Trial and Error: How I Learned to Network
“It’s all about networking.”
“It’s about who you know, not just what you know.”
I’ve heard these phrases and others like it throughout my schooling. They are often said in a way that assumes everyone knows how to network. I’ve especially heard statements about networking in relation to conferences and connecting with other people in my field. I was fortunate enough, through research assistantships and the McNair Scholars program at my institution, to begin attending conferences as an undergraduate student. These opportunities have given me time to figure out what networking is for myself.
When I began going to conferences, I believed networking meant trying to leave with as many business cards as possible. I remember leaving several conferences with big stacks of them and feeling excited that I was “networking.” Reality would set in when I returned home from the conferences and thought about reaching out to all of the people who I had exchanged cards with. Truth was, I didn’t remember the conversations I’d had with people, because my focus was on getting their card so that I could reach out to them later. Needless to say, I had to rethink what it meant to network.
Let’s fast forward some years and a lot of conferences, mixers and social events later. Connecting with people is much a different process for me now. For one, I am less focused on the number of business cards I leave an event with. I focus much more on the quality of the connections. My focus is on building relationships, which can be for future professional opportunities, mentorship, or creating a supportive community.
Learning to network in a way that feels comfortable and congruent with who I am has been a continued process, and one not without difficulty. If I could offer any advice about networking, it is to start slow and approach it in a way that fits with your interaction style. Since conferences and networking events are part of the graduate school experience (though they can be expensive so I suggest you seek out funding), do not get down on yourself for not connecting with others right away. You will have opportunities to do so.
To get to the point where I could focus on the quality of the relationships, I had to first challenge my expectations. Instead of thinking that a successful conference or networking event was one where I met as many people as possible, I set a goal of connecting with three to five people. As someone who describes themselves as an outgoing introvert, I felt that number of people was within my comfort level. Setting a target number of connections may not always be helpful, but I found that it motivated me to actually reach out to others, without feeling an overbearing pressure to network.
I often seek out opportunities where connections can be facilitated without extra effort. For me, poster sessions are great for this. When I attend a conference poster session, I seek out people who are presenting on topics that I am personally and professionally interested in. The information on the poster allows me to develop talking points and connect with the presenter without me having worry as much about what I need to say. This works when I am the one presenting the information as well.
To ease the process of following up after a conference or event ends, when I exchange cards with someone, I write a quick note about what we discussed on the back. This helps me to remember the conversations and draft specific follow up emails, even if some weeks have passed since our initial interaction.
What I ultimately found was that as I began to genuinely connect with people, they often introduced me to others. This has become a continued process for me at conferences. Throughout the last five years of grad school, I have been able to build a community of people that I see once or twice a year at conferences. The relationships I have built have led to feeling less isolated during grad school and has helped me to enjoy conferences a lot more.
Networking and connecting with others can be tough. Being patient and intentional can help with this.
About the Author
Derrick is from Bellflower, California and earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology from California State University, Fullerton. He is a current doctoral candidate in Counseling Psychology at the University of Oregon, where his research is focused on exploring factors that facilitate and hinder the academic experiences of Black college students. Derrick views laughter as self-care and tries to do so as often as possible.