two people talking

With virtually every professional role posted online, is it really necessary to build a professional network? Though the world of work looks different than it did even when you were beginning your graduate degree, one thing remains the same: Networking is the single most effective way to actually get jobs.

When you use networking in your early exploration, it helps you get insight that only those working in your field of interest have. You are able to tap into the knowledge of professionals who not only were successful in getting the kind of work you want, but who also know the nuance of what it is like to work in the field, company or role. Networking can also help you understand which skills are in demand (and you, therefore, need to build), what makes a candidate marketable and how a particular company may approach their hiring.

When you are at the point of job searching or getting experience in a certain type of work, having a contact or two in companies/industries of interest can potentially allow you to hear of upcoming opportunities that may not be marketed openly yet. Additionally, your network can help get your resume into human hands and past the online submission vortex. This is particularly important if you are transitioning to a different type of work than you have previously done (a situation most academics find themselves in when entering industry).

Lastly, referrals are a preferred way of hiring for employers. Their hiring risk is smaller if they have some context for a candidate. They know that others are willing to vouch for the candidate’s work and congeniality. Hiring is costly and time-consuming; having a colleague go to the effort of referring a candidate gives a little more peace of mind and may just tip the scales in the candidate’s favor.

Networking has gotten a questionable reputation over time, mainly due to professionals going about the process in selfish or insincere ways. Approach networking with the right mindset and it really does not have to be the nightmare you imagine.

  • Networking is akin to building relationships in any other area of your life. Remember, the folks you may be reaching out to are just fellow humans. They respond to social graces and appreciate genuine interest.
  • Networking is most often an exploratory exercise, especially in the early stages of knowing someone. Tap into your inner learner and use your time with a new contact to get to know them more and hear about the industry or their company. There is not some secret script from which you should operate. Just enter conversation with an open, curious mind.
  • It is appropriate to connect through shared interests in work. We connect with others over any other interest, why not professional interests? The fact that these topics are in the general constellation of “stuff people collect salaries for” does not make it slimy to authentically get to know someone because you share career interests.
  • Curiosity and excitement will fuel this endeavor. See these interactions as a way to know more and be known more … an opportunity to open doors, explore options and build knowledge that will fuel your career in the future.

There are three basic levels of contacts you should consider in professional networking: The people you already know, the people you can easily be connected to and aspirational connections.

Current connections

When beginning your networking efforts, start with people who already care about you and are willing to help because they know you. Make a list of people you could approach immediately to start learning about sectors of interest to you. Think through the following possible connections:

  • Family
  • Friends
  • Department
  • Current jobs
  • Former jobs
  • Internships
  • Research partners
  • Volunteer work
  • Hobbies

Your current friends and acquaintances are the “warmest” connects you have – the most likely to go out of their way to help. It is not “cheating” to reach out to them. It is simply being efficient with your time and networking energy. Start with this group.

Easy connections

 Tip: If you want to search a different school’s LinkedIn alumni base, just enter the school name in the main search box and choose the “alumni” tab under the school’s logo on the left side of the page.

There are basically two types of “easy” connections. These are the people you have an obvious mutual connection to. Usually, they are someone a current connection can easily introduce you to or are someone you can more comfortably ask a favor of because you are both members of the same group. These are people like alumni of CU, former or current students in your department, alums from your undergrad alma mater, employees in the company you work for, etc. Typically, someone you know can do initial prospecting for willingness to speak with you and make the introduction.

Connect with CU Boulder alumni and other students on the Forever Buffs Network. You can create an account and network or set up informational interviews with alumni to learn more about jobs or industries you’re interested in.

For other potential network connections without a current acquaintance to introduce you, check out LinkedIn’s Alumni Search Tool. You can search CU and any other school’s alumni base on LinkedIn and filter results by region, major/department, industry, company, skillset, etc. When you locate people working in fields or companies of interest, you can reach out to ask for a quick conversation (called an informational interview) to learn more about their work, the field, the company, etc.

