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If there’s one piece of advice from career advisors that can make some people cringe, it’s the idea of networking. Even when you know it’s an important part of building your career, for some it can still feel, well, awkward. (Don’t worry, we’re here to help.)

Networking’s ability to make some of us feel weird is an actual scientific phenomenon. Researchers at Harvard found that, unlike social connections that spring up naturally, networking to build professional relationships can actually make some people feel morally impure. They also found that when professionals felt weird about networking, they did it less and had poorer performance at the office, according to research from the University of Toronto published in Administrative Science Quarterly.

“Networking is a key aspect of many people’s job search success,” says Michelle Cook, Career and Education Counsellor and Job Search Strategist at Calgary Career Counselling in Alberta. “The connections a student makes through their post-secondary studies can have a huge impact on their job search success when they graduate.” Some of the most successful people in the world have spoken openly about how networking and career mentors have helped them get to where they are. Lena Dunham credits writer Nora Ephron as an instrumental mentor in her career; Sheryl Sandburg (who’s now a mentor herself) points to economist Larry Summers as a “champion” for her career; even Drake has a mentor—Lil Wayne.

To help you get over the ick factor, don’t think of networking as asking for inauthentic favours—instead, think of it as building authentic relationships. “People generally enjoy sharing their passion for their work and want to help future generations, as long as they have the time,” says LoriAnn Edinborough, Director of Employer Relations at University of Notre Dame’s Career and Professional Development Center. “If someone from your high school came to you and asked you about getting into college, how you accomplished it, and what it’s like, you would be more than happy to speak with them. Think of networking as the sharing of information—it’s relationship building.”

Why networking is worthwhile

young men shaking hands

“Networking is an excellent form of career research,” says Kim Miller, Counselling Psychologist and Acting Director at the Student Success Centre at Western University in Ontario. “Building relationships with people from diverse career backgrounds can help students learn more about a particular career from the perspective of someone who actually does it for a living. This ‘real world’ learning can help reinforce an interest in a particular career or identify a need for further exploration to ensure that it’s the right career path.”

Once you figure out that dream job, scoring an interview and landing the position relies heavily on networking too. “Hiring managers often prefer to hire people that they know, trust, and like, so becoming known, trusted, and liked is crucial in the pursuit of employment,” Miller says.

Networking your way to an awesome mentor

Beyond making quick connections that could lead to an interview or meeting someone who can help you improve your résumé, networking can lead to long-term mentors. What may start out as a coffee with an alumnus can turn into an authentic connection that’ll be the Lil Wayne to your Drake throughout your career.

“A career mentor can be a trusted advisor to bounce ideas off of, to share timely advice, ​to make other introductions, and to help you talk through career-related decisions,” says Edinborough. “These are the people who will be there for support during your university years, as well as when you start as a new professional in the field after your graduate,” adds Sarah Coburn, a Career Counsellor at Cypress College in California.

To help you network in a more meaningful and authentic way that’ll build those important relationships, follow these tips.

To get started…

You may not realize how many people you already have in your network. Step one: Look at the people already at your disposal—namely your professors, alumni groups, and your institution’s career centre.

  • Reach out to your favourite professor to see if any of their former students or contacts work in the field you’re interested in. “Visit them during office hours and ask them questions about their research and their own career path,” Miller says. “Establishing connections with faculty members can translate into on-campus employment opportunities, as well as great letters of reference for graduate school.”
  • Reach out to alumni at your dream company via LinkedIn. Find out how to search for alumni here.
  • No matter what year you’re in, make an appointment to visit your institution’s career centre to set goals for the year. If you haven’t visited the career centre yet this year, schedule an appointment this semester to start strategizing for summer. Your career goals and skills may change throughout university, so try to check in at least once a year.
  • Network on campus by joining clubs and committees to expand your university network.
  • “Network in your community. “Participate in co-op or internship opportunities or volunteer off campus,” Miller says. “Not only do these opportunities help you develop skills and to try different types of roles to see if they’re a fit, your supervisor and colleagues become an important part of your network that you can foster and maintain even after the experience ends.”

To introduce yourself…

The introduction is often the hardest part of networking. Walking up to a stranger at an event can be super intimidating (even for long-time professionals) and figuring out what to say when you send a cold email can be tricky.

