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The Importance of Networking

Yesterday I was invited to participate in a luncheon with my university’s president and a handful of other graduate students from various departments on campus. It was one of the those events that while you feel honored to be invited, you stress over the potential awkwardness and uncomfortableness of such a forced social situation. But as uncomfortable as making small-talk with strangers can be, learning how to introduce yourself to new people and cultivate professional relationships–also known as networking–is oh so important.

Like it or not, networking matters for everyone in every field! I think a lot of people underestimate the importance and power of networking. Of course, networking can’t replace talent or hard work, but I think the idea that your work will speak for itself is a misnomer. Literally your work can’t speak… it’s not human!

I think academics are the worst about hiding behind this idea. If I’ve learned anything in my last couple years as a graduate student, it’s that no one will read my work or know about my research unless I speak for it! Networking means being an advocate for yourself (not being fake or insincere)!

So here are some of my tips:

1. There is potential in everyone you meet!
Two summers ago I was working for a study abroad program in Rome. My job was to help coordinate excursions for a British and two American universities who were offering a program in Rome for the first time. One of the faculty members from the British institution was also a historian but in Ancient Anglo-Saxon history. At first I didn’t think much of her interest in my research, but as it turned out, her officemate was a leading historian in my field. I took the time to cultivate a relationship with her and the following year she invited me to present my research at her university and introduced me to her officemate. Obviously you don’t want to be disingenuous, but remember that networks are often informal webs of relationships, and every relationship has the potential of creating opportunity!

2. You get what you give.
If you only view networking or relationship building as something to help yourself then you won’t get much out of it. Relationships are two-way streets! You should think about how you can help others, not just how they can help you. At the beginning of your career you may not feel like you have much to offer, but there is always someone behind you that you could guide or mentor and maybe even open a door.

3. Don’t be afraid to connect.
I think the biggest issue most people have is with face-to-face networking. A crowded room with lots of people wearing name tags and you are trying to not be socially awkward or sweaty! But networking can happen any time any where. Most of my encounters have been informal or coincidental. Beyond random encounters, email and social media are also great alternatives to face-to-face networking. The bottom line is that no matter what the setting, you have to be willing to put yourself out there. For example, I found a blog online dedicated to one of the topics of my research. I sent an email through the contact button explaining who I was and what I did. The next day I received a reply asking if I wanted to contribute. Contributing to the blog led to even more important contacts in my field.

4. Get business cards!
Ok this one might seem silly, especially if you aren’t in a field where that is common, self-employed, or in school. But trust me, everyone exchanges information and having a printed card not only makes that transaction easier, but makes you look confident and professional. And if you always carry them, you can transform a random introduction into an important professional connection!

If you are serious about developing networking skills, I found this great list of advice.

I think I am pretty good at networking, although like everyone, I struggle with anxiety over what to wear and what to say. But like anything, practice makes perfect!

What are some of your networking tricks?