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Demystifying Networking While in Graduate School

Information compiled by the GradSchools.com team - last updated September 2010


As a graduate student, you've no doubt come across the term "networking" plenty of times. In fact, you may be sick of hearing about it. But when people tell you, "You have to get out there and network!" what are they really referring to?

Perhaps it started in high school, with the sobering threat of needing to network in order to start a career. That thought may have permeated into college, and has now reached you in grad school. Well, guess what? You have probably been networking for years and don't even realize it.

Many graduate students participate on social-networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. Others have their resumes posted on employment search engines like CareerBuilder or Monster. Students "network" while at parties, bars and clubs. Anytime you are making connections or acquaintances with people based upon shared experiences or interests, you are networking. Anyone you meet can positively impact your future.

Making contacts

The idea of approaching relative or even complete strangers in hopes of obtaining a job or securing a research assistantship is intimidating to many students. However, the importance of networking while in graduate school cannot be overstated, no matter how many times it may have been stated. Graduate networking can open up opportunities for internships, assistantships, employment and collaboration. It can also lead to scholarships, grants and publication.

Plant networking seeds early on. The first step of networking while in graduate school is to develop a list of contacts. Some of the contacts that belong on this list are right there in front of you at school - professors, teaching assistants and fellow students all have connections - while others are out there in the community, waiting for you to meet them at a function or through an internship. Regardless of the type of contact they are, you need to actively seek them out. Making personal connections with people who can help advance your education and career is imperative.

Graduate students can sometimes utilize family members, friends and co-workers as contacts. Sharing your interests and goals with these people can ensure they will think of you if and when they hear of opportunities in your field. But it is the group of people you encounter at your graduate institution who will likely prove to be the most valuable contacts.

Networking with professors, fellow students, committee members and advisors is crucial to the advancement of your education or career. By including these people in your network, you can gain information, visibility, feedback, career advice, friendship and social and emotional support. Your interactions with members of your academic department don't always have to revolve around the field of study. Remember, you want to foster personal relationships with these people that will be sustained for years to come.

Signing up for department clubs and organizations is an excellent way of connecting with the professors and students in your field. When you can, attend any departmental events and conferences. Volunteer to help professors and other students with research projects. Alumni organizations offer unique opportunities to forge relationships with former students who are now working in the field.

Maintaining a good relationship with your graduate advisor is imperative to good networking practices. He or she will most certainly have connections inside and outside the institution that could prove invaluable. Many students find that obtaining a mentor is helpful as well. That mentor could be your advisor or a professor with whom you have a strong relationship.

Networking strategies

Once you have compiled your initial list of contacts, you are ready to begin establishing lasting connections. Being a stand-out student will not only gain you recognition, but could also lead to research cooperation with faculty members. It is a good idea to speak with your professors before or after class, as well as during their office hours. If you don't, you are just another student in their class, just a name on a roster.

When you intend to go out and network, make it your goal to speak and exchange information with at least one person. Before you meet someone, determine what you want to get out of the encounter. You may even choose to practice a "networking speech," including who you are, why you are interested in speaking with the person, and your research and professional goals. This is no time to be shy or reserved - get out there and start introducing yourself.

Many use business cards for networking while in graduate school. It is a socially accepted way of giving out and receiving information. They are inexpensive to purchase and can also be printed easily from a computer. Keeping in contact with your network can be as simple as the exchange of e-mails, but when initially making an acquaintance, it is better to do so in person.

When attending a conference or seminar, it is important to look and act professional. Introduce yourself and interact with people at the event. Share your research interests and exchange contact information (here's where that business card can really be useful for you - and be sure to get theirs, or at least their contact information). When you inquire about opportunities, get referrals to others from the contacts you have made. Once you have made contacts, follow up with an e-mail that lets them know you were happy to meet them.

Networking does not have to take place at formal events. You can make connections at social, cultural and sporting events (if your department has a graduate intramural volleyball team or once-a-week-jogging-club, join the group). You never know who is going to be at informal gatherings or who they know. Much of networking comes down to who you know rather than what you know. Become friendly with the established working adults in your life, as there is no telling what contacts they may have.

But again, the most important thing to remember when networking while in graduate school is not to let feelings of shyness get the best of you. Networking is simply a method of communication. The more you do it, the more comfortable and confident you will become. Speak up - you never know where you will find an opportunity, and often, one contact can lead to others. Then the next thing you know, you'll be a successful professional in your field.

 

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