Networking is more than just a way to find your next job, suggests Ted Gilbert, founder of Pharma Thursdays, a networking group for the life sciences industry. It can also be a way to share ideas and professional interests with like-minded people.

More than a year ago, when the biotech company at which Gilbert worked lost its funding and went out of business, he and a group of colleagues in the pharmaceutical industry started getting together to share ideas about the economy, the industry, and the life sciences community. Recognizing obstacles to participation in existing networking opportunities — cost, membership requirements, narrow focus on a particular topic or speaker — the group decided to open itself to the entire life science community in the Philadelphia area last November.

“We realized that for a lot of people, there was no place for them to go in order to gain exposure to that type of information,” says Gilbert.

A year into its life, Pharma Thursdays boasts a list of 500 networkers, with about 50 showing up at any given meeting — a two-hour cocktail reception, with appetizers and a cash bar, with no cover charge or membership required. About a month ago the volunteers who run the group turned again to LinkedIn and Meetup.com to create a similar networking opportunity in Princeton.

Already the group, which meets on the third Thursday of every month, has a list of 70, and 25 showed up at its first meeting. The next Princeton meeting is on Thursday, November 19, at 6 p.m. at Triumph Brewing Company on Nassau Street. For people new to the group, volunteer co-hosts will be on hand to introduce them to others who share their interests. Visit www.pharmathursdays.com.

Although early on some felt the group should have a goal in mind, what Gilbert has found is that people “latch onto the idea of coming to a place where they can chat with people who have similar background and interests.” In comparison with the usual run of business networking events, he says that Pharma Thursdays are “meant to be more personal, low stress, and fun.”

Even though the group is focused on its networking events, Gilbert admits that ideas thrown out by group members have spawned additional events, for example, a December networking event to benefit Community Volunteers in Medicine in West Chester and a seminar in February on networking and leveraging LinkedIn.

Gilbert offers suggestions for networking successfully:

Always have an end in mind. For people seeking employment, he suggests, “it should be a little more specific than ‘Hey, I want to get a job,’ and also more creative.” An alternative might be, “I am looking for specific contacts in a specific area whom I can exchange knowledge with.”

Talk to everyone. “Most of the people I know that network and end up being most successful aren’t choosy in who they network with,” says Gilbert. “Don’t be afraid to talk to everybody and anybody. You don’t know who a person knows and who it will lead to — it’s like putting a puzzle together.”

People who go to an event with specific types of people and companies in mind might be overlooking exactly those people who have connections that can help them out.

Make sure networking is mutually beneficial. It’s not just about you, he says. “Take a deep breath and find out what they do and how you can help each other.”

Use networking sites like LinkedIn effectively. The key to leveraging a site like LinkedIn is having contacts and having them introduce you to other people, says Gilbert. But it’s also important to help people find you when they are searching by posting as much different and specific information on a LinkedIn profile, including recommendations or references as well as details about work experiences.

“It acts like an online resume,” says Gilbert. “I’ve found that when people are looking for experts, having as much information as possible will lead people searching to your profile and open you to more possibilities.”

Ask questions. Networks are great places to ask questions and take advantage of other people’s expertise. “In the process of doing this, you can increase your exposure and network into other opportunities,” says Gilbert.

Gilbert, who now lives in Newtown, grew up outside of Easton, Pennsylvania. His mother worked in billing at a dental office, and his father worked in a plant that manufactured packaging for the pharmaceutical industry.

Gilbert graduated in 1999 with a degree in microbiology from the Delaware Valley College in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. His first job was as a lab manager for a group funded by the hepatitis B Foundation at Thomas Jefferson University in Doylestown. While working there, he also earned an MBA from La Salle University, with a focus on finance.

After four years at Thomas Jefferson Gilbert wanted to move into operations. In 2003, through connections he developed at the incubator, he secured a position in quality and external vendor management with Nucleonics, a manufacturer of a DNA vaccine for hepatitis in Horesham, Pennsylvania.

Nucleonics lost its funding in April, 2008, and a little more than a year ago Gilbert started working in quality and operations management at Novasep, a manufacturer of large-scale separation equipment for the pharmaceutical industry in Boothwyn, Pennsylvania.

Gilbert invites anyone in the pharmaceutical industry to attend Pharma Thursdays. Given the current economy, some people at the event will be in transition, but they will not be in the majority, he says. Most of the guests will be people who want to talk about issues in the life science community, share ideas, and exchange thoughts.

The relationships they nurture might also become a safety net if people do lose their jobs. “There’s great value in creating these types of relationships before you’re in a situation where you’re in career transition and need to lean on people,” he says. “It’s easier to create them on the front end.”

Looking more broadly at the value of networking, it can provide individuals with a sense of where they stand in the pharmaceutical marketplaces. Gilbert shares a bit of wisdom he gleaned from a former boss: “If you’re not out in the market and understanding what the market is, you never know what your real worth is.”

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