Tips about professional networking

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A few months ago I met a senior faculty who has very similar research interests at an academic conference. In particular, I am very interested in his survey work in China and want to know more about it. Although I planned to approach him, I was extremely nervous and felt I was too “novice” to start a conversation. Moreover, we sat at the opposite ends of the dinner table so I never had an opportunity to interact with him then.

A few days ago I attended a workshop on “professional networking for graduate students” held by Duke Career Services. There I encountered a group of students who had the same question with me: How to initiate and sustain a professional relationship that may help our career development in the future?

First and foremost, it is important to interpret “networking” correctly. Networking is not merely about socializing in a professional context over time and gathering useful information about career development. It is about building and sustaining relationships, with reciprocity at the heart of the process.

There are probably more networking opportunities than you think. Family, friends, academic contacts, and previous employers are within our immediate circles. But participating in campus organizations, professional associations and networking events also increases our exposure to people from different backgrounds that might become important contacts in the future. Virtual networks, such as alumni networks and LinkedIn, are also extremely valuable but are often underutilized. They provide a relatively secure platform for people sharing commonalities to connect. Since credentials are readily available, your greetings are more likely to be responded than a blind “hello” to someone you completely don’t know.

We all know that first impression greatly affects the possibility and quality of subsequent interactions. So how do we create a good first impression? Here are several steps.

1. Introduce yourself with confidence. A nickname will be useful if you have a hard-to-pronounce first name. Shake hands firmly. Keep a nice smile and maintain sufficient eye contact.

2. Ask informed questions.

3. Find something in common with the person you network with and be memorable. Commonalities often come up in the conversation. Maybe you went to the same school, have similar interests, or have some common friends.

4. Create a reason to follow-up, and get contact information. Offer something (e.g. put them in contact with someone in your network that might be helpful for them) or share something (e.g. recent news that they might be interested in).

5. Write an email within 48 hours of your first meeting, and suggest a follow-up. Point out when, how and what you hope to do.

A lot of the above is useful for people in the academia world as well. Although networking is futile if one doesn’t have solid professional skills, the mastery of such skills takes time to develop and will pay off in the long run.

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