The Importance of Networking as a Graduate Student
"It's not what you know, it's who you know."
That phrase has always bothered me a little bit. It's probably because I work in education and promote that it's legitimately important to know actual stuff. Building your skills and knowledge to prepare you for your "what's next" is literally my life's work. So, I feel like I should tell you upfront that it's at least a little bit about what you know.
Now that that's out of the way…
The phrase isn't wrong. Knowing people is really important in the professional world. But if you're like me, the thought of exerting extra energy on the practice of networking feels exhausting and overwhelming and perhaps even a little bit disingenuous. Networking can take on a life of its own, especially in graduate school. But finding a balance of study, network building, and social support is one of the most important life skills you can learn. And it will serve you not just in graduate school, but in life forever after. So let's figure out how to do it.
First: Make a plan.
I worked with a student once who was particularly adept at this. I asked him how he managed to do it all. His response was simply that networking was like a class for him, and he treated it that way. One twoish-hour block of in-person stuff (like a class session might be) and two to five hours of "homework" each week.
For him, that two-hour block might have been attending a happy hour one evening, or a lunch and learn offered by one of his professors, or attending a club or organization meeting. But it was always an event in which he was physically present, where he put himself out there. And he committed to showing up for it each week, just like a class. For him, that made it feel not so overwhelming anymore. It was just a thing he had to do, like all the other things. He didn't have to search for the time. He didn't have to do massive searches for opportunities. He just picked one thing to do each week and committed to it. I really liked this idea.
Networking. It's a thing. You're going to need to do it. And it will be infinitely easier if you build it into your life in a thoughtful way.
Another very successful strategy (I'm looking at you introverts, for whom regular happy hours may not be your thing) is learning how to leverage your online identity. In a recent Internet study, it was reported that 73 percent of employers used a social media search for help in hiring new positions; 70 percent said they had used the discovery of a negative online presence to eliminate candidates from the pool.
I'm honestly surprised those numbers aren't higher.
So maybe one week, your plan is to "attend a class" on leveraging your social media presence. There are tons of helpful videos and articles about how to strategically use social media to best represent who you are while allowing you to cultivate professional relationships. Join the LinkedIn Groups in the profession you're hoping to join. Follow the influencers in your field and see what they are reading, what groups they are following, what TED Talks they are into. You'll start to learn the industry lingo and the names in the business, and that may just come in handy when you're at that once-a-week, in-person thing we just covered.
(Pro-tip: You can in-message other members of shared groups without a fancy membership. Join the groups you aspire to be a part of. You'll suddenly have access to a lot of people who can share industry information.)
You're at an incredible advantage being in graduate school. One thing that most graduate schools are very good at doing is setting up ways for you to build your network without calling it "network building:" student government, clubs and organizations, professional groups, career workshops, lunch and learns, and social activities. Your graduate school will have these in abundance, I promise. Find the ones that speak to you and commit to engaging. They will provide professional knowledge and access to new people, but will also allow you new social circles of support and friendships.
And don't forget that those groups include not just those currently attending, but also the alumni of those organizations as well. Alumni networks are incredibly beneficial. Shared experiences are the foundational building blocks of all relationships. Find your commonalities and share them. Good news! You already share at least one with the alumni of your school.
Your graduate school will also likely help sponsor your participation in regional and national conferences. Never turn down the opportunity to present your work somewhere. It's LITERALLY a captive audience for you to talk about what you love with other people who are there because they love the exact same thing. It's a natural place for in-depth conversations to happen and connections to be made.
(True story: I once wrote an entire conference paper on a theory by my favorite academic writer. About halfway through the talk, a man in the audience had several very pointed questions about my research. It just so happens that it was my favorite academic writer, whom I did not recognize. It was humbling and awkward and afterwards we went for coffee, leading to him becoming one of my academic mentors, something that in one million years never would have happened had I not gone to this conference.)
All this formal networking can feel like a lot of work. And it is. As such, I recommend leaning on the most effective form of networking that there is: being a kind human — helping your fellow students, being authentic and present, and humble in knowing that, as Bill Nye says, "Everyone you ever meet will know something that you don't." Grad school is a time to meet these amazing people who have knowledge and value and connections and opportunities. Work towards being the type of person who is remembered by the people that you meet for being kind and real and competent.
Contrary to public opinion, networking isn't about collecting names — friend collecting is not nearly as important as collecting the right friends. You don't want to have to go up to someone and say "hey, I need help finding a job!" You want someone who knows you and thinks highly of you to say, "hey, I know about a job that I think you'd be perfect for!"
Given that 80 percent of today's jobs are not posted online and that roughly one-third of all external hires come from internal recommendations, this is, by far, your best avenue towards finding a good fitting job, or collaborator, or co-author. And just being yourself and sharing your passions should feel a lot easier than pounding the pavement collecting business cards.
So in the end, maybe the phrase should be, "It's not who you know, it's who knows you." And becoming known doesn't take as much work as you might think as long as you are seen, you are authentic, and you know your stuff. (See, it is a little bit about skills and knowledge after all!)