The Art of Networking: Advice for the Oncologist-in-Training

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Graham T. Watson, MD

Graham T. Watson, MD

It was Friday night of the 2016 ASCO Annual Meeting in Chicago. I planned to meet a friend, another 2nd-year heme-onc fellow, at a “free drink thing,” as she called it. I sheepishly entered the hotel bar, made a nametag at the insistence of the greeter, and started edging my way through the crowd. I finally found my friend talking to a middle-aged man in an expensive-looking suit. She introduced us and his first question seemed like the natural one: “Where are you from?” I answered, “Virginia,” and before I knew it, he smoothly pivoted to introduce me to someone I “had to meet.” It was Dr. Mark Fleming. 


  • Institution: Chief Fellow, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Division of Hematology & Oncology; medical oncologist and hematologist, Virginia Oncology Associates (as of July 2017)
  • Member since: 2014
  • ASCO activities: ASCO Trainee Council, ASCO University Personalized Learning Dashboard Review Panel

I didn’t know it at the time, but in that moment, I had stepped into the most important job interview of my young life. Mark is an oncologist at Virginia Oncology Associates (VOA) in the Tidewater area of Virginia. We talked briefly about “work stuff ” and quickly moved on to discuss our families and a shared hobby, golf. Simply put, we hit it off. He gave me his card and I gave him mine. In this 15-minute conversation, Mark and I each learned something very valuable— “this is a person I could see myself working with.” Nonetheless, I didn’t know much about Norfolk, Virginia, and I was still deciding between a career in academics vs private practice. Beyond that, I could not imagine that there would be a job opportunity for my wife, a pediatric oncologist, in Norfolk. With so many unknowns, I was skeptical that this would go anywhere. 

Nonetheless, when Mark e-mailed a few weeks later, I agreed to an interview. As I moved through the interview process with VOA, the personal connection that Mark and I made was invaluable. Even before I arrived for my first interview, Mark had contacted the local pediatrics group and arranged a meeting for my wife. Mark had talked me up to his partners, and so I felt very welcomed during my interview day. Over the course of several visits to the area, I learned about the city of Norfolk and the life that my family could have there. After interviewing at several places, both in academics and private practice, VOA rose to the top of my list. Maybe more importantly, the position for my wife in Norfolk turned out to be her dream job as well. We fell in love with the city and realized how nice it would be to be closer to family in Virginia. We are moving to Norfolk in July! 

As I reflect on my job search, I am struck by the serendipitous manner in which this job opportunity came about. What if I had decided to skip the ASCO Annual Meeting last year? What if Mark Fleming had skipped it?! I will grant that there is some degree of luck involved with my story, but it also highlights the importance of a key skill that many of us have not cultivated: networking. 

The average medical oncologist will train for roughly 10 years after college before seeking a first job in the daunting “real world.” Many of us skipped the job fair on our undergrad campus in lieu of cramming for the MCAT. We tried our hand at interviewing as part of the residency and fellowship match, but landing the interview was a set process—put your CV in a hat with other applicants and see what you get. But in the real world, there is no match! For those of you entering the job market, I offer four pieces of advice that will serve you well as you build your network and find the perfect job for you. 

1) Be Proactive.

Professional meetings are a great place to start. While smaller meetings allow for more mingling, larger meetings such as the ASCO Annual Meeting offer a multitude of opportunities to make connections. Don’t make the mistake I made and hope that a job falls into your lap. Schedule meetings with practice members in the area of the country you are targeting. If you are an aspiring researcher, ask the leaders in your field to have a 15-minute cup of coffee between sessions. The worst they can say is no, and you might be surprised at your success rate. 

Each time you meet with someone, finish by asking if there is anyone he or she could recommend that might help you along your journey. Now, when you reach out to that person, it is not a cold call. 

2) Be Organized.

This skill is helpful in many aspects of life, and networking is no exception. Recalling small details about a conversation can impress a potential employer down the road. The fact that Mark remembered my wife’s profession even though he probably met 10 to 20 people that evening really impressed me. Making a few notes immediately after you meet someone is a sure way to success. 

Just in case the person opposite you is not as organized, be sure to keep business cards on you at all times. Distribute them liberally. Most of us remember a name better if we have seen it in print. Even if your card is tossed in the nearest trash can, handing one out will increase your chances of being remembered. 

Another great habit to develop is to send a follow-up e-mail within 5 days of meeting someone. It can be very brief—a few lines—and should include a reminder of who you are in case the details of your conversation have faded. 

3) Be Opportunistic.

You may meet your next career mentor while attending the Plenary Session at ASCO, but you may also meet them at Gate C23 in the Milwaukee airport waiting for the second leg of your flight home. Be available and open to meeting with people, even if you do not see where the immediate benefit will come. If you want a job in Chicago, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t network with the practice manager for a group in Indianapolis. Maybe his college roommate has just the position you’re looking for! 

4) Be Genuine.

This is most important of the four pieces of advice. As you meet with people, you should not be asking, “What can this person do for me?” You should be asking, “What was this person’s path to success? What is his story?” When you show genuine interest in learning about people, you are well on your way to developing the types of relationships that will serve you well. 

The job search process can be overwhelming. The stakes are high and there are often numerous variables at play. Many of my co-fellows expressed frustration, anxiety, even fear at some point during the process, so you’re not alone! The fact is, no one can guarantee that you will land the job of your dreams, but networking is a valuable way to improve your chances. 

Remember, the savvy professional is always building her network. This should be a career-long practice, not just something you do when you are job-searching. You never know where the next opportunity may arise. 

So I hope you can be more proactive and organized than I was. Luckily for me, being genuine and opportunistic was all that it took. If nothing else, take one lesson from my experience—never turn down a free drink! ■

© 2017. American Society of Clinical Oncology. All rights reserved. Originally published in ASCO Connection. © American Society of Clinical Oncology. “The Art of Networking: Advice for the Oncologist-in-Training.” ASCO Connection, July 2017. All rights reserved.