A great way to start a connection is to request an informational interview, or asking someone in your career path questions that interest you such as how they got to where they are, what a day in the life of their job looks like, etc. “This is a more structured way of networking, and may feel less overwhelming because you can prepare in advance,” Miller says. “The focus is on the person you’re conducting the interview with rather than on yourself, so it can make networking feel more manageable.”

Whether in person or via email, keep your introduction when asking for an informational interview short, simple, and to the point. If you’re reaching out through LinkedIn, the platform caps InMail messages at 2,000 characters, though longer isn’t necessarily better, in this case.

Via email or LinkedIn message

closeup of group of mobile devices

  • Paragraph #1: “Introduce yourself, your field of study, and why you’re interested in connecting,” says Edinborough. “Also include how you found the person’s contact information.”
  • Paragraph #2: “Ask if they would be available for a 15-minute phone call or coffee to talk, and include a question or two you would like to ask,” says Edinborough.
  • Paragraph #3: Offer several possible times to meet or, if you’re planning to visit, give the dates of when you will be in town and available. Then, “close with a statement recognizing they’re busy and you appreciate their consideration,” adds Edinborough.

To keep it from feeling like you’re just filling out a form, think about why you’re really interested in this person or career path, and use that to help you write an authentic email.

If you’ve emailed a potential mentor and they haven’t gotten back to you, Coburn recommends following up with another note after two weeks. “Sometimes professionals get very busy with [their] many priorities, so a reminder can be appreciated,” she says. In a polite note, ask if they received your message and reiterate that you would love to connect and appreciate their time. “Don’t hesitate to try more than once, and even a third attempt can follow if there’s no reply within another week or two,” Cook says.

Remember, most people like to help students when they can. The worst thing that can happen is that you don’t get a response or they simply decline.

In person

Besides finding people to connect with online, you might also be meeting connections in person at campus networking or alumni events, at volunteer groups or internships, or at community organizations. “Having a 60-second ‘elevator pitch’ is great to have prepared for those in-person conversation starters,” says Coburn.

Here’s what an elevator pitch might look like

  • Step 1: Talk about the past. “What is your experience, what made you want to pursue this professional field, etc.,” says Coburn.
  • Step 2: Get to the present. Tell your new connection what you’re currently studying.
  • Step 3: Approach the future. Coburn recommends describing your future career interests, goals, and the types of opportunities you’re looking for to help you achieve them.

Student perspective

“I prepared by knowing who was going to be at the event and would think of good, intelligent questions to ask them. By knowing more about the people in attendance, I was able to make a more personal connection with them so I could come across as sincere, intelligent, and interested.”
—Victoria P., second-year undergraduate, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Newfoundland and Labrador

To make the most authentic connection…

The best thing you can do is try your best to just be yourself, says Coburn. “Approach networking by utilizing your natural strengths and preferences,” she says. Ask yourself: Am I more comfortable talking to a lot of people and ‘networking the room,’ or talking to someone one-on-one in a quieter setting? “Either approach to networking is great,” says Coburn. “As long as you’re being your authentic self and trying to make meaningful connections with others, you’re doing a good job at networking.”

young professionals shaking hands

  • Find common ground. “You can start with a question for them to find the commonality between the two of you (or group) and then share something about yourself to keep the connection going,” Coburn says. “Once you open up this conversation, you’ll authentically be interested in learning more about them. E.g., “What’s your favourite memory from your time at X university?” Or “What did you think of the speaker’s comments about XYZ?”
  • Plan ahead. “Research your contact and understand as much as you can about what they do so they realize you have put some time into this connection,” says Edinborough.
  • Set a goal for your meeting. If you’re meeting with someone one-on-one for an informational interview, Edinborough suggests writing down your questions ahead of time. Having notes you can refer to helps ensure you get the most out of your time.
  • Be professional and respectful. To create a more authentic and lasting connection, always be respectful of the professional’s time. Show up early, turn off your phone, give the person 100 percent of your attention. “Follow up by sending a follow-up thank-you or questions by email and requesting to connect on LinkedIn,” Miller says.
  • Provide a copy of your résumé. Leave your networking contact a copy of your résumé or attach it in your thank-you email. Ask them to keep you in mind if anything comes up, such as an internship or job opportunity in your field of interest.

