Building your professional network

If the thought of networking puts butterflies in your stomach, you are not alone. But networking doesn’t have to be scary. Networking, or connecting yourself with other professionals, can actually be easy and fun, if you are smart about how you start making connections and expanding your professional network. 

Many individuals fear networking because they are uncomfortable reaching out to people they don’t know.  If you are looking to build your professional network, you best strategy is often to start with those closest to you.  Talk to your friends, colleague, and even your family members about your career goals and find out if they know anyone who could help you learn more about what it is like to work in a specific field, and what it takes to be successful.  Ask the person you know to introduce you to these contacts, either in person, over email, or through a networking platform like LinkedIn.  

In addition to people you know personally, it can also be easier to reach out to people with whom you share a common affiliation or interest.  Look at the members of clubs or the professional organization or society you belong to.  You can also check for alumni from your undergraduate, graduate, or postdoctoral institutions who are working in your target career field.  When you find someone who you think can help you, you can use your common affiliation to build rapport when you reach out and ask them to connect. 

You can also look for opportunities to grow your network through the activities you are already engaged in.  Keep an eye out for presenters coming to your institution and make the effort to meet with them. Ask if you can connect after their visit for a follow-up discussion.  Going to a conference?  Look at the schedule ahead of time to see who is presenting and what organizations are exhibiting.  Plan to attend posters and talks from people you are interested in connecting with and open the conversation by talking about their work.  Collect business cards or contact information from the people you meet and be sure to bring your own cards to hand out as well.  

After you have made the initial contact, it is important to maintain and develop these relationships so that your network remains strong and capable of helping you to further your career goals.  Always send a thank you after your initial meeting or phone conversation with a new contact and anytime that contact does something for you (i.e. sends you helpful information, introduces you to a new person, etc.).  Stay informed about your contacts’ activities and be on the lookout for opportunities to connect with them in person at events you are both attending.  Be sure to congratulate your contacts about their significant achievements (i.e. research publications, grants, promotions, etc.) and keep them up-to-date on your own accomplishments.

Now that you have some ideas on how to start connecting, get out there and build your network!  Your career will thank you for it.

With over a decade of experience in recruitment and advising, Heather Dillon has helped undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral students pursue their career goals.  As JAX’s University Relations Specialist, Heather travels to conferences, professional meetings, career fairs, and university campuses to raise awareness of JAX’s basic science research programs and educational offerings.  She is devoted to helping trainees succeed in their chosen professions by providing career guidance and advice through seminars, workshops, and individual meetings.