Upon hearing the word “networking,” most people probably envision a room full of strangers, mediocre hors d'oeuvres, and moderate to high levels of anxiety. It’s the worst, right?
It doesn’t have to be. In fact, it shouldn’t. Networking is about making authentic connections. It’s not transactional—”you do this for me and I’ll do this for you”—but is rather about finding common interests and ways to help each other out. Hopefully that first interaction leads to a long and productive relationship.
Think of all your friends and collaborators in your field. How did you meet them? Networking! Examples:
Working on a group project with classmates who become future colleagues
Engaging with a presenter about their work during a poster session
Chatting over cookies before the weekly department seminar
Talking shop over post-conference beers
Meeting peers in a small workshop
Networking is not something academics are typically taught how to do, but we do it intuitively anyway.
Why you should network
You’ve heard people say, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” This is true no matter your profession. Here are some statistics that support that in the context of finding a job:
Up to 85% of jobs are filled through networking 
For people actively looking for a job, 3 times as many people got their job through networking than a direct application 
For employed people passively looking for new opportunities, 7 times as many people got their next job through networking than applying 
For better or worse, the world is not a meritocracy. Anyone who’s been through the job search process is painfully aware of that.
Personal experience: As a grad student, I met a senior scientist who became a mentor and friend. Several years later, he provided me an email introduction to Planetary Resources’ CEO. Two months after that, I had a job offer. You never know how a positive relationship will benefit you in the future.
Having an extensive network is invaluable for when you’re drafting a cover letter for a job application and can name drop someone who works at that company/institution. Not only does it means someone can advocate for you on the inside, but your contact can also sniff around for inside knowledge about your application status—I’ve done this before.
How you should network
Networking isn’t about telling everyone why you’re so awesome. I mean, you are—but show, don’t tell. Here’s how to approach conversations:
The quality of interactions is more important than quantity. At an event, spend time in deep conversations with one or two people instead of doing laps around the room trying to get face time with everyone.
If the conversation doesn’t flow easily after an introduction, I’ll say, “tell me about yourself.” I like it because it’s simple, unique, and open-ended.
People find it intrinsically rewarding to talk about themselves (science says so). Get them talking by asking lots of questions.
Find out what you have in common. I recently experienced a very stilted conversation with a hairdresser until we discovered that we both used to live in DC. The conversation flowed easily from there.
Provide value. For example, offer to send them an article or paper they might be interested in or to put them in touch with someone. Talking to someone much more senior? Compliment them on a paper they wrote or a talk you saw them give. Everyone loves compliments.
Don’t hog their time. When the conversation seems to wane, say “It’s been a pleasure speaking with you. Here’s my card if you’d like to stay in touch.” They’ll reciprocate and offer theirs.
As soon as you have the chance, scribble notes from your conversation onto their business card. Draw from these notes the next time you’re in touch with the person (e.g. “how was your trip to London?”).
The next day, follow up with an email or LinkedIn note saying how nice it was to meet them and to stay in touch. Don’t be afraid to ask them out to lunch or coffee for further discussion/connection.
Where you should network
Local events relevant to your interests. Meetup.com is a great place to get started.
Social media. Twitter is a great way to gain visibility and interact with people you may not have otherwise met. Having a LinkedIn profile is non-negotiable if you want to get a job in industry.
Alumni events for your college/university.
The bus, the grocery store, parties, wherever there are people!
Always keep a few business cards in your wallet and/or purse for those unexpected interactions.
Warm introductions to someone from a mutual contact are always better than cold introductions. If you want to meet someone and a friend or colleague knows them, ask for an email or in-person introduction.
Feeling alone and awkward in a room of strangers? Scan the room for others who are also alone. Introduce yourself—they’ll be relieved to no longer feel as awkward as you did.
Learn to Love Networking (HBR)
10 Tips for Successful Business Networking (Business Know-how)
The single best resource I’ve come across is Networking for Nerds by Alaina Levine. It’s geared at academics but has useful, actionable advice for everyone. She even highlights a couple of planetary scientists!
Addendum for introverts
I’ve an extrovert and likely have an easier time with all this than some. Here are some extra resources specific to introverts: