If there’s one piece of advice from career advisors that can make some people cringe, it’s the idea of networking. Even when you know it’s an important part of building your career, for some it can still feel, well, awkward. (Don’t worry, we’re here to help.)
Networking’s ability to make some of us feel weird is an actual scientific phenomenon. Researchers at Harvard found that, unlike social connections that spring up naturally, networking to build professional relationships can actually make some people feel morally impure. They also found that when professionals felt weird about networking, they did it less and had poorer performance at the office, according to the findings published in Administrative Science Quarterly.
“The importance of networking on career success is undeniable,” says Dr. Maryam Kouchaki, assistant professor of management and organizations at Kellogg School of Management in Illinois and an author on the study. Some of the most successful people in the world have spoken openly about how networking and career mentors have helped them get to where they are. Lena Dunham credits writer Nora Ephron as an instrumental mentor in her career; Sheryl Sandburg (who’s now a major mentor herself) points to economist Larry Summers as a “champion” for her career; even Drake has a mentor—Lil Wayne.
To help you get over the ick factor, don’t think of networking as asking for inauthentic favors—instead, think of it as building authentic relationships. “People generally enjoy sharing their passion for their work and want to help future generations, as long as they have the time,” says LoriAnn Edinborough, director of employer relations at University of Notre Dame’s Career and Professional Development Center. “If someone from your high school came to you and asked you about getting into college, how you accomplished it, and what college is like, you would be more than happy to speak with them. Think of networking as the sharing of information—it’s relationship building.”
Why networking is worthwhile
“The majority of college students don’t take enough time to discern their career path,” says Edinborough. One of the best ways to figure that out is by networking. “From informational interviews, job shadows, and career mentors, students can learn valuable information about what someone likes about their role, what they aren’t as fond of, what they would do differently if they had the chance, what a ‘day-in-the-life’ is like, and their personal career path to get to that position.”
Once you figure out that dream job, scoring an interview and landing the position relies heavily on networking too. Up to 85 percent of all jobs are filled via networking—not by cold emailing your résumé or filling out random job applications—according to a 2016 survey by LinkedIn.
Networking your way to an awesome mentor
Beyond making quick connections that could lead to an interview or meeting someone who can help you improve your résumé, networking can lead to long-term mentors. What may start out as a coffee with an alum can turn into an authentic connection that’ll be the Lil Wayne to your Drake throughout your career.
“A career mentor can be a trusted adviser to bounce ideas off of, to share timely advice, to make other introductions, and to help you talk through career-related decisions,” says Edinborough. “These are the people who will be there for support during your college years, as well as when you start as a new professional in the field after your graduate,” adds Sarah Coburn, a career counselor at Cypress College in California.
To help you network in a more meaningful and authentic way that’ll build those important relationships, follow these tips.
“Most people don’t realize how many people they have in their network,” Edinborough says. Step one: Look at the people already at your disposal—namely your professors, alumni groups, and your school’s career center.
- Ask your favorite professor if any of their former students or contacts work in the field you’re interested in.
- Reach out to alumni at your dream company via LinkedIn. Find out how to search for alumni here.
- No matter what year you’re in, make an appointment to visit your school’s career center in the fall to set goals for the year. If you haven’t visited the career center yet this year, schedule an appointment early in the spring semester to start strategizing for summer. Your career goals and skills may change throughout college, so try to check in at least once a year.
- Network on campus by joining clubs and committees to expand your college network.
- “Network in your community by volunteering at events that interest you and researching professional conferences in your area,” says Coburn. “They’re always looking for student volunteers!”
The intro is often the hardest part of networking. Walking up to a stranger at an event can be super intimidating (even for long-time professionals) and figuring out what to say when you send a cold email can be tricky.
“A great way to start a connection is to request an ‘informational interview,’” says Coburn. “This is where you meet with a professional that is working in your field of interest, and you ask them questions about their career path and how they got to the position they are in now—it’s a no-pressure way of meeting someone and getting to know a little bit about them.”
Whether in person or via email, keep your intro when asking for an informational interview “short, simple, and to the point,” advises Edinborough. If you’re reaching out through LinkedIn, the platform caps InMail messages at 2,000 characters, though longer isn’t necessarily better, in this case.
Via email or LinkedIn message
- Paragraph #1: “Introduce yourself, your field of study, and why you’re interested in connecting,” says Edinborough. “Also include how you found the person’s contact information.”
- Paragraph #2: “Ask if they would be available for a 15-minute phone call or coffee to talk, and include a question or two you would like to ask,” says Edinborough.
- Paragraph #3: Offer several possible times to meet or, if you’re planning to visit, give the dates of when you will be in town and available. Then, “close with a statement recognizing they’re busy and you appreciate their consideration,” adds Edinborough.
To keep it from feeling like you’re just filling out a form, think about why you’re really interested in this person or career path, and use that to help you write an authentic email.
If you’ve emailed a potential mentor and they haven’t gotten back to you, Coburn recommends following up with another note after two weeks. “Sometimes professionals get very busy with [their] many priorities, so a reminder can be appreciated,” she says. In a polite note, ask if they received your message and reiterate that you would love to connect and appreciate their time.
Remember, most people like to help students when they can. The worst thing that can happen is that you don’t get a response.
Besides finding people to connect with online, you might also be meeting connections in person at school networking or alumni events, at volunteer groups or internships, or at community organizations. “Having a 60-second ‘elevator pitch’ is great to have prepared for those in-person conversation starters,” says Coburn.
Here’s what an elevator pitch might look like
- Step 1: Talk about the past. “What is your experience, what made you want to pursue this professional field, etc.,” says Coburn.
