Networking is one of the most powerful tools for advancing your career. It is also a job in and of itself. As a student nearing graduation, you want to meet new people and stay in touch so you can leverage your network for the next step in your career, whether it will be graduate school, an internship, or an entry-level position. However, with your full courseload, part-time job, and extracurricular activities, there just doesn’t seem to be enough hours in the day to fit it in!
“I’m a busy student! What can I do?”
Well, first and foremost, DO NOT PUT OFF NETWORKING! Networking is about building relationships, and relationships take time—sometimes a lot of it. The earlier you start, the better off you will be when you start the job search.
When I was a student, I waited to start networking until just a few weeks before I graduated—this was too late! I needed time to get to know people and provide value to them before they would be willing to help me. My last-minute networking attempts ultimately failed because I was rushing the relationship-building process and leading each conversation with, “Do you know of any job openings that would fit my interests and expertise?” At the time, I couldn’t figure out why no one wanted to help me, but now I know I should have been asking in advance, “How can I help this person?”
After you start networking, you will see that once you get to know someone and provide value to them, they will start looking out for you and want to help you with your career—you may not even have to ask for it! If you rush the relationship, however, you risk making a bad impression and turning them off. (An exception to this rule is when you are introduced to someone by a third party. In this case, your new connection is usually already informed about your desire to find an internship, job, etc… and you can discuss career help much earlier in the relationship.)
“I don’t think you understand, Deanna. I’m a really busy student—I don’t have time to follow up with people and nurture relationships!”
Oh, I do understand. I have been in your position and I thought I would easily land a great job based on my hard work and merit alone. I thought my grades and leadership activities were all I needed to succeed. What I found, however, was that I didn’t know about all the jobs out there, and for the few I knew about, I was competing against a ton of other people. This makes the job search tough and exhausting…even for the most hardworking and deserving students.
Why is that? Well, I’ll cover it in more detail in another upcoming post, but simply put, many job openings are not advertised, and in those cases, you need to know someone to find out about them. In the past, my only job search strategy was the internet, and I found that approximately 1 in 10 applications I sent to online job listings resulted in an interview…and then it took me at least five interviews to get an offer. (Did you do the math? That’s over 50 applications to land an offer!)
This is where networking comes into play. It helps you build contacts that, one day, may call you when they hear of a job opening appropriate for your interests and expertise—a job that’s probably not advertised on the internet.
Are you still thinking there’s not enough hours in the day to devote to networking? Couldn’t you spare at least one hour each week? All of the hard work you are putting in now deserves to be noticed. Don’t cheat yourself by not doing a little more work each week to increase your network. Your network will ultimately help you get more out of your talents and skills.
“OK, I get it. I need to network, but it still seems like a lot of work and my classes aren’t getting any easier as the semester continues.”
To help you get started, I have compiled a list of five easy networking ideas for the busy student who finds the “work” in networking is too much. Each item takes one hour or less per week.
1. Get to know the people around you—your classmates, professors, teaching assistants.
Let your classmates know what your goals are and ask them about theirs. Share information with them about opportunities you hear, and they will do the same for you. This could be at lunch, a study session, anywhere! It only takes a few minutes to tell someone what you’re planning for the next step of your career and to listen to their plans, as well.
Also, communicate your goals and interests with your advisor and other professors at least once a semester. Catch them during their office hours or after a class and politely ask them to keep you in mind if they hear about an opportunity or know someone who could help you with the next stage of your career, whether it is an internship, entry-level position, or graduate school.
If you are unsure of how to bring this up, try something like this: “Dr. Tesla, although I’m a physics major, I’m really enjoying your courses with the electrical engineering department. I can see myself working at the intersection of physics and engineering, possibly in the semiconductor industry. Do you know of any semiconductor manufacturers that offer internships or any other internship opportunities that would expose me to semiconductor physics?”
2. Use a connector to meet people in your field of interest.
Let’s say you are a medical physics major. Rather than approaching strangers at a networking event for students and professionals in the medical field or making cold calls and emails to prospective employers asking for an informational interview, ask friends or colleagues if they know any medical physicists or people working in radiology or nuclear medicine. Even if they don’t know a medical physicist, they may know a registered nurse that does. You can then exchange emails with that person and learn more about what they do and how they got to where they are now.
