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Career Networking Simply Does Not Work for Most People
One of the most popular myths surrounding the search for jobs or new careers claims that over 85% of job vacancies are not advertised and filled through networking. Of course, I have never seen any detailed analysis of how this statistic was generated and hence one must conclude that this one of those widely quoted “statistics” or “facts” which sounds correct but is based in deliberate misdirection- not unlike one of those fake quotations by famous historical figures. But before we go further, let me state a couple of important caveats relevant to the discussion.
Caveat 1: Career networking does work for people who are already comfortably inside the system. For example, if you are a senior position with aspirations to become a VP of some department, it helps to know others in that area working for competitors who will alert you to lateral job openings and support your candidacy, with an unspoken understanding that you will return the favor later.
Caveat 2: It also works if you are an incredibly enthusiastic, persistent and shameless ass-kisser who spends a good part of their waking day trying to find opportunities to meet and ingratiate yourself to people who might be of help later. But most human beings don’t behave like that nor enjoy that sort of excessive fake socialization.
I should also add that career networking might appear to work if you happen to have some skill which happens to be in demand or fashionable at the moment. For example, anybody with some experience in AI (or successfully pretend) would have no problem getting a job anytime between 2018 and now. The same held true for bioinformatics between 1997 and 2004, neurosciences between 2008 and 2012, petroleum engineering and geology anytime the price of oil and therefore exploration is high.
At this point, some readers might recall a time when career networking worked just fine for them. Well.. it is certainly possible that networking was a successful strategy in the past (specifically between 1945 and mid-1990s), but this had a lot to do with the constant creation and easy availability of new and well-paying jobs during that era. As mentioned previously, if the overall economy is doing well and corporations are looking to hire a lot of people urgently, even knowing the janitor at their office will improve your chances.
However we do not live in a world with a steady stream of new and well-paying jobs anymore, at least in the West. In other words, the single biggest precondition for any type of career networking to succeed for most people is no longer present. While there will always be small bursts of openings in some well-paying field every now and then, this is radically different from the large-scale economic growth seen in western countries for first 4 or 5 decades after end of WW2. And let us be realistic, how many people are going to retrain for AI development knowing that the job market in all hot fields decays within a few years of reaching peak hype.
Let us now move on to the many personal observations which led me to this somewhat depressing conclusion. The story begins towards end of 1990s when I started my MSc. Almost immediately, I noticed something alarming. Most graduate students in biomedical research had a hard time getting good jobs in the private sector, let alone academia after graduation. Note that this was already the state of affairs at a well-known state university in the late 1990s and very early 2000s. Also, while this was especially true if you were non-white, being white did not improve your chances that much. The only really successful people in graduate school was the small percentage that got into medical school. Another handful eventually landed nice corporate gigs.
But the majority who finished a graduate degree in biomedical research ended up in poorly paid and unstable jobs or careers- if you can call them that. Curiously, women did a bit better since they were more easily able to find jobs in areas such as medical writing and administrative positions. However, many promising graduate students and postdocs (some of whom even got into “good” postdoc or junior faculty positions) either never reached the next stage and dropped out of research or did not get tenure.
One of the most promising postdoc I knew who got a faculty appointment after a single postdoc, never managed to get tenure and now runs a shop selling health supplements. Another one, who was also especially good at ass-kissing, eventually managed to land tenure in some obscure university after a few years. And these are the success stories. The success rate for getting a stable job after graduating a degree in any area of biomedical research was pretty low even two decades ago.
After finishing my MSc and switching fields a bit, I managed to get into a biotech startup which lasted about two years after I joined it. So what happened to the people I worked with in that company? Well.. let us talk about the biggest success story- a person who spent most of his waking hours trying to schmooze and network with as many people as humanely possible. Turns out he was eventually able to get into management, obtain an MBA, climb the corporate ladder just fine and is doing very well- at least based on the last time I checked his Linkedin profile a few months ago.
The other two successful ones got hired almost immediately by a larger biotech in San Diego and did OK for a couple of years. Then, one left for a more stable but less paying position in some research institute in Toronto where he toiled for almost a decade and then somehow got hired by a research outfit owned by a math quant billionaire with an oversized ego in NYC. It was only then that he was finally able to make the kind of money he wanted to make his entire life. He was almost 60 by then. Notably, he actively avoided helping me or anybody else from the biotech find better jobs.
The other one, also actively avoided helping others in addition to being an enthusiastic ass-kisser. He moved from San Diego to Boston and worked for a series of Pharmas and eventually weaseled his way into management and based on his Linkedin profile is doing well. The rest of those who worked at that startup either slowly dropped out of that area altogether or have ended in some dead-end job. To summarize, career networking has poor efficacy nowadays even if you are white.
After that job, I decided to get a PhD in a proper STEM area. However things did not get much better. Once again, the really successful graduate students were those who went into med school. On the bright side, a significant percentage of those who finished their grad studies in that department still have jobs which are either directly or indirectly related to their field of study- which is impressive in 2023.
While having connections from working in the ‘right’ lab appears to have helped a few, the bump was not as large as one might think. General economic and hiring conditions specific to the field were still, by far, the dominant factors determining what happened to their career prospects. Once again, being a woman does increase your chances of getting certain jobs – especially in administrative type positions.
So what does all of this mean? For starters.. investing too much time in career networking is wasteful unless you are doing it almost full time. Please note that I am not telling people to be anti-social or shun everyone. It just that one has to be realistic about what can be achieved through networking and it is a good idea to not base your career plans on being successful at networking. While networking might allow one to win a small prize or get a lucky break once in a while, it is inadequate for anything more substantial. Wish I could be more positive, but the truth is often unappetizing.
What do you think? Comments?