Student perspective

“I’ve never been the social type, but I made sure to be myself, and always found that was good enough. I stayed in touch with people through work—every new job opens doors to more connections and great friendships.”
—Kristina M., fifth-year undergraduate, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Newfoundland and Labrador 

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To follow up…

“There’s no sense going through the effort of making a connection if you won’t go through the effort to keep that relationship alive,” Cook says. But there’s an art to the follow-up. “You don’t want to be a pest, yet you want to stay in contact,” says Edinborough. Here’s how to go about it.

“I would recommend connecting with your mentor or colleague at least once a semester,” Coburn says. When you reach out, have a reason or something to share, such as:

  • You saw an article about the person’s company or industry and found it interesting.
  • You received an award at your college or university, or landed a new internship or volunteer position and wanted to let them know.
  • You have a specific question and you’d like their input, such as asking their advice about potential summer internships or a study abroad program.

“You can also try to set up a meeting to connect in person or recommend an upcoming professional event that you can both attend together,” says Coburn. Following up can be the nudge it takes to turn a one-time meeting into your long-term mentor.

No matter how you feel about networking, it’s pretty clear that it’s here to stay. With the right approach, it can feel much less like the uncomfortable work of asking for a job and much more like an authentic and satisfying opportunity to build real connections that’ll last your whole career.


Student review: Shapr by Shapr

Read review here

Emma Q., fifth-year graduate student, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Newfoundland and Labrador

“Were you ever on Tinder, about to swipe right, thinking, ‘I don’t even want to date this person, but maybe they’ll be able to connect me with gainful employment’? Probably not—that’s where Shapr comes in. Developed by creators of a French dating site, Shapr connects like-minded people with similar interests—for networking or even just to chat, without the user being bogged down by a huge professional profile or having to sift through hundreds of them. It’s a stress-free way to meet new people without the awkward, ‘So, what do you do for a living?’”

USEFUL?
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
I was able to connect my LinkedIn profile with the Shapr app, making it super easy to get started. My first batch of connections were people I could see myself working up the courage to approach at a conference—and I didn’t even have to pay airfare.

FUN?
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Networking is never really “fun” for me, but I did connect with people who have similar hobbies. That means I can finally find a friend with the same love of *insert obscure hobby here.*

EFFECTIVE?
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The app delivers as advertised. I just really hope that post-doc in Ontario who also enjoys painting swipes right on me…she’s future #goals.

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Article sources

Sarah Coburn, MS, Career Counsellor at Cypress College, California.

Michelle Cook, BA, CCDP, Career and Education Counsellor and Job Search Strategist, Calgary Career Counselling, Alberta.

LoriAnn Edinborough, Director of Employer Relations at Notre Dame University, Indiana.

Kim Miller, Med, Counselling Psychologist and Acting Director, Student Success Centre: Careers, Leadership, Experience, Western University, Ontario.

Adler, L. (February 29, 2016). New survey reveals 85 percent of all jobs are filled via networking. LinkedIn.com. Retrieved from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/new-survey-reveals-85-all-jobs-filled-via-networking-lou-adler/

Casciaro, T., Gino, F., & Kouchaki, M. (2014). The contaminating effects of building instrumental ties: How networking can make us feel dirty. Administrative Science Quarterly, 59(4), 705–735. doi: 10.1177/0001839214554990

Casciaro, T., Gino, F., & Kouchaki, M. (May 2016). Learn to love networking. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2016/05/learn-to-love-networking

Dunham, L. (June 28, 2012). Seeing Nora everywhere. New Yorker. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/seeing-nora-everywhere

LinkedIn. (2017). InMail character limits. Recruiter help. Retrieved from https://www.linkedin.com/help/recruiter/answer/2225/inmail-character-limits?lang=en

Reid, S. (May 31, 2009). Drake feels “blessed” to have Lil Wayne as a mentor. MTV News. Retrieved from http://www.mtv.com/news/1612955/drake-feels-blessed-to-have-lil-wayne-as-a-mentor/

Sandberg, S. (May 25, 2011). Larry Summers’ true record on women. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sheryl-sandberg/what-larry-summers-has-do_b_142126.html