Every college professor and career coach extols the crucial importance of networking. But taking those first few steps to make career contacts is intimidating for many first-time job searchers and recent graduates. You know you’re supposed to attend college alumni events and create a LinkedIn profile, but what’s next? What are the subtleties of networking etiquette? Lynn Atanasoff, a career services counselor at Penn State World Campus, offered her advice.
Atanasoff is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Distance Credentialed Counselor who gives career advice to online students. She has an extensive background in rehabilitation, career, mental health, and drug/alcohol counseling. Atanasoff earned her doctorate in the counselor education PhD program in Penn State’s College of Education, where her research focused on counseling in an online environment.
Question: Beyond the college campus, what are some good ways for college students and college graduates to network?
Atanasoff: There are different reasons for networking, such as gathering information during career exploration, seeking advice from professionals in a field of interest, or identifying referrals to specific job openings. It’s not a one-time exchange, rather an ongoing process. So while the person might help you with current needs, you should be ready to reciprocate because it is a two-way exchange. I think sometimes people view networking as using people to get a job, but it’s really about building and maintaining professional relationships. It is an essential component to any successful career.
The common networking phrase is “friends, family, friends of family, and family of friends” as a place to start when networking. You already have contacts who can become the basis for networking. Networking contacts also include a variety of other people such as neighbors, high school classmates, college alumni, former co-workers or supervisors, among others.
Question: Are online students at a networking disadvantage? What are some ways for online students to break into the networking scene?
Atanasoff: Online students are generally not at a disadvantage when it comes to career networking. Even if you study from a distance, that’s not to say there are no events in your area. For instance, at Penn State, there are many local alumni chapters, and students have access to an alumni networking resource called LionLink where alumni have volunteered to talk with students about what they do for work. Similarly, there are professional organizations in most major cities, such as engineering associations or business organizations, where you can meet people. Some students find their best networking contacts at the church or synagogue they attend or because they are active in the PTA or coach their child’s sports team. You might also belong to a professional organization or other kind of club. Networking it is an ACTIVE process. It is the opposite of telling people who you know that you’re looking for work and waiting to hear back from them. It requires active engagement to keep the process moving.
Question: What is your advice on breaking the ice, particularly for people who may be new to networking or perhaps shy around new people?
Atanasoff: I think there are no hard and fast rules on breaking the ice because it will depend on the nature of the relationship that you have with the person with whom you’re networking. For example, if you are reaching out to a fellow veteran who you know well, the approach will differ from someone who you never met but your aunt facilitated you meeting. But don’t be afraid to talk to people. For those of us who are shy, it can be easy to network if you play to your strengths. People who tend to be introverted are often very good listeners at events, and that is a great way to start building a relationship. There are resources out there to help you overcome your internal hurdles, so try not to let being shy stop you from talking to people.
Question: What are your tips on networking etiquette?
Atanasoff: Don’t go in cold into a networking event, rather, think about how you plan to present yourself. Practice how you will introduce yourself. Present yourself professionally in the choice of clothes you wear. Have a positive attitude versus a negative outlook. Have an idea of what you want to target before you get there because without clarity it will be difficult to ask clearly for what you need. And don’t be afraid to be direct because people will not be able to read your mind if you drop subtle hints. They cannot really help you if they don’t know what you want. You would be surprised at how much comes from explaining your situation followed by asking “do you know anyone else who I can talk to?” Go for quality over quantity of contacts. It’s not effective to meet everyone and hope something will happen by sheer numbers. It’s often more effective to develop an authentic connection over passing out business cards to all in attendance. Networking is NOT working the room, schmoozing, or making cold calls. It is okay to get others’ business cards and write notes on the back to help your recall about what you discussed. Consider bringing a small tablet also for notes.
Question: What is your advice to combine social media and in-person networking?
Atanasoff: There are different lines of thinking about social networking. The first is to link with as many people as possible, even if you do not know the person offline. The second is connecting with people you actually know and being selective when building a network. There are strengths and weaknesses inherent in either approach. Some believe that quality is more important than quantity, and I suppose I lean toward that approach for my own networking. Whether you decide to be an open networker or not, remember that you are networking professionally to build professional relationships that support your career goals.
You have to ask yourself how social media will fit with your entire networking. Meaningful online professional networking takes time and effort, just like traditional networking does. In reality it takes even longer to establish a relationship online, though it does happen that people find meaningful connections through social media. I just wouldn’t do this at the expense of face-to-face contact. I have had students tell me that they are on LinkedIn and putting their profile there has done nothing for them. What matters is what you do once you are on LinkedIn rather than merely posting your information. That would be like me expecting all of the businesses in the yellow pages to call me just because my name and number are listed in the white pages of a phone book. That might not be the perfect analogy, but my point is that you actually have to take action just like face-to-face networking.
Question: Once you make contact with someone, what is your advice on following up. How soon should you contact them again, and what are some tips on what to say?
Atanasoff: Always show gratitude at the time you meet, possibly thanking the person for speaking with you at the time you meet. You can also follow up in writing to thank the person for speaking with you, mentioning things you discussed when you met. The person will probably remember the conversation and then will attach your name to it. Follow-up also demonstrates professional qualities such as attention to detail and follow through. A lack of follow up might be misconstrued as lack of interest on your part. If you wait too long, it’s a missed opportunity, especially if you discussed talking after the event.