Making professional connections is very similar to, if a little more formal than, making connections in a class or via social media. If you’re uncomfortable with connecting in person, consider how it’s similar to connecting virtually. If you’re uncomfortable with both, read on for some networking tips.
The key to get from awkward to comfortable while networking is planning and practice. But it’s hard to practice talking to recruiters—the stakes feel too high! Start by connecting with your peers, your classmates, or other attendees at recruiting events.
At any event, you can ask other attendees the reason why they are there and what interests they have. Networking with peers is great. Peer mentoring is hugely beneficial and feels like less risk since peers don’t have the power to reject you for employment. You don’t have to make lasting connections with everyone you meet. Talk to a lot of people. Find those that have things in common with you. Build off those similarities to forge stronger, more meaningful connections with them.
Why is networking important?
The “why” of networking and making connections is probably obvious to you. The more connections you make, the more people you know and the more resources you have available to your when you want to learn more, collaborate on research, and/or look for a job. But the “how” can be a little trickier. The secret is: you already know how to make connections. If you have worked on a group project, joined a study group, played a team sport, or commented in an online community, you’ve been forming connections. Forming professional connections is fundamentally the same thing.
How should I network with a recruiter?
Approach recruiters like the people they are. You already know why they are there to recruit, and you should already know what they’re recruiting for. So you can tailor your conversation to help them learn a little about you.
- Tell them a little about your goals, your background, and the positions at that organization you’ve already looked at and are interested in.
- Ask if the position(s) seems like a good fit, or if there are other positions they might recommend for you to look at.
- Ask about the next step on how to apply and if you can reach out to them at a later time.
- Ask about things that aren’t available on the organization's website, like what’s their favorite thing about working there; what was their first day like; what is their day-to-day like; how have they progressed through their career at the organization.
Keep in mind that you may not have a lot of time to ask many questions at the recruiting event. Be aware of how many other people are waiting to speak to the recruiter; and be respectful of their time. If your initial questions have gone over well, ask if you could continue the conversation. At conferences, you can ask if they’re free for coffee after the sessions are over for the day, by email, phone call or video call. Online, you can ask to follow-up by email or phone call.
Another thing to keep in mind is that people like talking about things they like, such as their research or the company they are recruiting for. Introduce yourself, be conversational, and ask them (peers and recruiters alike) questions so they have a chance to speak. The more you do this, the more natural it will feel, and the more easily follow-up questions will come to you.
How to get started
If you’re really struggling to get started, here’s a game you can try at your next conference or recruiting event. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is:
- Talk to three people with the same color shirt that you’re wearing;
- Talk to three people in your intended job/research area/academic study;
- Find two people who might want to talk to someone else you’ve spoken to today.
Then follow-up! Send a quick note through email, LinkedIn, or wherever you’ve connected to briefly remind them how you met, what you spoke about and thank them for their time.
Outside of events, you can expand your network by reaching out to people you already know (family, friends, coworkers, professors, members of regional or national societies you’re a part of, etc.) and ask them for suggestions on people you could speak with. Give them a specific topic you’re interested in talking about (e.g., a job in optimization or petroleum chemistry) so they can think about who you might want to connect with.
Ask new connections if you could schedule an informational interview. Instead of talking to a recruiter with the intent of finding a job, talk to a staff member with the role you want, and ask them how they got into it, what skills they use regularly, what skills they wish they had before they started that they ended up learning on the job, and anything else that could help you prepare for an interview down the line.
Keep it conversational, but your goal is to learn about the company so you can better prepare for a potential interview. Afterwards, remember to follow-up with them to thank them for their time and any insight you gained.