Aspirational connections

A lesser-utilized group is what we call aspirational connections; these are people whose work you admire. You may have studied their research, followed them on social media, used their product, seen them speak, etc. Inherently, they are people of influence and some degree of fame. Because they are a little more intimidating or “unrealistic” (“They’d never pay attention to a note from me!”) most people do not attempt to connect with them. Although you should not hinge your career on their response, sharing your appreciation of their work and your own interest in the field may yield more results than you expect. In addition to reaching out to other connections, why not tag and share their work on social media or send a thoughtful piece of “fan mail” to let them know you admire how they are impacting the field? Tap into the part of yourself that gets a little dazzled by people doing amazing work and connect with someone who is rocking your world.

Whether you have been given an email address, a phone number or are requesting a connection on LinkedIn, keep your initial communication brief and simple. Here is what you need to include:

  • Your name, the fact that you are a grad student/postdoc at CU Boulder and your department
  • How you found them
  • You reason for reaching out (they are working in a role/industry/company you are exploring)
  • A request for a brief (15-20 minute) conversation where you can ask them a few questions about their work

Your initial email or message will not go into all details of setting up a meeting. When you get to that point, however, make it as convenient as possible for the person you have contacted. Offer to meet them at their office or somewhere close and try to be as flexible as possible about when you can meet. If they prefer, talk by phone or exchange emails to get your questions answered. If you meet in person, pay for the coffee. All of these small considerations communicate that you are appreciative of their time and advice.

Networking and the very act of reaching out and attempting to build relationships with strangers can seem like a thoroughly extroverted exercise. If you identify as a more introverted individual, there are ways to network that may feel more comfortable.

Volunteer

Volunteering at conferences, networking events, and in various areas of personal interest will allow you to branch out and meet new people while helping you feel as though you have a purpose for being in conversation with strangers.

Connect in writing

Written communication can often be a more comfortable place to start. Pursue opportunities to connect online. There are virtual job fairs to consider. Showing appreciation for someone’s work or sharing their content online may be ways to get on a contact’s radar. Additionally, sharing knowledge and resources through LinkedIn groups is a great way to start connecting digitally with others in a field of interest.

Questions for an informational interview

Once you set up a time to chat with a contact, be sure you are making the most of your time by considering two things:

  1. What questions will help you get to know this contact better and build a connection with them? 
  2. What questions will give you the information you need to move forward?

Some genres of questions:

  • Person: Their career path, what they like about the field/what is hard, how they ended up in their role, etc.
  • Role: Day-to-day, skills needed, how it fits into the company’s work, challenges, etc.
  • Company: What they value, how people like working there, what they need, etc.
  • Getting work in the field: Marketability, where to find listings, job titles, etc.
  • Further contacts: Is there someone else they think you should speak to having met you and gotten to know more about your interests?

When in the conversation

Ok, now that you have found a contact, arranged a meeting and prepared (or as you prepare to attend an event where networking is expected), here are some tips to help your relationship-building go smoothly.

  • Make sure you get their name and understand how to pronounce it. Use it. Remember it.
  • Quit looking for the perfect thing to say. “Hi” is a nice start. Just have 2-3 topics and answers to common questions ready before you approach.
  • Smile and have open body language.
  • Assume the burden: extend your hand, show a genuine interest in them and/or their work. Ask questions.
  • You may need to discuss topics you are not interested in.
  • Discuss more than just what you want from them.
  • Take notes afterward so you remember details.

After your initial meeting with people in your network, it is important to not let the relationship slide. That does not mean you need to spend hours checking in with everyone. However, a follow up thank-you is a great start. After that, periodically say hello or share a resource to let them know you are thinking about them. For distant contacts, a couple times a year is fine. For those you know better, perhaps more often (and more casually) would be appropriate.  Below are some ideas about how to nurture your network and invest over time so when the occasion comes and you need a favor, it does not come out of the blue.

  • Cheer them on when you see professional updates on social media
  • Closer contacts: Check in every quarter or so, e.g. “I saw this and it made me think of you;” “Thought you might enjoy reading this;” “How’s it going?”
  • Organize a group gathering
  • Say thanks for ways they have helped you (it is never too late)
  • Post a link to their latest podcast/book-signing/performance on social media and tag them
  • Write to them about how you used the advice they gave you
  • Find out who their ideal client/investor/customer is – you may know someone they should meet
  • If they are a business owner, patronize their business periodically if possible