by Dr Amy Bohren

If I told you it was possible to develop a professional network of 100 contacts in 12 months, how would you react? It might sound far-fetched, but it certainly is possible. And if you work on it in the first year of your Masters or PhD, you’ll set yourself up well, not only for the duration of your candidature, but also for your future career. You might think you can get all the information you need about occupations, industries and job vacancies online, but research tells us that this ‘cold knowledge’ strategy is much less effective. Networking gives you ‘hot’ or insider knowledge, that can help you find out the truth about whether people like their work, information about unadvertised jobs, and tips on what particular managers look for at interview.

When to network

You might think of networking as something you should do toward the end of your studies, or afterwards, when you have more time and need a job. But networking at the beginning of, and during your course will provide you not only with a support network to help you through your time at university, but also a reputation in your field that will carry over into your professional life. It might not have occurred to you that students with strong networks are better able to access facilities and professional development opportunities that make life easier during the course of their studies (e.g. the use of specialised lab equipment at a partner organisation; access to a particular participant group). And then there are the more traditional benefits of networking, like drawing on people you know to help figure out what you’re going to do next, and provide access to the hidden job market when the time comes. But if you want people to tell you about unadvertised jobs and recommend you to their contacts, you’ll need to get to know them early, to build rapport and trust, and so they know what you have to offer. You might think that you can’t build your network now, when social distancing is required, but in fact it’s a great time to network, for those who are currently unable to do other (in-person) tasks. It could also be a time saver, by networking online (e.g. via LinkedIn and Zoom), without having to commute for coffee.

Who to contact

Research tells us that ‘social capital’ is a resource located within your network and the connections of your contacts. That means that it’s not just first order contacts who can help support your career, but also the contacts of your contacts. When I was applying for a fellowship in Switzerland a number of years ago, I e-mailed an educational researcher at the University of Basel, who was unable to help because he was a quantitative expert, and I was a qualitative mixed methods researcher. He was, however, kind enough to meet me for coffee when I was visiting the city. He suggested a distant colleague he knew of, who he thought might be interested in hosting me at the University of Bern, and after a (well thought-out, detailed) e-mail, voila, I had an invitation. A few months later, I got the fellowship and a professor I had never met became my new supervisor! When I took up the fellowship, I got to know other fellows on the same program, from around the world, as well as quite a number of staff in my Institute. Almost a decade later, I’m still in touch with those colleagues (many of whom have become close friends) from countries including Germany, Greece, Switzerland and the Ukraine. Research also tells us that when it comes to advancing our careers, it’s weak ties that help us the most. So whilst it’s a good idea to start with people you know (e.g. friends, family, supervisor, current and former co-workers, fellow students), and ask them if they can put you in contact with someone in particular industries or occupations, it’s more likely their contacts and their contacts’ contacts who will help you in the long-run.

Where to network

Make life easy for yourself, and start with your fellow research students, classmates, academics, your postgraduate association, and where possible, with so many events being online these days, faculty seminars and public lectures. Ask your friends and family members if they know anyone working in your occupation or industry of interest, and request an introduction. Those of us whose families don’t work in professional occupations might need to work a bit harder to get connected, but forging your own path can be even more beneficial in the long-run, as you’ll develop the ability to make connections under your own steam. You might like to try a (virtual) event for people with similar interests, join in on a course at your local community learning centre (many of which are now online), or participate in a mentoring program run by your university or professional association. If you’re not yet on LinkedIn, I highly recommend setting up a profile, and searching for people who work in an occupation or at the organisation you’re interested in. You might find that one of your existing contacts knows someone you’d like to contact (LinkedIn will tell you if you have a second-degree connection with people); or you could just be brave and send people cold contact requests. If you include a personalised message, you will often receive a positive response. Start off by getting to know people (like and comment on their posts), and when appropriate, invite them for a (virtual) coffee. Just be sure to respect their time. It’s also a good idea to join industry groups on LinkedIn, to get to know like-minded people.

How to network

The most important factor in networking is establishing a trusting relationship, because this will pay dividends in the future. Don’t be too focussed on asking your career-related questions in the beginning – there will be time for that later. Focus on quality of relationships over quantity. Think about what you have in common, and focus on the other person. This is usually easier if it’s possible to meet in person, so you might just have to work harder if networking online.

How many contacts do I need?

Well, that depends on your perspective, and potentially, whether you’re an introvert, extrovert, or ambivert like me. Dunbar’s number gives us some guidance here. He says as humans, we can manage somewhere between 100-250 contacts in a meaningful way (M=150). So, back to the idea that you can develop a network of 100 contacts in 12 months. To achieve this, you’d need to connect with around two people per week for a year. Just think about how much time you spend procrastinating each week, not writing your thesis. If you spent a small portion of that time, say two lots of 30 minutes, meeting someone for a (virtual) coffee instead, you could easily achieve such a goal.

What if you’re an introvert or feel as though networking is one-sided?

Many years ago, when I was working as a Postgraduate Career Consultant at a university, my colleagues in the postgraduate association asked me to run a session on networking for their students. “You’re a great networker”, they said… and I was shocked (and a little offended). Mostly because, even as a career practitioner, I thought networking was necessary, but involved an aspect of taking advantage of the other person. I just thought of myself as sociable. I enjoy striking up conversations with all sorts of people, but never really thought it would benefit me, because that wasn’t my intention. After giving it a lot of thought, I realised my colleagues were right – what I was doing was developing meaningful relationships, without any expectation, but that had the potential to benefit me in future. I just didn’t realise it at the time. So, if you’re an introvert, just focus on the other person – most people love receiving attention, and it will likely help you develop a healthy professional relationship. Also, remember that networks involve give and take. Always think of what you can do to help those in your network. It may not be those you help, who help you, but it usually works out fairly in the end.

What if I’m busy?

We’re all pretty busy these days, just in different ways. Some of us are stressed about thesis writing and spending every spare minute on it, others are parents who are juggling multiple responsibilities, and many of us are working more than one job. Research on multitasking shows it doesn’t work – that is, if you’re trying to do two intellectual tasks at once. What does work, however, is networking that occurs over lunch, because you’re using your brain to engage in a professional conversation and undertaking a physical task. I know this is much harder over Zoom, but we won’t be socially distancing for ever – things will improve. Whether you’re networking online or in person, focus on doing one small task each day, or combine tasks. Try sending just one LinkedIn invitation, write short e-mail to suggest catching up with a friend who can help provide some information you need, or if you both have kids, perhaps you could meet for a catch-up at a local playground.

Just do it!

As Kearns and Gardiner’s research tells us, waiting for the ‘motivation fairy’ doesn’t work! I’d suggest making networking part of your weekly routine. Try spending 10 minutes each day, Monday to Thursday, and take a break on Fridays. That will give you two days on which to expand your network, and two days on which to maintain your network. When you’re ready, you can change that to 10 minutes contacting someone new, and 30 minutes meeting with someone. If you do this every week for a year, you’ll have 104 new contacts in 12 months. By then you will need a well-deserved break!

If you’d like to share your networking adventures, feel welcome to comment on the Red Careers Facebook page.

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