Building a career network begins in college. Internships, work-study, coursework and extracurricular activities introduce students to peers and professionals with the potential to help them thrive after graduation.
But these vital networks do not happen by accident. Students must cultivate them intentionally, and maintain them throughout their higher education experiences to keep them strong, and transition them into foundational career networks.
Many of the techniques and strategies students can use to grow and sustain their networks are simple. Short- and long- term goals can help students stay on track with networking. Combining technology with in-person interactions can create depth and continuity in relationships. Using the tools and resources institutions and organizations already provide improves efficiency, and reduces the amount of effort needed to get started. The most important aspect of building a future career network while in college, however, is understanding the value of having a strong network and committing to building one early.
The first step to creating a career network in college is setting clear and informed goals. Well-planned and well-maintained networks transition more seamlessly from college to workforce than haphazard or accidental ones. Experts suggest that students choose both short- and long- term goals, and that they match their goals to where they are in their academic and career journeys.
College freshmen, for instance, are often still exploring their fields, and may have little work or volunteer experience under their belts. As a result, their goals around revolve around very basic networking steps, such as practicing making connections, exploring and joining groups and organizations and setting up simple profiles on key networking sites. As students progress, they will both collect contacts and refine their career directions. This enables them to adopt finer goals, such as pursuing contacts in specific companies, positions or geographic areas.
Networking goals should be concrete and build upon previous steps. Examples of strong and progressive networking goals include:
- Joining two student organizations and setting up a LinkedIn profile freshman year.
- Participating in an internship sophomore year and making two professional contacts.
- Spending one hour each week reaching out to – and staying current – with key contacts junior year and identifying any network gaps by the start of second semester.
Use the Resources Your School Provides
Most colleges, universities and graduate schools have extensive resources available to assist students in building and maintaining networks. These resources come in a variety of forms, each of which help students in unique ways.
- Institutions may regularly host workshops, meet-and-greets and other events designed to let students brush shoulders with alumni and respected professionals in their fields.
- Many institutions have mentorship programs in which students can enroll, or offer resources and support for students attempting to set up private mentoring relationships.
- Communication, public speaking and marketing courses can teach students to present themselves well and connect with others.
- Extracurricular activities, including sports and clubs, may create opportunities for students to meet their peers at rival institutions who are pursuing the same fields or study or who have other shared interests. These peers can significantly expand students’ networks.
- Institutions’ student and alumni associations can be particularly helpful for students as they are, by design, structured to transition with students through graduation and into the workforce.
Students may also find that participating in alumni events, post-graduation, helps them transition their college connections into career networks, and keeps their networks strong and current.
Take Advantage of Technology
Research shows that there is no substitute for connecting with people face to face, or for the personal touch a well-timed, handwritten note can provide. Students and professionals with strong networks consistently make an effort to prioritize those types of interactions with principal members of their networks.
In today’s heavily digital world, however, technology plays a critical role in the day-to-day maintenance of networks. It is also one of the keys to successfully transitioning college networks into career networks. Professional networking sites, such as LinkedIn, allow students to establish professional communication and connections to their peers, their mentors, former employers or internship sites and companies of interest to them. When students graduate and move between jobs, those systems remain intact, permitting them to take their networks with them.
Students building college to career networks or transitioning existing networks can maximize the technologies available to them by:
- Researching networking sites to determine which ones are preferred and populated by professionals in their chosen fields.
- Establishing strong profiles on those sites and regularly updating them with new experiences, achievements and skill sets, as appropriate.
- Becoming familiar with – and strategically using – site functions to connect with new people, companies and experiences in line with their goals.
Get a Mentor
Students enrolled in undergraduate or graduate programs are uniquely well-positioned to recruit and build powerful relationships with mentors. Healthy mentoring relationships not only prepare students for the rigors and realities of working full-time in their chosen fields, but provide personal growth and a wealth of new connections, as well.
Good mentors have diverse and well-cultivated networks of their own. Typically, they will introduce their mentees to people within their networks who can help them, or are willing to otherwise leverage their connections to mentees’ benefits.
Mentor/mentee relationships can last from college, through graduation and into mentees’ early careers. This can provide stability and continuity while students transition the networks they established during their academic studies into career networks.
Regardless of which methods, technologies and techniques students rely on to transition from college to career, they will need to be proactive at every step. Simple ways to that include:
- Engaging with others, everywhere. Students who speak up in classes, seek out mentors and ask prolific questions during internships, or while volunteering, garner more attention, gather more information and make better impressions than students who hang back.
- Taking the first step. Professors, professionals, and even corporations are often happy to answer questions and advice if students take the initiative to reach out. Brief, respectful and concise phone calls or emails are usually the best openers.
- Making accomplishments easy to see. Updating networking sites to include awards, achievements and new experiences helps students’ contacts stay up-to-date on their qualifications and career directions. Contacts who are “in the loop” are far likelier to think of students and new graduates when an opportunity comes up that might benefit them.
By structuring college networks effectively, and keeping them strong throughout their higher education careers, students can easily roll their college connections into powerful career networks with simplicity and ease.
Related Article: Four Reasons to See Your College Advisor