Networking. For some people, this word is usually accompanied by a sense of foreboding and mistrust because it conjures up images of glib sales reps, overt friendliness, and shameless self-promotion. Simply put, networking is the exchange of useful information and contacts. It is about building lasting, supportive relationships with people who share a common interest or goal. Regardless of the discomfort associated with it, networking remains one of the most effective ways of finding a job, changing careers, or keeping up with trends in industry and research. It is essential that chemical engineers learn how to network since relying on creativity and technical ability is not sufficient to stand out among peers or make an impact in the scientific arena.
Building a network is a daunting and time-consuming prospect, but having a mentor can help you develop interpersonal skills and find career opportunities in industry or academia. In this article, I present some of the benefits of having a mentor and briefly describe my mentee experience as a process engineer in a corporate organization and in my current role as a grad student.
Is having a mentor necessary?
Absolutely. A mentor is like a Sherpa, a trusted guide, who has successfully navigated the paths under consideration in a career. He or she can explain what is needed for success in an area of focus, assist in setting priorities and goals for projects, and help you reach these goals. A mentor also provides critical feedback in areas such as communications, time management, interpersonal relationships, and leadership skills. Sharing this knowledge helps the mentee avoid mistakes and contributes to professional growth and experience, and it also helps open the door to numerous contacts who can provide opportunities for learning new skills.
Having a mentor also increases your visibility by providing new networking opportunities and identifying potential collaborators of influence within your field of expertise. Being introduced to these new contacts by your mentor makes it more likely that you are remembered, and that your resume or work are given more than a cursory glance when presented. It also provides access to a large pool of references for further career advancement.
My mentee experience
During my three years as a process engineer, I participated in a formal corporate mentorship program set up to acclimate new employees. Mentors and mentees were matched by a selection committee, based on profiles filled out by both parties. Each year, I was paired with a new mentor and we would meet on a biweekly basis to discuss my career interests and goals. Each mentor's approach was unique. Fouad concentrated on my technical abilities and set me on the path to obtaining a PE license. Marie focused on empowering me as a female engineer and connected me with other women in STEM. Doug helped me figure out my career aspirations and has become a trusted confidante over the years. Through these experiences, I was able to stand out among my peers and was entrusted with responsibilities that were sometimes above my formal position.
As a graduate student at a research institution, mentorship is largely informal with daily one-on-one interactions with my research advisor. He has been steadily building up my research network and visibility by setting up collaborations with other researchers in my field. He has also been improving my communication and writing skills by signing me up for grants, scholarships, and conference presentations. Under his guidance, I am expanding my skills beyond experimental measurements to modeling and simulations. We are both working toward the mutual goal of establishing me as an expert and potential influencer in my field of atmospheric research.
It’s not what you know but who you know
Networking may be a pain, but its importance can’t be overstated. Though education and credentials are still highly valued, the reality is that a solid network can help tip the scales in your favor. Having a mentor is a great way to expand your network and ensure visibility to others in your field. It must be stressed that the mentor-mentee relationship is one of mutual respect and equal contribution. To get the most out of this experience, the mentee must be willing to take responsibility for the relationship since he or she stands to gain the most from it. While a mentor may open the door to multiple opportunities, it is the mentee’s duty to keep it open.
Ogochukwu Enekwizu is a chemical engineering doctoral candidate at the New Jersey Institute of Technology studying the chemical transformations of atmospheric aerosols such as black carbon. She recently won the NJWEA graduate student award in environmental science. You can reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or through LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/ogoenekwizu.
Haynes, L.; Adams, S. L.; Boss, J. M., “Mentoring and networking: how to make it work.” Nature Immunology 2008, 9, 3-5.
This article originally appeared in the Young Professionals community site blog on January 29, 2019.