By Karolina Lempert, part of The Summer Series of guest posts
Networking gets a bad rap. I get it – we all like to believe that we live in a fully meritocratic society, and that if we just keep our heads down and work hard, everything will work out in the end. Growing up, I definitely thought like this.
You see, my parents immigrated to the United States from Poland in the early 1980s, speaking no English and having no money. They were determined to give their children a better life than they had, and they worked really hard for that. My brothers and I didn’t have a lot when we were young, but we never felt deprived. I worked hard and did well in school, and ended up getting a scholarship to an excellent private high school in New York City. I thought, awesome! Social mobility at work! The American Dream!
I continued to study hard in high school with the goal of attending an Ivy League university. I got the best grades, was elected to leadership positions, and was (over?) involved in extra-curricular activities. Little did I know – hard work would not be enough. As the college rejection letters piled up, my worldview started to shift.
In a fortuitous turn of events, my guidance counselor spoke to an acquaintance of his in the admissions office at Harvard, and managed to get me a spot in their incoming class for the following year. Taking a year off was daunting to my 17-year-old self, but in the end, it was a small price to pay to attend one of the best universities in the world.
Did I deserve to get into Harvard? Sure – I think lots of people have what it takes to succeed there. Would I have gotten in without adding a little bit of networking and a lot of luck? Definitely not.
Well, a degree from Harvard! I was set, right?
I had an advantage, of course, but even when you graduate from Harvard, no one hands you a job. You still – at the very least – have to know what you want to do and apply. When I was a sophomore, I took a class on abnormal psychology that I really enjoyed and excelled in. I think I found the topic personally relevant; my relentless perfectionism in high school did not translate well to college, and my mental health suffered (my friends and peers fared even worse). When the class was done, I got a personal e-mail from the professor, Diego Pizzagalli, congratulating me on my final grade. After a couple of years surrounded by the best and the brightest in the world, this was the first time I felt special in a long time. I decided to see about a volunteer position in Dr. Pizzagalli’s lab, and was offered one. I started with menial tasks (data entry, data backup, data collection), but it was great because it gave me a sense of purpose, and I got to see what scientific research was like.
(Aside: Note that I was ~20 years old before I knew what scientific research was like. Science was not a career path that had ever occurred to me before that point, and I think that’s kind of a travesty. But moving on…)
Fast forward to senior spring. I was going to graduate soon but I didn’t have anything lined up. I was kind of torn between journalism and continuing in psychology (what can I say? I like learning about people). I wasn’t ready to apply for PhD programs, so I tried something a little unconventional. I had read a paper for a lab meeting that I really liked, so I found out who the senior author was, looked up who his lab manager was, and e-mailed the lab manager to see if there was any chance he was leaving soon. It turns out, this lab manager was not leaving, but he forwarded my e-mail message to his PI (Mauricio Delgado), who told me about a new faculty member arriving at the department soon. “I’m sure she will be needing a lab manager,” he said.
I immediately e-mailed this new faculty member at Rutgers University, Elizabeth Tricomi, with my materials. A few weeks and a phone interview later, I was offered the job!
I sometimes reflect on how NUTS it is that my whole career path was pretty much determined by that one e-mail that I sent to that lab manager at Rutgers. Once again, adding a touch of networking to the well-known “hard work + luck” formula worked wonders.
If I hadn’t gotten that job, I probably would have ended up as a freelance journalist for a little while. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but 1) I LOVE my job, and can think of no better fit for my skills and interests than being a psychologist, and 2) as uncertain as academia is, it is a heck of a lot more certain than journalism (or art, by the way – my husband is a musician, and I think he is a lot braver than I am).
I worked at Rutgers for a couple of years, applied to graduate schools, chose NYU (to work with Liz Phelps), graduated after 5 years, and now I’m at Penn as a post-doc, working with Joe Kable. Yes, I worked hard throughout this almost ideal trajectory. Yes, luck played a role. But also, making connections and forging collaborations was absolutely key. My advisor at NYU was the post-doc advisor of one of my mentors at Rutgers, and my advisor at Penn was the post-doc advisee of one of my mentors at NYU. These are not coincidences.
I could say a lot more, of course – about how I chose my research topic, how exactly I got my current job, about when I decided that psychology was the career for me (short answer to that one: I have no clue)…but it’s more important to reiterate the formula of hard work + luck + networking. Louis Pasteur once said, “Fortune favors the prepared mind,” and I think there’s a lot of truth to that, but the “prepared mind” in question can’t just sit there inert. Reaching out to others and expressing your interests and goals can make all the difference. And before you get too frustrated about the whole networking thing, remember that the connections that work best are the deep ones. So make friends, be kind, and be collaborative. Not only does it pay off – it’s fun!
P.S. And don’t forget that you have the power to help others. Having someone vouch for you doesn’t feel nearly as gross if you can do the same for someone younger than you.