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Career Advice

Learning to network

This vital skill can open doors to funding, contacts and new opportunities.


For many students networking seems at its best a guarantee of awkward small talk, at its worst, a glorified word for using people. Despite the bad connotations, when done correctly, networking is beneficial for everyone involved.

Networking is also an essential skill for any graduate student. It will open many doors for landing a great job, getting research funding, speaking at conferences, publishing in journals and leading new initiatives. What follows are five steps to networking success.

Step one: Realize you need help

Think of networking as an investment in success. But not just your own – you want to invest in other people’s success too. This is done by asking for help when you need it and providing help as often as you can, even if this means going out of your way. The more you lend your expertise, skills and connections, the more others will lend theirs to you.

As a graduate student, you are still green at most of this, so right now it is perfectly fine to begin by asking for help. You have years of success ahead of you, and there will be plenty of opportunities to return the favour.

Step two: Find potential contacts

Find several experienced people in your field who have achieved the level of success that you want to reach. When you are immersed in your PhD, you will find yourself coming across many names over and over again – through reading journals, researching online, and talking to your professors and advisers. The best people to reach out to are those whom you aspire to be like. For example, if you aim to become a master architect, contact the lead architect on a cutting-edge project in your area. If you want to become a powerful businessperson, contact an executive at a large business headquartered near you. If you hope to be a clinical psychologist, contact the lead partner at the most successful practice in your city.

Once you’ve decided on a few names, ask for their help. Send an e-mail explaining that you’re a graduate student and you admire their accomplishments. Tell them that you want to be in their shoes one day, and ask if they would be willing to meet or talk on the phone with you for 20 minutes so that you can pick their brain.

People love giving advice and discussing their accomplishments, so in most cases they will be happy to meet with you. If they don’t respond to your e-mail right away, wait about 10 days and then try following up. If you still do not hear from them, find someone new to approach in the same manner.

Step three: Research

After you’ve set up a meeting with a new contact, start researching. Learn as much as you can about this person and their work. This way, you’ll be armed with relevant conversation topics to make your meeting more productive and to help you avoid awkward small talk. It also will help the contact understand that you really do admire them and value their input, which is critical if you want to develop a lasting relationship.

Step four: Ask the right questions

When you first meet with your new contact there are specific questions to ask, to help ensure you receive relevant information. Regardless of your post-graduation goals, the basic questions remain the same:

  • How did you get where you are today?
  • What advice do you wish you had had when you were starting out?
  • What steps do you suggest I take to spark (or re-energize) my career?
  • Who else do you recommend I speak with so I can learn more about starting my career?
  • What other advice can you give me?

During the meeting, listen carefully, take notes and avoid interrupting. You want to send the message to your contact that you respect them and value their advice.

Step five: Be grateful

Find ways to express your gratitude and to develop a lasting relationship with your new contacts. If you met over coffee or a meal, be sure to pick up the tab, even though you’re the student. Follow up with a handwritten card thanking them for their time and guidance. As you begin implementing their suggestions, schedule a follow-up meeting to share your progress and seek additional advice.

Jason Connell is a career consultant as well as a public speaker. His presentations (through his company Changing the World 101) focus on how university students can get involved with volunteer projects in the developing world.

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  1. Pat Ryker / January 12, 2011 at 16:07

    I like this idea. It seems bold to simply email a stranger and ask for their time. I’m going to try it though. This could help a lot. Thanks for the article!

  2. Susan Ryding / January 15, 2011 at 13:17

    I had not seriously considered trying to network to get my job. After reading Mr. Connell’s article, I plan to start networking, first with a few of my professors, and also with some folks I know already in the business world. Thank you UA for publishing this article bu Mr. Connell.

  3. Malcolm Spinedi / January 24, 2011 at 14:17

    Down right proper advice by Mr. Connell. I can hardly wait to implement his advice. Thank you sir.

  4. Sandra Goncalves / January 24, 2011 at 16:31

    Awesome tips— Finding the contact info for the right person always ultimately turns me away from searching… I’ll have to work harder at that with your points on communicating

  5. Peg Kerouac / January 24, 2011 at 18:39

    I tend to be shy in networking situations. Having some scripted questions and getting the meeting to be about the other person helps. Thanks for the helpful hints.

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