So, what do you do?

I talk about networking quite a bit, because it’s critical to building a rewarding career. Building real relationships that you maintain through your entire career will bring tremendous value. These relationships start with a first impression, and much of the time the first impression is based on that ubiquitous icebreaker

“So, what do you do?”

How do you answer this question when you are asked? You could give them your job title, which may or may not match what you want to be doing. You could launch into a list of bullet points about the job you currently have, or the research you are completing as you approach your thesis defense.
But if you want to create a more engaging response, think more carefully about what you want their first impression to be. You know your career design plans, so tell them about that. It’s your story, and you get to decide how to tell it.

Suppose I’m a graduate student at a local networking event and I see someone who I know leads the engineering group at a local company that makes LiDAR systems. I want to meet her and make a good impression. Consider these two examples:

Example A:

Director of Engineering: “So, what do you do?”
Graduate student: “I’m a graduate student at the University of Fundamental Research here in town. I’m working on a project to measure the relativistic Doppler shift to a precision of 0.00000001%. I excite a two photon transition in a beam of metastable neon atoms and measure the frequency shift as a function of their speed. I’m hoping to graduate this year and am looking for a job.”
Director of Engineering: “Well, it was nice to meet you.” (Thinks to herself “Just like the other five students I’ve met today.”)

Example B:

Director of Engineering: “So, what do you do?”
Graduate student: I’m a laser systems expert. I develop high performance laser systems used for testing fundamental physics by taking tunable lasers I buy from Coherent and finding ways of pushing them to their absolute limits.
Director of Engineering: “Really? Coherent makes some pretty impressive tunable lasers. I’ve used them myself. What are you able to do to improve on their product?”

Instantly I’ve created a mini-interview opportunity.

Is example B less honest than example A? No, not at all. It simply puts parts of the story I wanted her to remember up front so it was the first impression. I’m happy to tell her anything else about my background as the conversation continues, but first I focus on grabbing her attention with a description that makes me stand out.

Develop an engaging response to this question, and practice it with everyone you meet. Refine it and rehearse it until it sounds natural. It will make a big difference in your networking success.

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