Networking Secrets for Early-Career Oncologists

Oct 25, 2016

By Jack Lambert, Staff Writer

Networking in many professions is, to put it nicely, a chore.

It typically takes place in empty hotel ballrooms at unreasonably early hours with the goal of exchanging as many business cards as possible. Most cards sit in a desk drawer forever; maybe one or two get a follow-up.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, especially in oncology.

Networking in oncology can be an email congratulating a colleague for publishing a journal article. It can be having coffee with past residents, or volunteering for a sub-committee. Most importantly, networking in oncology can be intellectually and emotionally refreshing.

“Networking means you get to know people across the nation who have similar interests and similar drive,” said Arti Hurria, MD, of City of Hope. “The opportunity to work with incredible people is very important to a fulfilling career.”

Building your network

Networking is not elevator pitches or emailed resumes. It’s the people who will pick up the phone when you call about a job opening or for career advice.

Networking is also not just connecting with people in positions of power. Today’s residents and fellows are tomorrow’s faculty chairs and program directors. So networking should start early in an oncologist’s career.

“The connections you make throughout your career are for life,” said Jennifer J. Gao, MD, of the National Cancer Institute. “I keep in touch with my mentors and advisors from medical school and residency and over the years, they have also become some of my closest friends.”

Networking with peers can include social media messages and congratulatory emails. Dinner meetups, happy hours, or coffee runs are great ways to catch up with old colleagues and allow junior oncologists to compare notes about their current jobs.

“There are different ways academic institutions take care of us,” said Jane Lowe Meisel, MD, of the Winship Cancer Institute at Emory University. “It’s nice to get an idea from your peers of what to expect in terms of clinical support or protected research time.”

Mentors are a cornerstone of your professional network. They often have connections throughout the field of oncology, and can facilitate both online and in-person introductions. Putting care and attention into the mentor-mentee relationship is valuable for your career now and can yield dividends down the road.

David Chism, MD, joined the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in January after completing his fellowship at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (UNC). As part of his new job, Dr. Chism became site principal investigator for a phase II clinical trial testing a targeted therapy for patients with advanced bladder cancer with disease progression following first-line treatment.

The trial—a continuation of work Dr. Chism began as a mentee at UNC—allows him to keep in touch with his mentor Matthew Milowsky, MD, of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“For the next 5 years, I’m going to have a close ongoing communication with a mentor at least once a month, because we’re going to be on the phone talking about the same trial,” said Dr. Chism.

A mentor may not always have the right connection, but junior oncologists should not shy away from asking for assistance or from introducing themselves to senior physicians.

Oncology remains a relatively small field and most senior oncologists want to help, Dr. Hurria said. They are not bothered by introductory emails or meetings—much the opposite, in fact.

“There’s nothing more satisfying for a senior faculty member than to watch a junior faculty member succeed,” she said. “You can’t lose by reaching out. If it doesn’t go somewhere, it doesn’t go somewhere. But do not underestimate the potential goodwill that’s on the other side.”

Meeting etiquette

Large professional events like the ASCO Annual Meeting are great places to expand your network. However, they are also busy affairs full of presentations, meetings, and activities. Although many meeting attendees will be gracious if you introduce yourself in the hallway between sessions, they likely won’t have significant time to get to know you.

To network more effectively at these meetings, figure out potential new connections and send them an email before the meeting, with an invitation to meet for coffee or a conversation before or after the sessions. Afterwards, send a message thanking the person for their time.

“When I get on the plane going home, I try to send a follow-up email to people whom I want to remember me,” Dr. Meisel said. “Something short and sweet to keep my name and face out there.”

While at the meeting, avoid approaching someone right after they’ve given a presentation, said Suresh S. Ramalingam, MD, of the Winship Cancer Institute and Chair of ASCO’s Professional Development Committee. A presenter’s head is often still spinning, making it difficult to distinguish between people rushing the podium.

Instead, make an introduction in a quieter setting, like a poster session or networking center. Be brief and include a specific piece of unique information about yourself: your research specialty, your mentor’s name, or your recently published paper are all good ways to start a conversation. Then send a follow-up message after the meeting, referencing the things you discussed.

“Interactions that stand out are when somebody says, ‘Hey, I’m working on this particular research area. I’d love to get your thoughts and maybe work together,’” said Dr. Ramalingam. “When somebody presents an idea, you think of that person in the context of that idea. It stands out in your mind and later you can put a face to their email.”

Volunteering for more

Volunteer organizations or regional cooperative groups are some of the best ways to make connections in oncology. You’ll have regular opportunities to interact with new people, and can contribute to important work that will benefit others in the field.

“Committees welcome new blood, especially in training and learning,” said Helen K. Chew, MD, of the UC Davis Cancer Center and Immediate Past Chair of ASCO’s Oncology Training Program Subcommittee. “Get to know the people on the committee. Most people are very welcoming and warm to new members.”

The best way to make a good impression on a committee is through hard work and preparation. Studying the minutes of the last meeting, asking thoughtful questions, and contributing fresh ideas on a conference call or at your in-person meeting will help you dazzle fellow committee members.

Avoid taking on too many assignments, which may lead to incomplete or inattentive work. Sometimes a committee or volunteer opportunity clashes with increased work responsibilities; when that happens, it’s perfectly fine to decline assignments. It’s better to be known as discerning than to be considered unreliable or unprepared.

Engaging with your community

At its core, networking means meeting new people and sharing ideas about oncology, which are often the very things that draw people to the specialty in the first place.

Even if it doesn’t result in a new job, networking can offer its own rewards.

“Networking is helpful even if you think you don’t have a specific purpose in mind,” said Dr. Ramalingam. “When you see somebody who is established in a field and is a mentor, engage with them. You never know when those efforts will pay off.” 

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