One question I hear often from students is about networking–how to get started and how to do it. Over my 20+ years as a faculty member, department head and now an associate dean, I’ve put together some thoughts on this for students.
The most important thing I stress to students is networking is a relationship, not a transaction. Many students only engage in networking when they need something from someone else–an internship, a reference, a job. I’ve always encouraged students to think of networking in different terms–it’s about developing long-term, rewarding professional relationships.
Thinking about it this way leads to an important conclusion. It’s never too soon to begin networking. While many students begin networking in their third or fourth year, there’s no reason you can’t start networking as a first year student, if it’s about building relationships (and not just to get an internship or a job).
So, how do you get started? I tell students to think about possible areas of future work, and list every person they know who works in that area–family friends, a guest speaker from a class, your relatives. Begin contacting these individuals and tell them you are beginning to explore your future. Ask them if you can come to their place of work for a 10-15 minute visit. During that visit, you just want to ask 3-4 questions about their work–what’s their favorite part of their job, what’s their typical day, what’s one thing they wished they knew before they started work (we call this an informational interview). At the conclusion, identify 1 or 2 things about their responses that sounded interesting and ask them the following: ‘I’d really like to learn more about what you said about X; can you recommend a few other people who could tell me more about that, and can I tell them you referred me?”
If you do this with 5 people, you’ll soon have 10 more people to interview. And then they’ll give you 20 more names…and they’ll give you 40 more names. You can keep going as long as you want, but you’ll be building a network. Remember, however, it has to be a relationship. Conclude each visit also with an offer to provide assistance–maybe they’d like a tour for a relative who will visiting Penn State later that year; maybe you can offer a cup of coffee when they next visit Happy Valley. Follow up, of course, with a thank you note, too.
And STAY IN TOUCH! Create a list of all those you visit and a schedule to contact them again in the future on some regular basis. That can be an email to update them on your academic progress and ask a question about a course you are considering. It can be a call to let them know you are going to be in town during a break and would like to stop by and say hello. With time and attention, you’ll have dozens of strong, professional relationships by the time you graduate.