Opportunities Abound with Professional Networking

Written by Erin Michel, Graduate Assistant for the Graduate College

At some point in our professional development from fresh-faced undergraduates to seasoned graduate students, networking became something that we were expected to know how to do, although many of us were never explicitly taught. To be sure, it’s a particularly valuable skill in today’s professional landscape, given the fact that, according to NPR, approximately 80% of all jobs are filled through a network connection with many never having been posted publicly. But networking can be intimidating, downright anxiety-inducing, or at the very least burdensome. Luckily, you can teach yourself to be a confident networker and maybe even grow to enjoy the practice. Your professional prospects will thank you!

Two hands reach out for a handshake.

What is Networking?

"I think networking is just having professionally oriented conversations with folks,” explains Ellie Bridges, Director of UC's Bearcat Promise Career Studio. “Sometimes people get really overwhelmed with the idea of networking because it’s unclear what it is. But when you think about it in terms of interactions with other people and learning what other people are doing, it demystifies the process and makes it feel a little more attainable.”

Framing networking in such simple terms can make it less intimidating, and so can recognizing that networking is a completely normal and expected part of being a student. “Students have a very useful tool in networking,” says Bridges. “Having the student card actually opens a lot of doors and people are actually much more willing to network with you, help you, or do an informational interview with you.” Students can also benefit from recognizing the unique gifts that they bring to the table in networking conversations; often professionals are curious to hear or learn more about graduate school today and how it differs from their own training years ago. Students bring a fresh perspective, with a finger on the pulse of what’s new in their field. By acknowledging what you have to bring to the table, you can view networking less in terms of someone doing you a favor and more as an equal exchange of ideas. You are not a burden or someone’s favor; you are an opportunity!

Bridges explains that the Bearcat Promise Career Studio exists to help all UC students with this process of understanding networking and honing their skills, but that unfortunately they tend to be underutilized by the graduate student population. Especially for students looking to enter industry over academia upon graduation, she tells me, the studio can be a real asset. “Faculty members obviously chose the path to go into academia,” she says. “Our team can be a great resource for all, but particularly for those who are looking to go into industry in terms of how do you prepare professional documents, how do you network, when do you apply for a job, how many do you apply for, how do you negotiate salaries.” Bridges encourages graduate students interested in learning more to set up an appointment with one of the Studio’s professional career coaches, and to keep an eye out for upcoming graduate-specific workshops.  

How do I begin?

The first step in getting started with networking is to identify your goal. Bridges explains that there are a lot of different reasons to network; you might want to learn more about a specific field or role, you might want to see whether a company aligns with your values, or you might want to cast a net for internship or job opportunities. It’s important to tailor your approach based on what you’re hoping to get out of the experience. If you’re looking for a job or internship, you might benefit from attending a career fair or using your existing connections to reach specific individuals. If you’re just looking to learn more about a career path, peer groups or pre-professional clubs might be an asset. Of course, it’s impossible to predict what each connection will lead to (that’s part of the fun of networking, and of life in general!), so any of the above could somehow set off a chain of events that eventually lands you in your dream role. 

With that element uncertainty/possibility in mind, an important way to get started is simply to get started. Join some groups on Facebook and LinkedIn. Research companies of interest and send LinkedIn invitations (with a specifically tailored message!) to people requesting informational interviews. Search for upcoming career fairs or young professionals' mixers and add them to your calendar. Bridges suggests using your status as a Bearcat as a grounds for connection. “So one of my favorite things about LinkedIn is the LinkedIn alumni tool, to be able to go in and find out what UC alumni are doing,” says Bridges.  “And you can literally search by keywords and by what people studied, and then if you have a baseline-- I think you have to have 25 or 50 connections-- it'll literally shows you the profiles of people who you may know, what they studied, and they're doing in terms of their occupation.” 

If you aren’t proactive, if you don’t put yourself out there, you won’t connect. Drexel University career services recommends making a plan and commitment for networking, and viewing it almost like a class with both synchronous and asynchronous work. Having a discrete, set time that you devote to networking every week can help you build a routine and can support accountability; and “doing your homework” flexibly throughout the week is a great supplement to more structured learning. Additionally, Harvard Business Review suggests that by restructuring your thinking around networking you can view it as less of a drag—and, consequently, network better. They state that by adopting promotion thinking instead of prevention thinking (think “who knows where this will lead, good things are sure to come out of my cumulative efforts” instead of “this is something unpleasant I have to do as a young professional”) you can network in a more genuine way and keep your expectations from getting in the way of opportunities.  

Do's and Don'ts of Professional Networking

  • DO: Ask questions that you are genuinely curious about. Don’t just consider what questions you think the person you’re networking with will want to hear, or what questions may lead to a job offer. Authenticity goes a long way and you can learn a lot from hearing about someone else’s career journey. Thoughtful questions also build rapport; people love being asked about themselves! Also, getting the information that matters to you helps with informed decision-making; internships and jobs are big commitments of time and ensuring that the opportunity aligns with your career goals is of paramount importance.  

  • DON’T: Use networking as a guise to ask for a job or internship. Although the underlying intention of networking is often to explore career opportunities, it may be viewed as distasteful when an informational interview or mentoring conversation suddenly shifts to a big request. Even if a professional opportunity is the hoped-for outcome, cutting directly to the chase means losing genuine connection and mutual learning. Instead, Bridges advises that you ask the individual after connecting if they would be comfortable with you mentioning the connection when you are filling out an application to the company. That way, it offers an out if the individual doesn’t feel that they know you well enough to be involved in the process and avoids placing a heavy burden or making the interaction feel transactional.  

  • DO: Be persistent. “A lot of times people will not answer the first message,” says Bridges. “I encourage students to follow up, and often the second message gets much better response rates. Obviously, there are appropriate ways to do this—please don’t email every single day, but I think if you send an initial message, wait three days, and follow up it shows that you are committed.”

  • DO: Follow up after networking. Maintaining a connection is a key part of networking. Send a thoughtful and personalized thank you email after someone takes the time to speak with you or connects you to someone else in their network. Check back in periodically as time passes by asking follow- up questions or sharing an article of interest. Just as any other kind of relationship, professional connections need to be continuously nourished so as not to fizzle out.