Here’s another example: if you find out or your professor tells you about a colleague from Mayo Clinic who will be at a conference you will be attending, ask your professor to help you arrange a meeting. Even if you do not get the opportunity to set up a meeting, you can still approach this person while at the conference. A good ice breaker for such a situation may be, “Hello, Dr. Schally. I’m Deanna Ratnikova from Small Town College; Professor Yalow encouraged me to meet you. I’m interested in working for Mayo Clinic and would like to ask you about your research and role with the organization.”
Connectors will help you save time in the networking game and they can also help you establish credibility. Make sure your connectors are familiar with your work so they can attest to the quality of it when they mention your name to a colleague. And don’t forget to thank your connectors for helping you increase your network!
3. Join a campus organization or professional association related to your interests.
Campus organizations and professional associations can help you meet professionals in your potential career field and learn about career opportunities. The American Physical Society, for example, provides students with several resources to keep you up-to-date and in touch with the physics community—and most of these resources are brief and take only a few minutes to read each week. These resources will also be your best place for hearing about career advancement opportunities such as conferences (and travel grants to conferences!), workshops, and networking events.
Campus organizations typically meet once or twice a month, and meetings are generally 30 minutes to an hour. This is a great way to increase your campus network. For example, even if you never take a class with the organization’s advisor, he/she can serve as an excellent reference when you start applying for positions. You will also get the chance to meet students in your department who you’ve never had a class with and would have not met otherwise.
Campus organizations and professional associations also often ask members to contribute articles for a newsletter and/or participate in smaller interest groups (for example, the American Physical Society has a Forum on Graduate Student Affairs). Getting involved will help you get connected to others in your field of interest and become more visible in the scientific community, and it takes less than an hour each week to stay connected!
4.Volunteer at events and conferences related to your interests and goals.
Building on the last point, think about your extracurricular activities, more specifically your campus organizations. If you belong to a club or student organization, you probably hear about volunteer opportunities all the time. When your time becomes constrained, be selective in the activities you volunteer for and pay special attention to the activities in the organization that is related to your major (i.e., Chemistry Club, Society of Physics Students, Women in Science and Engineering, etc…)
Make sure you are positioning yourself at events where you are most likely to connect with established people in your field. Also, ask for particular volunteer assignments at events that will showcase your strengths. I, for example, am a great conversation starter, so I always ask to be a greeter. When people approach me to ask a question about the event (When will the speaker give his/her speech? How late is the event scheduled to run?), I try to use this opportunity to start a conversation: “The speaker will commence at 7pm. She will be talking about graphene-based electronics; do you work on related research?”
Volunteering for just an hour each week (or for two hours once every two weeks) helps you build visibility within the field. Even if you are not working the room and talking to everyone, people still see you at the event and you see them. You can use this as an ice breaker the next time you see someone you want to get to know: “Hi, you look familiar; were you at the science café downtown last month?”
5.Create a LinkedIn profile and fill it out thoroughly.
LinkedIn allows you to display your education, work experience, skills, publications, goals and interests—it is essentially a virtual CV. If you have already prepared your resume or CV, it should take you no longer than an hour to complete a LinkedIn profile. After it is complete, you probably only need to update it every four months (and updates take just a few minutes).
Similar to “friending” people on Facebook, you build “connections” on LinkedIn. Even if you do not know the person well, you can send a personal note when you ask to connect stating your reasons for adding them as a connection. A sample note is, “I saw that you are also a member of the Women in Physics group. I’m interested in meeting other women physicists and I would like to add you to my network.” If they agree to connect, you can then try to start an online conversation. Connecting with a person takes about a minute and following up with a message can take between 10 and 15 minutes depending on the length of the email.
As a bonus for your hard work building your LinkedIn profile, when you get business cards, you can include a line on the card informing others of the web address of your LinkedIn profile. If someone forgets your face or what you were talking about at an event, they can refresh their memory by referencing your card and checking out your LinkedIn profile.
Do you think you can find an hour each week to devote to networking? I hope so! If you do, you’ll be light-years ahead of the competition when you start the job search.