Physicists who want to solve the world’s great challenges don’t just need deep technical expertise, but also excellent networking skills. Claire Malone explains that getting the most out of networking is all a question of practice – and providing those opportunities is key to increasing diversity in physics
Whether it’s providing clean water around the world or designing space craft to monitor the impact of climate change, today’s young people are keen to find solutions to the many challenges society is facing. That effort needs many different approaches, but studying physics undoubtedly increases the arsenal of tools a young person can use towards these aims.
However, what is often not taught in the physics classroom is that soft skills – such as networking and communicating your work – can be just as important for your career as getting your head around nuclear fusion or quantum mechanics. Not only that, but practising these skills is helpful for giving young people confidence in all areas of life – and in turn, promotes diversity in physics.
Unfortunately some people’s confidence in their scientific ability is diminished by the conscious and unconscious biases they constantly have to negotiate. Some are put off by misconceived ideas they are told about physics – such as it being a solitary field for anti-social “nerds”. Others are denied the opportunity to study physics due to the prejudice and stereotypes that they experience because of who they are. Girls, for example, are often presented with the myth that physics is more suited to boys, while many young people are told that physics is not for the likes of them based on their ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability or social background.
The harmful and upsetting message that physics is not for women was reinforced very publicly in 2019 in a talk by Alessandro Strumia at CERN’s first workshop on High Energy and Gender. He wrongfully argued that women are inherently less capable of physics research than men and that this supposed discrepancy is the main reason for the disparity between the genders in theoretical physics. If that wasn’t enough, Strumia also claimed that the biases women face in physics actually work in their favour.
16 key skills and attributes for a successful career in physics
In reality, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary (PNAS 109 16474; Nature Chem. 14 1203; PNAS 111 4403). For example, women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects are more likely to have their e-mails ignored when enquiring about potential PhD positions; are less likely to be awarded funding and grants; and need to have, on average, published three times more papers in top-tier journals than their male colleagues to secure the same job in academia. In addition, there is frequent harassment and bullying that forces some to leave science altogether.
The end result is that too many young people, especially young women, are made to feel that they can’t do physics or that they don’t fit in, and so they don’t pursue their physics education.
It’s a problem exacerbated by the lack of visible role models in physics that under-represented groups can identify with. As a report jointly published by the Institute of Physics (IOP), the Royal Astronomical Society and the Royal Society of Chemistry showed, young people are much more likely to study a STEM subject or pursue a STEM career if they can see someone they identify with, who has gone there first and who inspires them. However, finding such role models is often hard unless you are pointed in the right direction.
Networking for change
Among those trying to address the root causes of gender bias that permeate much of physics is the IOP, which realizes that a key strategy to remedy this bias is to promote a diverse range of role models to inspire school students. In fact, this was the motivation behind the event Networking with Leading Influencers in the Physics Community, held at Royal Holloway University of London, UK, in May 2023. It brought together school students, undergraduates and postgraduates with an all-women panel of physicists at different points in their careers and in different industries. I took part in this panel, in which we demonstrated that an interest in physical sciences opens doors to a career not only in academia but also a huge variety of other options. Journalism, patent law and mechanical engineering were represented on the panel too.
Events such as this don’t just show the wide variety of career pathways you can go into with a physics degree. They also give students, in a supportive and informal setting, the chance to develop their networking skills, which are extremely useful but can only be learned by experience and yet are often overlooked during the early stages of higher education. Networking helps promote collaborations, build confidence in talking about your work, and exposes you to what else is happening in the field.
In addition, networking events like the one in May are invaluable for improving diversity in STEM. They give young people the chance to find role models who could have a positive influence on their entire careers. And by letting students see people with whom they identify working as successful physicists, such events combat stereotypes and show that people from a wide range of backgrounds can be scientists.
By listening to the career stories of physicists at these events, students also can see that science is not the solitary activity it’s often portrayed as being. As the speakers made clear, pursuing a scientific career does not imply that you will focus solely on your chosen area of expertise to the exclusion of other disciplines. For example, experiments in my own field of particle physics involve many thousands of scientists and engineers from different disciplines working together on a daily basis. These lessons are often missed from the pages of physics textbooks.
Despite the obvious advantages of networking, it can feel scary or even in some way devious – almost a dark art
Despite the obvious advantages of networking, it can feel scary or even in some way devious – almost a dark art. This an unhelpful and incorrect misconception that could hold some young people back in their careers. Sure, networking requires a certain level of confidence and practice, as with any skill. But by introducing students to networking situations early in their careers, we can show that it is just another skill that you can get good at if you practise hard enough.
The lesson that your career can helped by chance conversations at conferences is much easier to impart through real-life stories than through, say, pamphlets from the careers office. We need to teach future physicists that if you want to solve humanity’s greatest problems, then teamwork and reaching out to people from different backgrounds are as important as being able to model water supplies, launch rockets and do the all the technical stuff we traditionally think physics is all about.
Five top tips for networking
Networking is often perceived as a scary dark art that only the most confident people can excel at. This is not true – it’s just a matter of practice. Here are five tips to help you get the most out of networking.
1 You can’t network if you’re not there
It sounds simple, but the first thing is to show up. Departments, universities and organizations such as the Institute of Physics (IOP) put on many events where the opportunity to network arises. These can be department lectures, lunchtime talks, day conferences, careers events and more. Try to take up as many opportunities as possible to talk to people. Even if the occasion is not relevant to your interests, it can be good practice in networking. It’s important to have the confidence that people will want to talk to you. Everyone there has the same goal of meeting new people. Be one of those people they meet.
2 “Who are you?” and “what do you do?”
An easy thing to practise before any networking opportunity is how you would describe yourself and your interests. Often the first questions people will ask are “who are you?” and “what do you do?”, and answers to these can be easily prepared in advance. It’s a good idea to have a roughly 30-second “pitch” describing yourself and your research and/or career interests. However, be aware that the people you speak to will have different backgrounds and you may need to tailor your pitch. For example, when I talk to particle physicists, I describe my PhD research in terms of quarks and supersymmetry, whereas when I am talking to scientists in other fields, I describe my research in terms of the question of the missing matter of the universe.
3 The give and take of a conversation
Remember that a conversation is a two-way process and take an active role in steering its flow so that it doesn’t focus only on one person. Showing an interest in the people you are talking to and responding positively to them will help make a good impression and a connection.
4 Stay connected
To make sure your hard work doesn’t go to waste, you will need a way to stay in touch with the people you meet. This can be on LinkedIn, via e-mail or through a professional social media account. You may also need a way to note down contact details as well as give your own – business cards can be very useful for this. Afterwards, make contact soon after the event to maintain that connection you have created. This doesn’t have to be prolonged – it can just be saying how nice it was to meet somebody at the event and that you hope to talk again sometime soon.
5 Be aware of your online presence
Last, with the predominance of social media, it’s important to be aware of your online footprint. Social media is a wonderful way to stay connected, but it also serves as a record attached to your name. Permanently removing information can be difficult so it’s worth knowing what is publicly accessible and how easy it is for people to find when they look you up.