The term networking brings to mind all sorts of unfortunate images: Cocktail parties attended by professors or colleagues who may or may not want to be there, the hum of small-talk filling a poorly decorated room, and one person-he seems to be at every networking event-who drinks too much and embarrasses himself.
While You're In Grad School Yes, there are few other words that carry so much baggage. The truth, however, is that networking does not necessarily have anything to do with this. And even more importantly, it is something that you should not only get used to, but also start to improve your skills at. Because now that you're in graduate school, it is one of the single best ways there is to make the most of your time in school, get ahead professionally, and set yourself up for success long after you have graduated.
Whereas college was all about learning as much as you could about a wide variety of subjects with an eventual focus on the one area in which you majored, graduate school is for people who have decided that they want to gain expertise in their chosen field of study. And this, of course, means that grad school programs are full of people who will do whatever they can to get ahead in that field.
This is where networking comes in.
The foolish students will spend their time competing with their classmates. And while a surprisingly large number of students do this, it is not the brightest move. In fact, it's probably one of the worst things they can do, because not only will they alienate people who could eventually help them out, but they will miss out on one of the best networking opportunities they will ever have.
Because the people you go to grad school with will also likely play a role in your field once you're all engaged in it professionally, it is a very good idea to make friends-or, at the very least, professional allies-now. This means being honest, helpful, and forthright in all your interactions both in classes and outside of them. Remember, people tend to help those they genuinely like, and the better your relations with your classmates, the more benefit you'll ultimately reap from the experience of having worked alongside them.
But students are not the only players on the grad school stage: Professors, too, perhaps even more than your fellow students, will play a role in your academic and professional life. So the more helpful you can be to your professors, the greater rewards you'll ultimately reap from their contacts and knowledge, too.
And Speaking of Professors
Professors in graduate schools are generally highly successful in their own right. After all, they would not be teaching at such a high level if they weren't capable of great things in their field of expertise in the first place. Mine the depths of their knowledge, and make sure you make all you can of the golden opportunity you have to study under them. The lessons you learn from them will likely be extraordinary.
Also, when one reaches the level of graduate school professor, one exists in a fairly rarified atmosphere. Which is to say this: Your professors probably have contacts-both professional and personal-with the kind of people you definitely want to meet. Whether your engineering professor has contacts at NASA or your medical professor knows professionals at the National Institutes of Health, the people your professors introduce you to and talk about you to are likely to have the power to influence the trajectory of your professional life.
So the more helpful you can make yourself to your professors, and the more you can make yourself stand out to them, the better off you'll be. This doesn't mean being obsequious; they'll see through that, and get justifiably annoyed. But it does mean volunteering to help them with their research, or going out of your way to engage them in intelligent discussion. Professors, after all, are very busy people, and you never know when they'll need the help of someone as ambitious and industrious as you.
A Few Techniques
Most people are not natural networkers. At least, they're convinced that they're not. This is probably because they envision networking to be some sort of system whose techniques should be universally applied. In fact, that's probably why so many people spend so much money every year buying books that ostensibly teach them how to do what actually should come quite naturally to most people.
Indeed, there is nothing mysterious about networking. There's really nothing more to it than making eye contact when you meet people and engaging them in conversation. When you interact with your classmates, do so on friendly terms. And let your professors know that you are available to help them out in their work if they ever need it. The best networkers are sincere, friendly, and helpful.
Finally, don't be ashamed to network. In fact, you're foolish if you don't. Because grad school is probably the best opportunity you'll ever have to create a wide-ranging professional and academic network. And the contacts you make now will likely remain relevant throughout your entire professional life. It's never too early to start.