Most college students have probably heard before how important it is to build a network.
Sounds like a good idea. But how exactly do you do that when you haven’t even started your career?
It’s true that you’ll start to build a network naturally when you begin working. In the workplace, you will meet coworkers and managers and maybe even an assigned mentor if the company you join is formal about such things. You can also start getting involved with professional associations for your specific discipline (think the Colorado Society of Certified Public Accountants for accountants or the National Society of Professional Engineers for engineers).
However, college is an opportune time to begin to build your professional network. Networking can help you get a feel for the career that you’ll embark upon one day. And while your professors and college staff are certainly helpful resources for some questions, a professional network can offer insight and guidance on a range of topics now and down the road.
So, how do you get started? Here are a few tips on how to start networking before you graduate:
1. Check out student memberships to professional associations.
Think you can’t get involved with a professional association if you’re not a professional? Think again. Talk with professors in your major for suggestions of professional associations that might be a good fit for your intended path. There are associations for different fields and areas of interest, and many have local chapters across the country. Best of all, many of them offer discounted student memberships. This is a great way to meet people in the field: by attending meetings and conferences of your local chapter. Doing so will give you a taste for the types of issues that are important to your industry, and more.
2. Reach out to professionals.
Many professionals would welcome the opportunity to talk with an eager college student about their profession and offer some insight and advice. If you’re intrigued by the advertising industry, look up a few firms in your area and send an email the human resources person on the website to see if you could arrange a meeting with some of the employees. If you want to talk to an early career professional at an investment firm, see if your school’s career center can help you explore shadowing or mentoring opportunities at nearby companies. The sooner you start meeting people in your industry, the sooner you can begin to grow your network.
3. Build relationships online.
These days, it’s relatively easy to build relationships online through LinkedIn, by following a blogger who is involved in the industry you want to enter, or even through Facebook or Twitter. Don’t just find people and send LinkedIn requests, though. Take things further. One idea: check out your college’s alumni LinkedIn group to see if there are recent graduates in your same major who might be willing to talk or email with you about what they do and how they got their start.
4. Explore internships.
An internship is probably one of the best ways to build a network. If you work at a larger organization that hires numerous interns each year, you’ll get to know people who will become your peers and colleagues one day. Many organizations really take to heart the importance of showing interns around the company and introducing them to a range of people at all different levels. Talk with the career center on your campus about internships and how to get started on the search.
5. Look around—your network is right in front of you!
It’s true that the college environment is one of the most diverse in terms of bringing together people from a wide range of backgrounds. Get to know people in your classes. Get involved in clubs and organizations and ask your co-members about themselves and what they plan to do after college. Talk to your professors and ask them for advice. Meeting people and learning from them is truly what college is all about.
Networking is an ongoing process.
One thing to keep in mind is that networking should not be something you do only periodically. Think of it as an ongoing process that you’ll continue throughout your life. When you build a network, you are cultivating a group of people to help you throughout your career—and vice versa. These are people who might act as mentors when you need advice or guidance, coaches when you’re facing critical crossroads in your career and need help evaluating your options, and even connectors when you want an introduction to another person.
So, start today, and remember to pay it forward in a decade or two when you get a call from a fresh college graduate just starting out!