If you wait until after you get your PhD to build a network, you’re too late.
Graduate school is the perfect time to connect with people in industry. As a student, no one sees you as a potential threat to their career. This means that people will be much more open and responsive to you. Yet, most PhD students don’t network in graduate school.
Networking is a second job (without pay) should take up at least half of your time. I know that’s a strong claim but top tier jobs in industry are filled almost exclusively through referrals now. If you’re not networking, you won’t stand a chance in the job market once you get your degree.
Networking is not something that just happens. Too many graduate students think that towing the line, getting published, and having an almighty Ph.D. is going to lead to a bunch of great opportunities. But this just isn’t true. If you want to get ahead, you have to start connecting.
If You Wait Until You Have Your Degree, It’s Too Late
The new rules of networking in graduate school involve both online and offline techniques targeted at key opinion leaders as well as your peers. These rules focus on building industry connections. The key is to not get overwhelmed. Don’t try to do everything at once. Instead, gradually branch out and slowly increase your risk tolerance until you’re comfortable contacting anyone, online, in person, or otherwise. Here are 10 things you can do to build up your network in graduate school:
1. Go to NEW seminars and prepare for them.
Stop just networking with the same 10 people in your department. Go to some different seminars. Walk over to another part of your campus, or to a different campus altogether. Try not to arrive the standard 5-10 minutes late and bolt for the door during Q&A. It’s annoying and make you look like you don’t care. Show up a little early and stick around after to talk to the people around you. 5 minutes is all it takes to make a couple of new connections.
You should also come to each seminar with at least one question that is useful to the audience and will give the presenter a chance to look good and show off his or her knowledge, not a question that you hope makes you look smart.
2. Talk to presenters after each seminar.
Don’t ask them a question or ask them for a favor and don’t be the student who talks to them forever and makes everyone else form a line and wait. Instead, pay them a compliment and get their card or email address and leave.
3. Go to industry seminars.
The people giving these presentations are your gateway to a career in industry. Go to their seminars, learn about their products, and then get their contact information. Referrals start with being able to put a face to a name. Make sure these people are seeing your face.
4. Reach out to your favorite authors.
Do you know those peer-reviewed journal articles you spend your life reading in graduate school? It takes a group of very dedicated people a very long time to create each of those articles. The truth is these people are underappreciated. You’ve probably felt like this at one point in graduate school too. So, show them some appreciation. Find their email addresses and tell them what you liked about their article or ask them an insightful question.
5. Go to conferences on your own.
Find a way to go to as many conferences as possible. Max out your credit card, sleep in your car, find a couch on AirBnB, do whatever it takes because getting face-to-face with decision-makers is your best career investment.
6. Create a business card even if you’re a student.
Any card will do. Just put your name on it and “Ph.D. candidate or similar.” Put a short elevator pitch or business objective on the front of it and a bulleted list of your skills on the back.
7. Collect business cards and write notes on the back.
Try not to walk out of the conference with 50 cards and not be able to remember anything about the people on those cards. Right after you meet someone, get their card, and write down what you talked about or something personal about them on the back. You can do this while you’re still in front of them. They’ll feel special and, more importantly, you’ll have some basic talking points to bring up down the track when you see them again.
8. Spend as much time as possible at the exhibitor show.
Go to every exhibitor booth you can. But don’t go during exhibitor or poster hours, because that’s when these people are busy selling. Instead, go 30 minutes before when everyone is there killing time before the rush. Don’t tell them you’re a student and don’t ask for anything. Just make small talk and tell them how much you like their company, how much you like them, and so on. Get a business card from everyone you talk to.
9. Create an online presence.
After you meet people, if you made a good impression and if you follow up, they’re going to search for information on you. They’re going to Google you. The worst thing that can happen is they don’t find anything about you. If they search your name and nothing shows up, you’re not important and you’re a risk. So, take away the risk by controlling the conversatoin. The easiest way to do this is to build up your online presence. This is easy. Just create some professional social media accounts, start a blog, join some relevant LinkedIn groups, or, at the very least, comment on blog articles related to your field. Most importantly, differentiate yourself from the crowd by joining exclusive networking groups with top academic and industry experts.
10. Learn the art of following up with people.
Networking is all about following up. Making a connection means nothing. You have to connect, then give, give, give, and give some more before one day, when the timing is just right, you ask. That’s how it’s done. Either you make time for the giving or you’ll never receive and you’ll sit in some postdoc position for 20 years wondering what happened to your life and career.
Focus on giving. Email the people you connect with a nice note every two weeks. Act like you’re their assistant. Send them articles they might be interested in or anything that could help their career or help them build up their reputation or network. The only way to get what you want is to help other people get what they want first. Follow up until you make an emotional connection. Then, and only then, ask for something in return—like a reference or a job.