Networking is generally touted as a sure-fire method for getting a job. But the exact process to kick-start this mythical solution is often murky at best. The easiest way to take advantage of a network is to already be part of a well-developed and dynamic community of people who serve as your advocates and mentors, and who help smooth your path to new connections.
You don’t have this community until you already have a network. This is not helpful if you are just getting started.
College usually means starting over in a new place with new people. It means you leave your old network of family, friends, neighbors, and casual lifelong acquaintances behind. You begin your first year knowing few people, and living in the dorms means that you mostly encounter students in a similar social situation: new to the town, and without many connections.
This is part of why I recommend building an off-campus community, and in thinking strategically about building relationships with professors who can serve as references and, even better, as mentors along your way.
But those early, isolated days of trying to create a new network can be enormously frustrating and also scary.
I remember being a freshman at the University of Oregon, moving to a state where I knew no one. But that was years ago now. I want to share a personal story about the power of networking based on my recent experience as a Master’s student, and just how difficult and crucial networking really is.
So. Here’s my story.
I arrived in Belfast in September 2012, with the full expectation that I would immediately settle in with my new community of students and professors, and that studies would be more or less the same as they are in the US. I should have known better: as anyone who has studied abroad knows well, there are all kinds of ways that cultural differences show up in an academic setting. But my previous travels and studies had been in Central and South America, and I foolishly assumed that the differences between Oregon and Belfast would be small, and easily managed.
I was wrong.
I’ll write more about the experience of being an international student at Queen’s University some other time. For now, let me focus on the networking part of my studies. I approached campus as I would recommend all motivated students to tackle a new campus. I researched my professors. I looked into other departments and read articles written by faculty whose focus areas were similar to mine. I approached the professors I had for my classes, as well as these other related professors to arrange a time to meet in person. I mentioned my academic background and the intersections in our interests.
In the meetings, I would explain that I was interested in research assistant opportunities, or in ways to engage in internships either on campus or with community organizations. I would explain that I was not seeking payment. I would reference their published work and relate it to my experiences and future interests. I had my CV in hand.
This method got me nowhere.
I guarantee if you take this tact in the States you will find professors eager to point you in the right direction. Maybe not in every single instance—there will always be overworked or cynical individuals who aren’t interested in helping out even an over-prepared and highly motivated student. But I suspect negative reactions would be few and far between. Do your research and show up with self-confidence and competence and you will receive suggestions of volunteer opportunities; names of faculty and graduate students conducting similar research; and often the offer of an email sent to community members for informational interviews or internships.
This networking technique works in the US. It was completely useless in Belfast.
I approached more than six professors in this way, and again and again I was turned away. At least four suggested that I try working with Amnesty International, but couldn’t think of anything beyond that in the community. No one was looking for free research assistance. No one offered to introduce me to someone who was seeking someone like me.
I was bewildered, offended, and completely discouraged. I felt unvalued and misunderstood. I couldn’t figure it out. And as to Amnesty International, I have nothing against them as an organization—I support them and their work in the world—but they are not a good match for my particular preference for action, which is more hands-on instead of advocacy. And for a faculty member to suggest this hugely visible international group to me as though I couldn’t think of this myself felt incredibly insulting. Suggesting that there were no suitable human rights organizations for my interests in Belfast was laughable—there are dozens and dozens of conflict resolution, peace, human rights, and post-conflict groups at work in Northern Ireland.
I just didn’t know how to get to them.
I want to make it clear that I did end up with an overall positive experience in Belfast. This isn’t the place to speculate about why those particular professors reacted to me the way they did—I suspect it was a combination of surprise (that’s not the way networking is done there, so my approach was culturally inappropriate), and a historically motivated hesitation to a) trust strangers, and b) “show favorites” by singling anyone out for help.
Regardless of the reasons, I was stuck. Two months into my time in Belfast I was lonely, bored, and feeling like opportunity was slipping away. For various reasons I felt isolated in the city, and the difference in academic programming meant that as a full time student of Law I was expected to be in class for only four hours a week. Four hours. In a city where I had few connections and no obligations. I was at loose ends. I was desperate.
So when that networking method failed, I employed another.
I asked for help.
I had several connections in Northern Ireland through friends in the US, and through the Mitchell Scholarship that had sent me there. One connection supplied me with an introduction to an influential professor, who then opened the door for me at the University and in the human rights community involved with issues of prisons and incarceration. Another connection put me in touch with a BBC journalist, who let me shadow her for several days both at the BBC station and at the Parliament building at Stormont, and introduced me to several of her friends.
Just like that, I was “in.” Armed with the names of these influential people, I was suddenly able to create my own opportunities. Research and CV in hand, I approached new opportunities through these contacts. And it worked. Within two weeks of my initial reaching out for help, I had made a host of new friends, had gotten involved with a community organization working with former prisoners, and had begun talks with a BBC journalist about what would become a research position that eventually led to my current job.
It was amazing. The key to networking in Northern Ireland was the interpersonal level of actually knowing people and having a social reference. Talent and ability were still critical, but without that initial introduction there was no way to even get off the ground.
To be fair, once I had that early success I felt I was surrounded by interesting people and opportunities, some completely unrelated to those formal networks. But the key change was in my approach to networking and to meeting people. I had learned a new cultural format for networking and developing relationships. I had, as they say up in Belfast, “made a start.”
- Use what you have to try to launch yourself.
- Be prepared.
- Ask for help.
- Once you’ve got your foot in the door, things fall into place.
I learned to ask for help effectively. I learned new ways of marketing myself and how to manage my own expectations in response to new circumstances. And I learned just how deep and culturally limited my expectations were: I had assumed that what had worked for me in the past would easily transition into what would work always and anywhere.
And a final lesson learned was just how extraordinarily lucky I am to be surrounded by great people in my life.
I hope this was a helpful anecdote! I’d love to hear from you and your experiences. How have you tackled networking when just starting out? Have you had similar experiences of cultural difference? What tools have you leveraged to make connections and find opportunities. Please leave a comment here!