I used to think “networking” was a dirty word. It held connotations of smarmy insincerity, in which I was expected to trick people into taking a business card and thereby providing me with employment. I thought it was underhanded and fake, and an inherently unpleasant way to take advantage of the people around me.
It turns out, networking is nothing like this.
Done right, networking is about connecting with the people around you on a professional basis. It’s about linking the skills and interests you have with the interests and needs of the people around you. It’s about making connections, and being honest and proactive about what you want to do with your time. For example, if you want to write, pay attention to those around you who know writers. Even better, to the people who know publishers, journalists, editors, or people with a great story to tell.
Networking works best when everyone is honest and outgoing. Make no false promises or inaccurate claims. There’s no reason to do so: if you are a college student with little or no experience, what you have to offer is your enthusiasm, willingness to learn, and some available time. Add to that some success in a certain academic discipline and you might have a solid case for why someone would be interested in you. And in networking, interest is a key but vague concept. Networking might bring you information or a path to follow, advice or a direct introduction to someone who is looking to hire someone like you.
Great places to network:
- Campus speaking events.
- Department events—dinners, talks, visiting scholar events.
- Academic conferences.
- Talks and events through organizations both on and off campus.
- Political or social activism events.
- Celebrations, galas, and (formal) social gatherings.
- Picnics, parties, and informal social gatherings.
Think broad. There are great people to meet wherever you go.
Never enter a networking situation with the idea you will come out with a job. Instead, think of all that you can learn from the people around you. Think of all the skills and experiences the people have had. Think of the knowledge in the room. Imagine the networks they are part of, and all the myriad connections they have across broad swaths of the world.
Then participate in conversations as an interesting, engaged human being.
Here are some strategies I use when in a networking situation:
- Make a good first impression: eye contact, smile, handshake.
- Ask people what they are involved in or excited about.
- Say “I’m interested in learning about_____. Can you help me learn more about getting started?”
- Express interest in people’s passions.
- Ask good follow-up questions.
- Have a specific story about yourself you’d like to tell: one-two areas of interest or career goals.
- Take business cards and keep track of them.
- When closing the conversation, thank them very much and say you’ll be in touch (ONLY if you intend to be in touch!)
- If your conversation has gone well, ask “Is there anyone else here you think I should meet?”
As I’ve mentioned in the past, I tend toward relentless positivity. I believe that most people would like to help me if they can, and if I give them the right opportunity. So networking is about giving people that opening, and explaining myself and my interests as clearly as possible in relation to their experiences and expertise. Since I have multiple interests (from incarceration issues to bookbinding) I find there are very few people who honestly can’t offer me anything when in networking situations.
If you make a good connection with someone, you should follow up as soon as possible. Write an email saying something like,
Hi, this is Katie. We met at the ____ yesterday. I was really interested to hear about your involvement with ______ and was wondering if we could meet up to chat about it. I have some questions about _____ and ______. Also, I mentioned that I am involved in an internship, here’s a link to our website if you want to check it out: ______.
Thank you for your time, and it was really nice to meet you.
All the best,
I’ve used variations on this email to meet with professors, NGO organizers, journalists, writers, and writers. I’ve also had many missed opportunities—people I’ve met at a social gathering who I knew I would like to follow up with, but I let too much time pass or somehow talked myself out of approaching them. Networking is not easy. It takes work and courage and politely interjecting yourself and your interests into someone else’s life. But when done successfully it is a way to meet incredibly interesting people and to make great connections.
I have a couple of networking blog posts still to come: stories of folks I met in various ways and how they have helped me since. I have been extremely lucky in the connections I have made, and I’ve also had a couple of dramatic false-starts and failed attempts. I’m looking forward to sharing them all.
In the meantime, good luck!
Please share your networking thoughts here. Do you like networking? Do you have any tips? Any stories? Please leave a comment here to share your thoughts!