There’s not much that I dread more than networking events. So many of us (yes, even me) hate networking. Trying to strike up a conversation, nevermind build meaningful connections with strangers, can feel awkward at best, and at worst, forced and insincere. And for academics in particular, it can feel sales-pitchy, gross, and off putting.
Yet there are real, tangible benefits to networking. Conversations with work friends can lead to opportunities. You might hear about an upcoming job opening before it gets posted. You’re more likely to find out the inside scoop about an employer. Your connections might approach you to speak on your area of expertise, giving you the chance to promote your skills and knowledge. Or when you’re a candidate for a job, you might know someone who can put in a good word for you (in addition to your professional references).
Networking isn’t just about sharing business cards or building up your LinkedIn connections, though. For your network to be effective, you need to have or build relationships with your associates. You don’t want your connections to decline to connect, grow stale, or drop you because it’s a one-way connection. Making your network work for you means meeting people organically, and then thinking of your associates as real, genuine relationships. People who are not just looking out for you, but who are invested in keeping a relationship with you. So how can you do this? There’s two easy steps.
1 – Meet people (in person)
You don’t have to seek out an industry mixer, hit up a meetup, or go to an alumni networking event to ‘network.’ Although if any of those appeal to you, then by all means, you should go! But what I mean is that you don’t need to wait for something labeled as a networking event or mixer. Whether it’s a training workshop, a lecture, a seminar, or a staff meeting, point is: if there are other people there, it’s an opportunity to meet a new associate.
I’m not saying you should be pushing your business cards on every attendee every time. But when you sit down at a workshop, smile and say hello. Introduce yourself to those around you. So you don’t have to put yourself out there at networking events; everyday work events become networking events.
If you work in a role where you’re in a silo, or you don’t work on many cross-functional teams or work groups where you come across those you don’t see every day, there are still options. Check out a local chapter of a national organization. Not only are these are often smaller groups and less stiff and formal gatherings, you’ll also meet associates beyond your current workplace. That’s always a good thing.
2 – Meet people (online)
Alright, so maybe attending a thing isn’t your thing. That’s okay. There’s tons of opportunities to make professional connections online too.
Find your Listserv
I always recommend seeking out a professional listserv. There’s probably one for your field or your profession. (Seriously, there are tons). Join one. At first, you’ll probably just use it as a listening post, eavesdropping on what the conversations tend to be about. This can help you build your knowledge of the professional landscape – the themes, common concerns, challenges your colleagues face, and resources that get shared.
But when you feel the time is right, weigh in, contribute your suggestions, too. Answer questions, engage with others’ comments, and post your own questions. This can show your engagement with the field and start to share your brand of expertise. One tip: when you do post, be sure to include your signature block with your email address and institution or LinkedIn link, so people can contact you directly and you can start to build those connections.
Bonus: professional listservs are an *excellent* source of job listings. I can’t tell you how many times I see jobs posted in the listservs for my industry that don’t pop up anywhere on my job alerts. And every once in awhile, the poster will also toss in “Contact me with questions about this job,” a clear invitation that they have open office hours for you to ask questions about the nature of the work.
Are you on the Twitter? Believe it or not, a lot of professional conversations take place on Twitter, either via hashtags or Tweetups. Sure, you’ll also get to experience all the joy that is Sh*t Academics Say, but when used wisely (i.e., not as a timesuck or tool for procrastination), engaging in these conversations can be a great resource for you to build your professional connections and get your name out there, too.
My two favorite tips for using Twitter are, well, the first is actually a whole list of tips. The second is for when you have an upcoming conference. Poke around using a conference hashtag before a conference to find out who is coming, and what kinds of conversations are taking place, so that when you meet someone you’d really like to connect with, you can say “Oh, I recognize you from your Twitter handle” or “Your tweet about…really got me thinking. I’m currently working on…”
And of course, LinkedIn. We all know we should keep our profiles up to date, but what do we actually *do* with this tool once we create a profile? Some people will tell you to connect only with those you actually know and work with, but there’s a lot of value to making new connections on LinkedIn, too. You can stumble on communities of folks working in jobs similar to yours, or thought leaders and influencers whose work you want to keep up with. But how do you connect with people you don’t know? This article is terrific and specifically targets Ph.D.s seeking alt-ac jobs. Loads of great advice there, including specific suggestions for how to connect with someone you don’t actually know (yet). I’ll build upon an earlier point, here regarding who you can add. Don’t limit yourself just to your current and previous coworkers. What about those respected names you see time and again on the professional listserv you joined? Seek them out here, too!
On the flip side, you also are someone that others don’t know yet. So how can you make yourself both more visible and approachable on LinkedIn? Two tips. First, your LinkedIn headline is the most important part of your LinkedIn profile, so take the time to think this through. The headline is the little snippet that shows under your name and photo. A good headline will explain what you do or better yet, what you can do for someone. Second, I include something personal (but short) in my LinkedIn bio. Obviously, you should keep most of your profile work-focused, but adding something like “action movie fan” to your bio gives those who don’t know you yet something to break the ice with. It’s a way to make it easier for your new associates to say hello. After all, so many of us work in a job or an industry that we may not always want to have, so connecting only with those in your current role /industry can only take your network so far.
3 – Tend to your network
Regardless of whether you’re meeting people in-person or online, you need to tend to your network. Don’t just add connections and collect business cards only to dust them off when you need them. By the time you need to call on that person to get the down low about a manager or the details about a company’s office culture, you’ve already missed out on tons of indirect, unpublished, and/or other conversations in the meantime. And those are the conversations that lead somewhere. A lot of people get approached about their interest in an upcoming opening before it gets posted, or encouraged to apply simply because the manager already knows them and their work – either by reputation (often from online postings in listservs and influence on LinkedIn, for example) or because they have met (in person). On the flip slide, the worst case scenario is that when you’re a serial collector of cards and never follow up until you’re desperately looking for a new gig, you’re leaving your connections with the impression that you reach out only when you need to use them for something.
So what can you do once you’ve met? Build on that relationship. Make a point of meeting up with your connections for coffee, or just sending an email asking them how they’re doing. Your associates are your relationships, not a “resource” to be used. So drop a line saying, “I’m going to be in your building next Wednesday for a meeting. Do you have time to grab a coffee?” Or share something yourself, so that you’re not imposing on them. Send a “I came across this article and it reminded me of our conversation about XYZ. Thought you’d enjoy!” email. That’s a great conversation opener when you don’t know one another well, as it can create a common discussion point from which you can build.