Knowing how to network is a vital life skill–and it’s not usually taught in degree programs.
But networking is stressful, isn’t it?
When I think about networking, I imagine standing in a roomful of people trying to talk to strangers.
Every time I’ve ever tried this, it’s looked like my last academic conference–people hiding in the corner, staring at the floor, and acting way too interested in their cheese plate.
Networking doesn’t have to be that scary.
And I’m sorry to tell you, but learning how to network is a fundamental part of turning a degree into a career.
Trust me when I say that you’ll meet people who inspire you. You’ll meet people who see your degree as an asset and will be excited to give you good advice. You’ll meet master’s and PhD-holders who left academia and never looked back. Many of them are more satisfied in their work, make more money, and have more impact on society than their peers in academia. Get around these sorts of people and I promise you’ll be inspired and excited.
So, if you want to know how to network, here are five of my best tips.
1. Download Shapr and swipe
I think Shapr is one of the greatest gifts to the modern worker. It’s a Tinder-like networking app, but it ain’t for hooking up (not in the conventional sense anyways). It’s a fantastic way to meet people in your area who are also interested in building their networks.
Get on here. Make a profile (using the same rules as with your LinkedIn) and start meeting people. I’ve swiped on so many great people with this app. I usually ask them to go out for coffee–sometimes we’ll chat a bit first to see if we can help each other. (All the usual common sense about meeting strangers should still apply. Take care of yourself and be smart.)
Shapr was responsible for my first job after I finished my PhD. And it was a great job, that launched my career. Don’t underestimate the powerful network you can create with this app–I’m constantly surprised by the caliber of people on here.
Play around with the settings a bit. You can pick different interests and goals which will change your matches. Try switching them once a week to keep things fresh.
2. Try reaching out on LinkedIn
Ok stay with me here. Learning LinkedIn is a no-brainer for knowing how to network. (I even wrote a post on how to create or gussy up your LinkedIn profile from the Linkedin post, you can now start using this to meet people.)
Step 1. Go to the “My Network” button at the top. Once you click on it, it will likely give you some suggestions for people you may know or be interested in. If some of those are interesting, check out their profiles.
Step 2. Let’s do a specific search for people who might be interesting. The search bar at the top now functions as a people search. Try typing a word or two in to match people by keywords. (NB if the search bounces back to jobs, click on the “People” button in the search parameters.)
Here are a few suggestions for what to search: Director of Research, Research Manager, Writer, Editor, Journalist, Public Policy (or more specific things if you have a specific skill set–ie. biology, chemistry, toxicology, etc.). If you’d like, you can narrow it to people in a certain area by clicking “Location.”
Step 3. Check out some profiles. You’ll start to notice where people have been and how careers progress. Just FYI, people can see when you look at their profile. I don’t see this as a problem, it’s sort of like a virtual tag that you’re curious about them. Maybe they’ll be curious about you too. But if it bothers you, you can change your visibility in settings.
Step 4. Reach out! You’ll be surprised at how receptive people are. There are basically two ways you can message people on LinkedIn. If you are a Second Connection (ie. if they are a friend of a friend), you’ll be able to hit the “message” button and compose a message.
Try something like this:
My name is John and I’m doing a PhD at the University of Texas in Linguistics. I’m trying to decide what to do next, and your career path seems to have been really interesting. I’m curious about your work for IBM–especially the research on the future of skills. Would you be willing to grab a coffee and tell me a bit about the work you’re doing?
I know you’re really busy, and thanks in advance for any time you could give me.
If you’re not a friend of a friend, and a person is a “3rd” connection, sometimes you won’t be able to send a message. To get around this, you can either pay for a premium LinkedIn subscription which gives you a certain amount of “InMails” a month. OR–better still–you can send them a connection request and create a brief custom-written note. Like this:
My name is Samantha, and I’m a PhD student at UCLA. We’ve never met, but I’d really love to hear about the work you’re doing in immigrant settlement for the government. Would you have time for a coffee?
These notes have to be brief, because LinkedIn limits them to 300 characters.
If you know someone from somewhere, met them once, heard them speak, or were referred to them by a friend, say that! It goes a long way.
Try doing 4 LinkedIn reach-outs today! See what happens. With any luck, you’ll have a coffee date by the end of the week! If not, don’t get discouraged.
And, by the way, that knot in the pit of your stomach before you hit “send” is totally normal. Don’t fear it. I’ve had people ignore me many times, but I’ve never had a bad experience with cold reach outs. If people are too busy, they won’t respond. But I bet someone will!
Read more about LinkedIn (posts open in a new window)
3. Go to random conferences and events
I went to every conference I could find on every corner of the planet about religious studies, papyrology, and ancient history. For the life of me, I don’t know why it never occurred to me to crash every conference and event in downtown Toronto—where I lived during my PhD. In any major city there are meetings of all different sorts. As a matter of fact, a quick search tells me that in Ottawa this week there are conferences on Agri-food, Global Health, Public Sector Finance, Entrepreneurship, Leadership, and Space.
Now when I say “crash” you can definitely pop in well-dressed with the confidence that you belong there. But worst-case-scenario, if you’re not this bold, most conferences have a nominal student rate you can pay to register. It will be one of the cheapest career courses you could ever take.
Go sit in sessions and listen—you’ll learn about the field. But ideally try to strike up a conversation with someone. Ask if you can add them to LinkedIn. People go to conferences ready to hand out business cards and make connections. If you want to know how to network, that’s the game.
4. Get active on social media
I spend way too much time on social media. And for years I was on Twitter as a silent observer–watching everything unfold without creating anything. Finally, sometime around last October, I started posting links to this blog on my feed and career advice. My followers started growing.
The best part about this is that I began to meet interesting people from all over the world. My personal network expended like crazy and I’ve had conversations with students and university leaders from all walks of life who are also passionate about turning degrees into jobs.
IF you are comfortable with it, create a good-looking profile on your social media stream of choice and jump into a conversation that interests you. Again, IF you are comfortable, use your real name and a real photo. Reach out to people you admire or engage with them on things they post. Before you know it you’ll be building relationships with them and, who knows, you might become a thought leader yourself.
5. Get out and do stuff
I love to rock climb. So, in my third year of the PhD, I started climbing at a local gym and met a ton of interesting people who worked in government, media, and the arts. I started playing pick-up hockey and made a friend who worked at city hall. I met one of my close and well-connected friends at a park as our kids climbed the jungle gym together.
Whatever you like to do, find some activities that have nothing to do with school and do them. Join a quilting club. Get involved at a religious or community organization. Just do things that have nothing to do with your degree and that force you to meet people. Not only will you grow your network, but it will have an amazing effect on your mental health.
Related post (opens in a new window)
Most of us have ideas about what networking is. And a lot of these ideas are wrong. At its best networking is really just meeting another human being, with no slimy grossness involved. You don’t need to hand out business cards. You really just need to say “Hi” and get started. Hopefully these tips help.
Check out the related post: 6 Mistakes Phds Make When Networking