drs. Pamela Carmines and Gabriel Navar at Tulane Medical School. She joined the Tulane Physiology faculty in 1994 and rose through the ranks to Associate Professor in 2003. She joined the Physiology department at LSUHSC in New Orleans in 2004. Her research has been funded from the National Kidney Foundation, National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the American Heart Association.
Her research focuses on the prevention and reversal of diabetic kidney disease and the role of the renin-angiotensin system in the progression of renal disease in type II diabetes.
She has published 58 scientific papers and is currently a member of the Editorial Review Board for the American Journal of Physiology: Renal Physiology, Physiological Reports, and 3 other scientific journals. She regularly serves on grant review committees of the American Heart Association and National Institutes of Health. Society memberships are held in American Physiological Society and the Association for Women in Science. She is active in community outreach and education with an emphasis on increasing minorities and women in STEM fields.