Now that you’re a Faculty of Information student, networking is going to be a pretty big part of your life. Not only will you have to network in order to land jobs, internships, and volunteer positions, but you will almost definitely come across at least one assignment which involves networking during your degree.
Networking means building a network of professional colleagues and friends. A strong network can help you find opportunities and keep you up to date on news and updates within your profession. Meanwhile, you can do the same for those in your network, strengthening those relationships and helping the right people find the right opportunities. Sounds great, right?
Unless you’re not sure how to start building a network.
Let’s start with the easy stuff: the primary people in your network are in your classes. You’ll grow in your field together, and create professional relationships which can last a lifetime. Your network already exists in the form of friends from earlier degrees, past professors, past employers, and more. So don’t stress about starting a network—you’ve already done that.
Where most people get freaked out is when they have to consciously expand their network. What I mean by this is the act of reaching out to someone with the intention of adding them to your network, rather than meeting them and becoming part of their network serendipitously. This is an important skill to learn, and having it will serve you your whole life. Unfortunately, it isn’t a skill that is generally taught. Enter: this article. Your guide to networking without fear.
First of all, internalize the knowledge that everyone understands that networking is part of having a career. They have also sent emails to strangers trying to develop a professional relationship, and they have received those same emails before, too. This is a very normal thing that you’re about to do, and it won’t be a bother to them at all. (People actually love hearing that they are important enough that people want to know them.)
Second thing to internalize: you reaching out to them is also to their benefit. You aren’t bothering them. You are a smart, capable, interesting student who is learning cutting-edge practices here at UofT and is offering to bring all of that knowledge into this person’s network. They should be so lucky! Remind yourself that you’re worth their time, because you are.
Third: The two-email rule. Not everyone is going to be your best professional friend. Let’s say you send an introduction email (Part One below) and you get no response for a week. It’s fine to send a follow-up email as part of the same email chain asking whether they had seen the earlier email. Perhaps they had a super busy week or perhaps they were away for some reason. One ignored email isn’t a big deal, and it’s a courtesy to send a follow-up. If they ignore that follow-up, however, leave it. There’s no point dwelling on someone who won’t respond. You deserve better in your network.
Now that you know those three key things, let the networking begin.
Part One: The Email
- Pick a person with whom you will network. This should be someone whose position or experience is relevant to your interests. Don’t just email the first person whose email you see on the website of an organization of interest. Do a bit of research to pick the right person.
- Pick a quick and direct email subject line. I usually go with something like “Hello” or “Question about X” or “Coffee?” Cumbersome subject lines are… cumbersome.
- Introduce yourself. Your name, program, and a fact about you which clarifies why you’re getting in touch. Are you a fan of the kind of work their company does? Do you have a passion for a coding language in which they are an expert? Did you see an exhibition they worked on lately? This is a one-sentence step.
- Explain how you heard about them. Perhaps they were interviewed on the CBC and you heard, or maybe you’ve seen their work lately. Maybe a mutual friend suggested you reach out. Describe your mutual interest or connection. This is a 1-2 sentence step.
- If you need something specific from them, mention that here. Perhaps you’re meeting with them for an assignment, or for an article you’re writing. They’ll want a bit of information about how their words will be used or for what purpose, so write 1-3 sentences about that.
- Ask them for a coffee (or a Zoom meeting). Explain that you’d like to chat with them a bit about their work. (Note: If this is an in-person coffee offer, offer to buy them the coffee. The chances of them letting a student pay for coffee are very slim, but it’s a nice gesture. I promise your coffee budget is not about to spike.) This is a one sentence step.
- Thank them for their time. This is a one sentence step.
- Sign off with “Warm regards” or “Best wishes,” and sign your name.
There you have it! A simple, concise, warm introduction email. This explains who you are and contextualizes your interest in them in 4-8 sentences. Brief is good for something like this, after all. You don’t want to take up too much of their time, and the whole point of meeting them is to get to know one another—you don’t want to over-introduce yourself from the start.
Part Two: The Meeting
- Having now set a time and place for your meeting, do a bit more research on this person. What projects have they worked on recently? What is their organization up to? Do you have anything in common? (LinkedIn is a great resource for checking up on all of these.)
- Dress professionally, but comfortably. This isn’t a job interview, it’s a chance to meet a new professional friend! You want them to see you as a colleague (or potential colleague) but you still want your personality to shine through, so striking that professional/comfortable balance can help with that. Perhaps pair a blazer with a nice pair of jeans, or whatever is a good standard for your particular industry (and this does change depending on industry).
- Offer to buy the coffee, but don’t insist too much if they offer to pay instead. When they offer to buy instead, ask them if they’re sure and then thank them. Over-insisting that you have to pay will probably cause them to over-insist that they have to pay, which can get tiring for both parties pretty fast.
- Have questions in mind. You don’t need a hard list to which you’ll stick, because you do want the conversation to flow naturally if possible. Still, have an idea of what you want to talk about so if the conversation isn’t rolling along you can whip out a topic you know is of interest to you both. This is a great way to use that research you did earlier.
- Don’t be shy talking about your own skills and accomplishments. If you see a natural place to talk about a project you’ve worked on or a skill you have, take that opportunity. Remember that you are worth their time, and they took this meeting because they’re interested in learning about you, too.
- Enjoy the chat. Even if you don’t think this is someone with whom you’ll have a lifelong professional relationship, this is a good chance to learn something new about the field from someone who works in it.
Congratulations! You have now successfully had a casual coffee with someone in the field. Now it’s time for the follow-up.
Part Three: Maintaining the Relationship
- Later in the day email them again. Thank them for meeting with you, and highlight something they told you which you found particularly interesting. Encourage them to keep in touch, and maybe mention that you’re happy to be of any help you can be to them. This email only has to be a few sentences, maybe only three. Keeping it as a reply to your earlier email chain will help with organizing your networking, too, so consider doing that.
- Try to reach out to key members of your network once or twice a year. A great way to do this is to keep your eye on the news and big events in your field. “Hey, I saw your organization featured in the newspaper for X” is a great way to start an email. Keeping in touch over time also makes it that much easier to reach out when you might need help or when they might need help from you. It also makes you more memorable.
- Be kind to yourself if the relationship fizzles out. Not everyone is going to be your best friend forever. While you can and should work to maintain a relationship, don’t get too upset if someone isn’t replying to your emails. Remember the two-email rule.
- Remember that you add value. While the person with whom you’ve met is probably more established in the field than you (I mean, they work full-time in the field and you’re a student), remember that you bring a lot of skills and knowledge to the table. Be as helpful to them as they are to you. Not only is it just the right thing to do, but when they tell others about how helpful you are your network will just grow and grow.
There you have it! A super easy guide to networking which, while extremely unofficial, has never let me down. Try out the above steps to get you past any of your networking anxieties, and you’ll quickly see that networking can actually be fun in addition to being a smart career move. If you’re still nervous about networking, try practicing the above steps on friends and family before emailing someone in the field. You’re also welcome to get in touch with me on LinkedIn in order to try out some networking skills. The more you practice, the more natural this will become. Soon you’ll be networking like a champ.
Header photo source.