Networking: A Student Step-by-Step Guide
Perhaps networking causes so much anxiety because it requires occasional steps outside the comfort zone and away from the computer monitor. While it might be comfortable to wait (and wait) for job offers to pour into your inbox, applying networking skills is truly the way to an active, productive job search.
You’ve probably heard, and perhaps not believed, that as a rule of thumb, seven out of 10 job opportunities are never advertised. People who network are more likely to learn about those seven opportunities; people who don’t network don’t.
The phrase “six degrees of separation” refers to the intriguing concept that all human beings are only six people away from knowing everyone else. Job hunters who network tap into and share information through these connections. They gain the benefit of meeting people in circles that are much larger than their usual circle of acquaintances. Of course, those in your usual circle are good to know, but to obtain the kind of information, advice, and feedback that an active job-searcher needs, you need to expand that circle.
Yeah, but ... how?
Step 1 – Define yourself and what you’re looking for
A good way to begin is planning what career counselors often call an “elevator pitch” – a short introduction of who you are and what you’re looking for. For example:
"Hi, Professor Jones! I wanted to introduce myself – I’m in your Fluid Dynamics course and am really enjoying the class. In fact, I’m thinking about getting an engineering internship or co-op dealing with fluids this summer. I’m especially interested in the aerospace and auto design fields. Would you have any ideas about companies offering fluids opportunities for students? Or do you know anyone who might have ideas for me?"
The objective is to relay information about your interests and goals, and begin a conversation that may reveal some useful advice or insight relating to your search.
Step 2 – Define your initial network
Everyone has a network. Everyone. Your immediate network includes family members, friends, neighbors, teachers, friends of your family, fellow students, and all the other people you interact with regularly.
If you have landed an internship or co-op, or have another job, your supervisors and co-workers at the job site are also part of your network.
You may find it helpful to actually write down category titles like “Family,” “Teachers,” “Friends of Family,” etc., and list names of people you know in each category. List everyone. Your level of “connectedness” will probably surprise you!
Once you have defined your initial network, implement a process for expanding and organizing it. Using an online tool like LinkedIn will allow you to search for "lost" contacts, invite people to join your network, research companies, join groups and associations, and request introductions to people outside of your immediate network. You should make sure that your profile is complete and professional, and that you have included recommendations from former supervisors, managers, co-workers, or clients.
Step 3 - Start in your comfort zone
Like any new process, taking small steps builds skills and confidence. So, it makes sense to start networking in your comfort zone by talking with people you know on or around campus - professors, academic advisors, career counselors, fellow students, college staff members, internship contacts, and so on.
When talking with someone in your network, use your “elevator pitch,” ask lots of open-ended questions and show interest in the person’s responses. Make sure people in your initial network know your educational and career goals and ask them for their own career stories and advice. And always request names of other people who may have more information and whether you can use the contact’s name when you call on this new person. Then, make the new contact. This is how you grow your network.
Step 4 - Expand your network beyond campus
Don’t overlook acquaintances outside your college and work environments. Many career connections are made through social contacts including sports clubs or leagues, religious organizations, hobby groups, and even in your own neighborhood. Keep talking to people about your career ideas, progress, and goals and keep asking them for their ideas and advice. You never know what might happen.
It's a great idea to look into professional associations connected to your major or field of interest. Associations often offer students reduced membership fees and provide professional development resources such as job banks, mentoring programs, and networking gatherings that offer excellent opportunities to meet people in your field of interest. To know which associations make sense for you, speak with your professors, the Career & Co-op Center, and other students in your field.
Want to meet more professionals in your field? Consider informational interviewing. Target professionals in organizations of interest and ask them if they’d be willing to meet with you for 20-30 minutes so you could ask questions about their career and get some advice. Informational interviews are a terrific way to expand your professional network. The Career & Co-op Center can provide the needed “how to” advice, including tapping into the UMass Lowell Alumni-Student Career Connections group on LinkedIn. These are people who’ve volunteered in advance to talk with you about their professional field and career path.
Step 5 - Keep track and keep in touch
As you talk to people, keep good track of your networking contacts. Names, titles, e-mails, phone numbers, organizations, meeting dates, and key points of information and advice are all bits of data that you can refer to later as your networking continues.
Your relationship shouldn’t end after one conversation. Follow up with a thoughtfully written thank-you note or e-mail. Then, keep in touch. For example, perhaps you could ask Professor Jones to critique your résumé from an engineer’s perspective. Maybe you could pass along word of other engineering internship opportunities that Professor Jones could share with her students. Perhaps someone Professor Jones recommended to you has been helpful – let her know! The point is, keep that relationship alive, so that if and when Professor Jones learns about a good opportunity, you’re the first person she calls.
A final note: it’s not Facebook
In some respects, college students are already pros at networking – at least casual, social networking. It’s critical, however, to shift into a professional networking mode when your career is the issue at hand.
Every professional networking contact, electronic or face-to-face, needs to be carefully crafted, planned, or practiced. One misspelled word, one uncapitalized pronoun “I”, one lapse of over-familiarity or unprofessionalism, and your best chance of making a positive impression may have been wasted.
You’ll likely find that a professional approach to active networking is a far superior way to further your career goals than just hanging out in your inbox waiting for your great opportunity to arrive. Make contact, make connections, and make some progress!