In the first blog in this series we focused on developing your career vision. Then last week we described the ins and outs of finding a job after graduation. This week we tackle that sometimes-scary but always-necessary thing called networking.
Healthy professional relationships are vital to any career. Even if you prefer plants or animals to humans, real impacts are generally achieved through teamwork and collaboration. Networking is the first step in the process of establishing these professional relationships, and is a crucial activity at every stage of your career (no matter how much time you spend in front of a microscope or up to your elbows in barnacles).
In the same way that you can become a more effective job hunter by putting thought and effort into your CV and cover letter, you can become a more effective networker by learning some tricks of the trade.
YOUR NETWORKING TOOLKIT
You’ve just walked into an elevator and you realise you’re standing next to the person holding the key to your professional future. You know you have 30 seconds with them before they disappear into a world of meetings and a lifetime of unavailability. You have to say something to spark their interest in you and to help secure a time to talk to them properly in the future. Where do you start?
An elevator pitch is a compelling explanation of who you are and what you’re interested in in no more than 30 seconds. Here’s a guide that will help you put yours together. Prepare your pitch well ahead of time to make sure it has all the elements of your story. Practice saying it to make sure it sounds natural. Test it out on your friends and family, and restructure and refine it until you’re confident that you can briefly and clearly explain your professional self to just about anyone in a way that’s interesting and free from jargon.
It’s worth printing a simple but professional business card with your contact details. Giving these to people will make you appear more professional and strategic, and will help the people you engage with to remember you.
There is plenty of non-verbal communication that affects the way people perceive and respond to us: whether we maintain eye contact while talking or look down at the floor; whether we stand with our arms crossed or hanging comfortably at our sides; whether we stand tall or hunched over; whether we’re well-dressed or unkempt; whether we smell like roses or…not. We all use these cues – often subconsciously – to decide who we like and who we trust. There are some very basic body language techniques you can use to improve the way that people respond to you – as Mark Boden explains in this great TED talk.
Your body language doesn’t only make an impression on other people, it also makes an impression on you. The way you stand, and whether you’re smiling or frowning, affects your own brain chemistry which in turn affects how you feel. In her excellent TED talk social psychologist Amy Cuddy shows how “power posing” (standing in a posture of confidence, even when we don’t feel confident) can affect testosterone and cortisol levels in the brain, and might even impact our chances of success. So you can quite literally fake it until you make it!
Tool 4: The outfit
Dressing for success is a real thing, and what you wear does matter. We’re talking about the environment and development sectors, so there’s no need to show up at a conference wearing a suit and tie. But dressing too casually won’t help you to make a professional impression on anyone. Yes, we’re talking to you, wearer of the Velcro-strap sandals. The best strategy is to gauge the typical dress code for the organisation you’re visiting/event you’re attending, and to dress according to that code (or ideally, just slightly smarter). And of course don’t wear anything revealing – aim to impress, not distract.
Now that you have these tools, it’s time to put them to use! Networking seldom happens by accident. As those seeking romantic relationships will know, you are less likely to meet that special someone if you don’t put yourself out there. So here’s a good networking game plan to follow when you’re starting out.
The easiest places to do your first bit of networking are at pre-arranged professional meet-and-greets like conferences, seminars, book launches, and departmental open days. Don’t limit yourself to sector-specific events – aim to develop a professional network that is inter-disciplinary and varied.
Before the event
Where possible find out who will be at the event, and consider how these people could be an asset in your network. Do a bit of research about the work they do, and think about the questions you could ask them when you meet.
At the event
After the event
Write a short email to the people you met telling them that you enjoyed meeting them and hearing more about their work. This ensures that they have your contact details at hand should they wish to get in touch with you again in future. If there is a good reason for you to meet up to take something forward, propose a time to have a one-on-one conversation. This could be a casual coffee, or a more formal meeting to discuss a specific idea or project.
One-on-one meetings with professionals can be extremely useful but also very hard to secure. Often the best strategy to secure a meeting is to ask a mutual acquaintance like your Masters or PhD supervisor or your old boss for a referral or an introduction. In these referrals be explicit about why you want to meet this person. Don’t be offended if the person won’t meet with you – most likely it is because they are simply too busy.
Once you have a meeting secured, take full advantage of it. Arrive at the meeting prepared. Know what you want to get out of the meeting and have a list of relevant questions to ask. Think about what the person can offer you, and what you can offer them. Being prepared will not only get you the answers you’re looking for, but will show the person you’re meeting with that you value their time.
Before you end the meeting it’s always worth asking whether there is anyone else in this person’s network that they can introduce you to that could assist with whatever you are specifically working on.
But before you do, here are two final networking aces to slip up your sleeve:
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the authors in their private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of the ACDI, or any other entity affiliated with the ACDI.