by Anna Lee
With more and more young professionals seeking college degrees, a diploma is no longer the end all be all when searching for a career. As the job market in America becomes increasingly competitive, students need to utilize all of their resources in order to find secure employment after graduation. Whether you look at it as a positive or negative, the business world is becoming largely about who you know, rather than what you know. As it goes, networking has become an essential step in the job search process, and is therefore a skill that all young professionals should learn.
When it comes to networking, knowing where to start is the hardest part. Putting yourself out there can be awkward and intimidating, but it really does get easier with time. Most students are never taught how to network and have to learn as they go, so I’ve compiled a list of a few tips and techniques that I’ve learned during my networking journey.
Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there
For a lot of people (myself included), the hardest part of networking is just walking up to someone and introducing yourself. As a college student or recent graduate, talking business with someone who has decades of experience on you can feel like throwing yourself into the shark tank. Take a deep breath, close your eyes and just do it. It’s important to remember that the hot shots and bigwigs you’re wanting to reach out to are people too, and as professionals themselves, chances are they’re more than likely wanting to build their networks as well. You can start small, talking to professors after class (you’d be surprised how many of them have connections outside of the university), reaching out to your school’s career center for contacts and introducing yourself to guest speakers. The faculty and staff at your school are there to help you, so build relationships with them while you have the chance.
Embrace the “hang”
One of my professors often stressed the importance of something he called the “hang,” which is exactly what it sounds like: hanging around other professionals in your field and looking for networking opportunities in places where you least expect it. Use your social life as an opportunity to hang out with people similar to you and build relationships. For someone in the music industry, for example, this might mean frequenting concerts, while someone in technology might want to attend various tech conventions and trade shows. While the “hang” varies from industry to industry, chances are there are thousands of people in your city looking to network with people like you. Go to local career fairs and conferences, enroll in courses related to your field and be social. Take advantage of coffee breaks and happy hours alike, as you never know where your conversations might take you. I’ve made some of my best connections by talking PR with the moms I babysit for, chatting with a friend of a friend at a wedding and even talking to the cashier at Trader Joe’s about my desired career path. Opportunities oftentimes come when you least expect them, and learning how to talk about yourself and your field in a confident, passionate manner can do wonders when it comes to building your network. Incorporating networking into your everyday “hang” will help you build strong, lasting relationships that go far beyond the classroom.
Keep in touch and utilize your online resources
LinkedIn was made for a reason! I’m always surprised at how many students and young professionals either don’t have a LinkedIn account, or don’t know how to use it to their
advantage. Dedicate time to making sure that your LinkedIn profile is comprehensive and professional, so that when you do use it for networking, your connections like what they see. Whenever I make a new connection in person, I make sure to follow up with either a LinkedIn request and message, or an email. If a guest speaker comes to your class, follow up with a thank you message. Follow-ups go a long way and leave a lasting impression. Add your classmates and friends on LinkedIn and stay in touch with your professors. Most of the time, your connections won’t be much use to you right away, but you never know when you’ll need someone’s help, or when someone will need yours. It’s always a good idea to stay in touch and have an online record of the connections you’ve made.
Greet every opportunity with professionalism (and a good attitude)
You’ve networked all year, made great connections, stayed in touch and finally got a job offer. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that’s where the networking stops. You’re still representing yourself even once you’ve gotten the job, and it’s important to maintain good connections by staying professional and having a good attitude. Whether it’s a volunteer opportunity, internship, or full-time job, always put your best foot forward. Even if the work you’re doing seems tedious or mundane, being professional and giving your all to whatever tasks you’re faced will only help you in your career. Not only will this keep you in good standing with the people you’ve already built relationships with, but it gives you the opportunity to foster new relationships through developing a positive reputation for yourself. It’s important to remember that the people you’re connecting with are human beings with their own lives and feelings. Don’t make the mistake of approaching networking like a test or assignment; maintain the humanization of relationships as you move forward with your networking journey. Work hard and be nice.