- Step 2: Get to the present. Tell your new connection what you’re currently studying.
- Step 3: Approach the future. Describe your future career interests, goals, and the types of opportunities you’re looking for to help you achieve them, Coburn says.
“I had to network constantly for my previous job. I always made sure to introduce myself to people I sat with and ask about their work. I always offered resources I had if I could.”
—Ryan B., graduate student, Portland State University, Oregon
The best thing you can do is try your best to just be yourself, says Coburn. “Approach networking by utilizing your natural strengths and preferences,” she says. Ask yourself: Am I more comfortable talking to a lot of people and “networking the room,” or talking to someone one-on-one in a quieter setting? “Either approach to networking is great,” says Coburn. “As long as you’re being your authentic self and trying to make meaningful connections with others, you’re doing a good job at networking.”
- Find common ground. “You can start with a question for them to find the commonality between the two of you (or group) and then share something about yourself to keep the connection going,” Coburn says. “Once you open up this conversation, you’ll authentically be interested in learning more about them. E.g., “What’s your favorite memory from your time at X university?” Or “What did you think of the speaker’s comments about XYZ?”
- Plan ahead. “Research your contact and understand as much as you can about what they do so they realize you have put some time into this connection,” says Edinborough.
- Set a goal for your meeting. If you’re meeting with someone one-on-one for an informational interview, Edinborough suggests writing down your questions ahead of time. Having notes you can refer to helps ensure you get the most out of your time
- Be professional and respectful. To create a more authentic and lasting connection, always be respectful of the professional’s time. Show up early, turn off your phone, give the person 100 percent of your attention, and “always follow up with a thank-you,” says Edinborough.
- Provide a copy of your résumé. Leave your networking contact a copy of your résumé or attach it in your thank-you email. Ask them to keep you in mind if anything comes up, such as an internship or job opportunity in your field of interest.
“I wasn’t much of a networking person, but I played to my strengths and got involved in different organizations that had similar values to the organizations I wanted to work for and used those similarities as a great talking point and connection.”
—Marissa I., third-year graduate student at Wayne State University in Michigan
There’s an art to the follow-up. “You don’t want to be a pest, yet you want to stay in contact,” says Edinborough. Here’s how to go about it.
“I would recommend connecting with your mentor or colleague at least once a semester,” Coburn says. When you reach out, have a reason or something to share, such as:
- You saw an article about the person’s company or industry and found it interesting.
- You received an award at school or landed a new internship or volunteer position and wanted to let them know.
- You have a specific question and you’d like their input, such as asking their advice about potential summer internships or a study abroad program.
“You can also try to set up a meeting to connect in person or recommend an upcoming professional event that you can both attend together,” says Coburn. Following up can be the nudge it takes to turn a one-time meeting into your long-term mentor.
No matter how you feel about networking, it’s pretty clear that it’s here to stay. With the right approach, it can feel much less like the uncomfortable work of asking for a job and much more like an authentic and satisfying opportunity to build real connections that’ll last your whole career.
Read review here
Lillian N., third-year undergraduate, Foothill College, California
“Have you ever heard the same advice from your professors, peers, alumni, or parents about how important making connections is? As a complete newbie at networking, I always wondered how in the world I find the right people without seeming like a total stalker. I was sending desperate emails to random professionals who could be my mentor until I learned about Shapr, an app that lets you find people within your field of interest with a few swipes. (If LinkedIn and Tinder got married, Shapr would definitely be their child.) All you do is create a short bio on yourself, include what/who you’re looking for, and add any relevant websites, social media, or your LinkedIn page to your profile. Then you’re matched with potential candidates who could be your future employer, mentor, or even a like-minded peer to discuss projects with.”
Must I always view the people around me as a stepping stone in my academic/career life? Shapr takes the pressure off and gives me one less headache to deal with.
Finding people who can work with you can take time, but when it’s done Tinder-style, it’s easy to just swipe left and right.
What sounds better? Writing 10 email requests to meet up or sacrificing a minute to view a list of 15–20 possible candidates on an app? (I’m definitely going with the latter.)
Get help or find out more
Sarah Coburn, MS, career counselor at Cypress College in California.
LoriAnn Edinborough, director of employer relations at Notre Dame University in Indiana.
Maryam Kouchaki, PhD, assistant professor of management and organizations at Kellogg School of Management in Illinois.
Adler, L. (February 29, 2016). New survey reveals 85 percent of all jobs are filled via networking. LinkedIn.com. Retrieved from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/new-survey-reveals-85-all-jobs-filled-via-networking-lou-adler/
Casciaro, T., Gino, F., & Kouchaki, M. (2014). The contaminating effects of building instrumental ties: How networking can make us feel dirty. Administrative Science Quarterly, 59(4), 705–735. doi: 10.1177/0001839214554990
Casciaro, T., Gino, F., & Kouchaki, M. (May 2016). Learn to love networking. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2016/05/learn-to-love-networking
Dunham, L. (June 28, 2012). Seeing Nora everywhere. New Yorker. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/seeing-nora-everywhere
LinkedIn. (2017). InMail character limits. Recruiter help. Retrieved from https://www.linkedin.com/help/recruiter/answer/2225/inmail-character-limits?lang=en
Reid, S. (May 31, 2009). Drake feels “blessed” to have Lil Wayne as a mentor. MTV News. Retrieved from https://www.mtv.com/news/1612955/drake-feels-blessed-to-have-lil-wayne-as-a-mentor/
Sandberg, S. (May 25, 2011). Larry Summers’ true record on women. Huffington Post. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/sheryl-sandberg/what-larry-summers-has-do_b_142126.html