It’s often said that success is not a matter of what you know, but who you know. Although this isn’t entirely true – qualifications, skill, and understanding are all important – it is without doubt that our relationships with others play a critical role in the development of our careers. Human beings are social animals, and we rely upon one another to get things done. With this in mind, it is only natural that networking, being able to make contacts – people with skills and expertise relevant to your goals – should be so important.
Gradschools are no exception to this universal truth. One of the many advantages to completing a degree that involves attending a campus in person – especially a full-time degree – is that it gives you plenty of opportunity to meet people with similar interests and objectives to your own. But although many universities – especially careers services and business schools – do put on networking events, training in how to network does not receive as much emphasis. Although some universities do provide classes in this subtle art – usually optional ones - they are often not treated as a priority amongst students, despite the fundamental importance of networking to professional life.
How to network?
Here are five pointers about how to get the most out of any networking event:
- Ask questions. People are usually only too happy to talk about themselves, and if you show an interest in them, this will create a positive impression. The information they provide about their own experiences – particularly if they’re an experienced or senior colleague in a relevant field – could be a valuable learning experience for you.
- Be natural. Nothing is more off-putting than someone who is obviously working the room. You can give this impression by behaving in a way that is overly formal and business-like. It’s far better to relax, be yourself, and just take a genuine interest in the people around you.
- Don’t be afraid to break off the conversation. If it becomes clear that someone isn’t feeling very talkative, or that they aren’t involved in something that’s relevant to your interests, it’s perfectly fine to politely steer the conversation to a close, and find someone else to talk to. Your time is valuable – and so is theirs – so it’s better for everyone if you both find alternative conversation partners.
- Take a breather. This is especially important if you’re more of an introvert. If you feel your energy levels flagging, or you’re finding it hard to keep the conversation going, it’s perfectly acceptable to allow yourself a pause. This is a good time to pop outside for a breath of fresh air, or a bathroom break. The important thing is to go at your own pace, and be aware of your limits – networking takes a lot of energy.
- Be aware of body language. Both yours, and that of those around you. If you scowl, stand hunched over, and fold your arms, that’s likely to put people on their guard around you – but if you smile, stand tall, and use open gestures, people will respond positively.
The most important thing to take away from this article is not to underestimate the importance of this most underrated skill. If your university does offer training in networking, or you have opportunities to practice the tips provided above at mixers or other events, it will be worth your while to take advantage of them.