For some college students and young alumni, networking is a cinch because their networking groundwork was laid by access to successful parents, accomplished family friends or influential professors. Many (in fact, most) others have to start from square-one when it comes to building a network. When you’re starting from square-one, networking can be one of those daunting things that you wish you could have started earlier. The good news is it’s never too late to build a robust network of relevant potential colleagues and mentors if you know how to leverage your opportunities.
Tips for building a networking base
Don’t play the numbers game
When you hear someone say, “Oh, my mother’s friend/former neighbor/cousin-twice-removed works there!” repeatedly, it can be super frustrating if you lack similar acquaintances. But when it comes to networking you have to prize quality over quantity. Think of it this way: You might have 1,000 “friends” on Facebook, but does that quantity directly correlate with the number of people to whom you’re truly close? Probably not. Could all of those people help you identify what it is you want to do? Nope. And do 1,000 of them have the time to help you along the various steps as you achieve your dream career? Unlikely.
Take a step back and figure out what you want
It’d be great if we all had a powerful CEO on speed dial to help us get every job we’d like, but even those who do often struggle with the step that precedes picking up the phone: figuring out what you want to do. There are two general questions you should be asking:
- What role do you want to play? Do you want to work in departments such as marketing, law or accounting? Would you be satisfied doing so for any company, so long as the daily work is in the field you enjoy?
- What business or industry would you like to pursue? Are you willing to enter an entry-level program within the industry you seek, even if it takes a while to figure out what problems you’d like to solve on an everyday basis?
Whether you can answer one or both, your responses will help you focus your networking efforts. It’s important to remember that most networking conversations won’t end with a hire. Instead they’re a chance for you to learn, so that you know what internships and other job opportunities will put you ahead in a recruiter’s eyes.
Make a real connection
Another element of networking that stops some students from moving forward is its inherent self-centeredness. Objectively, you’re not reaching out to this person for altruistic reasons. You have a motive, and that is to see if he or she can help you along in your career. But a lot of beginners have trouble straddling that line between being professional and using somebody for their own gain.
The fact is that the sooner you get over that concern, the better. Everyone who engages in networking understands its purpose. Networking itself has morphed into an efficiency measure, where people meet for 15-minute coffee breaks, navigate heavily populated networking events and sometimes communicate only over email. Nonetheless, people will still go out of their way to help you if they like you, so it’s imperative to make a real connection with them. If possible, research what someone has accomplished so you can say with confidence why you’re contacting him or her in the first place. Reference his or her published works, past career or even personal interests when you reach out. This will help you know what questions you’d like to ask. Even if the contact doesn’t result in a job, you’ll likely learn much more about your desired field and what sorts of opportunities it provides.
Use what’s available
Now that you’ve considered what you want to do and are ready to do your research, start with what’s already available to you. If you’re at a university, the possibilities are just about endless. Office hours are a great time to visit someone you admire and ask candid questions about how to break into an industry. Professors and graduate students are there to help you and love talking about their fields, so they may encourage your curiosity and gumption. Assuming you have an on-campus career center, set up a meeting to speak with one of the individual counselors rather than simply sending a department-wide email seeking contacts. Chances are that counselor has experience working with specific alumni who would be willing to get coffee with you.
Networking is a task that requires patience and a willingness to continue digging until you’ve uncovered someone who can help you, even in a small way. So get cracking!