At the end of my sophomore year of college, I found myself at a career crossroads. The pandemic hit a few months earlier and like most students across the country, I was kicked off campus and sent back home. As I spent the remainder of the school year sitting idly in my childhood bedroom, I had no choice but to wrestle with the ever-looming question: What do I really want to do with my life?
Media and culture had always been passions of mine, but I never saw them as viable paths to pursue. But the dreariness of the pandemic shook me, and I decided to pivot from business to journalism with no portfolio, no connections, and no experience during what seemed like the most inopportune time to make a career switch. The only resource I had at my disposal was the internet — and turns out, I didn’t need much more. Over the next few weeks, I scoured the depths of Twitter — reading profiles of journalists my age and seasoned writers with dream gigs. I figured the best way to learn more about the industry was to actually talk to people who were in it. I cold Twitter-DM’d anyone I thought was remotely interesting and asked to hop on the phone with them. To my surprise, not one person refused — and through these conversations I learned about programs to apply to, editors to pitch to, and other writers I should try to talk to.
At the time, I didn’t consider what I was doing to be “networking.” I always associated the term with putting on a fake persona, connecting with professionals on LinkedIn, or talking to recruiters at companies I applied to work at. In fact, that’s one of the biggest misconceptions about networking — and is what turns so many people away from one of the most crucial skills to building a successful career. According to HubSpot, 85 percent of jobs are filled through networking. Seventy percent of jobs are never even published publicly, meaning that so many opportunities arise simply from talking to people — whether it’s a formal coffee chat or over Twitter DM. It’s a daunting reality, particularly for those who don’t come from privileged backgrounds or aren’t born with connections that can help them out. Luckily, there are plenty of tactics and tools anyone can use to strengthen or build new relationships — especially in the digital age.
Want to learn how to network but don’t know where to start? Here’s a simple guide that shows you the term isn’t as cringey or scary as it’s all made out to be. It’s actually quite intuitive, and like most things, becomes easier the more you do it. So give it a shot, because talking to the right person could go a long way.
Network with friends first
There’s no easier place to start networking than with people you already know. You might be thinking, “I already know what everyone in my circle does. How can they help me?” As much as we like to think otherwise, the world doesn’t revolve around us. People, even those closest to us, aren’t constantly thinking about us and our needs. They can’t read our minds, either.
A close mentor, professor, or even friend could know that you’re vaguely interested in something but have no idea that you’re actively looking for a job or to learn more if you don’t tell them. All along, they could have had the resources to help you or introduce you to someone who might know more than them. I would talk to someone about journalism and they would say, “Do you know so-and-so? They do something similar, and I’m sure would love to talk to you about it!” It never hurts to ask for an introduction, or you can reach out to them directly.
Reactivate loose connections (email is your friend)
Almost 50 years ago, Mark Granovetter, a sociologist at Stanford University, published an influential paper titled “The Strength of Weak Ties.” In it, Granovetter showed that those we consider to be part of our outer circle of acquaintances (“weak ties”) are more likely to be sources of new information and ideas than those in our inner circles (“strong ties”).
In his research, Granovetter surveyed 282 Boston-based workers and found that 84 percent got their jobs through weak-tie relationships. The argument is simple: Those in your inner circles usually have the same information and overlapping networks that you do. It is more likely that an acquaintance will have a different perspective and can act as a bridge to other networks you cannot see.
“Novelty means getting outside of your own little social bubble, or, as we have learned to say, ‘echo chamber,’ and talking to people you don’t know that well who are doing things you never imagined,” Granovetter told me in an email. “If you only know people you work with every day, you won’t be learning anything new about how to do things.”
Reaching out to that friend-of-a-friend who works in a field you’re interested in could open you up to even more circles. You don’t need to have a specific reason for reconnecting other than being interested in the other person and what they do. People are usually always open to talking about themselves, particularly when it’s with someone who is trying to learn from them. An email could be as simple as:
Hi [their name],
Hope you are doing well! My name is [your name] and I’m [brief sentence of your experiences or what you’ve been working on]. I’m really interested in [field/industry/job] and I remember hearing from [friend’s name] that you work in [field/industry/job]. If you have the time, I would love to learn more about it and your experiences! Thanks, and looking forward to hearing back from you.
“Homo sapiens evolved from the apes, and the apes are highly social,” Granovetter said. “There are many studies about their networks, so in terms of evolution, we are already predisposed to be social.”
However, access to social capital is not available to everyone in the same way. “Research, (and not just my research) is consistent with the finding that social capital tends to be more limited for African Americans and other minority groups than their white counterparts,” Danielle Taana Smith, a professor of African American studies at Syracuse University and director of the Renée Crown University Honors Program, says. “I would encourage individuals in minority groups to seek out people who can be allies, to seek out mentors, and to form close relationships with them.” Professional organizations, and peer mentoring programs that exist at universities and corporations, are a good place to start, Smith says.
Google and social media are also your friends
With the ability to find and reach people with a quick Google search, networking has never been easier — and has become even more accessible since the pandemic put constraints on in-person events.
Social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook can be used for much more than just sharing experiences with friends. Depending on what industry you’re in or looking to be in, these platforms can act as a way to casually reach out to people. Making an initial introduction via DM could lead to a more formal email or phone call, particularly if you have mutual friends or followers. It can be as simple as saying something like, “Hi, [their name], hope you are doing well! I’m [your name] and I saw that you work in [specific job/role], which is something I’m really interested in. [Sentence talking about your own experiences.] If you have any time, I would love to learn more about what you do. If so, let me know a good way to reach you!”
Meanwhile, professional networking sites like LinkedIn are not only useful for connecting with those in industries like business or tech (among others) but also for building a digital presence. Cultivating and updating a profile that reflects your interests, skills, and experiences encourages people and companies to reach out to you — opening yourself up to opportunities you may not even know about.
“In a way, access to the internet has further democratized the world, because it has provided opportunities to all,” Smith says. “For minority groups, or those that have traditionally lacked access to social capital, the internet is one way of gaining access to information. It’s a way of forming organizations that may not be in your geographic area. In a very real sense, it widens your access to social resources.”
Keep in touch, and always send a thank you note
Perhaps the most important but overlooked step of networking is keeping in contact with people you’ve connected with. After a phone call or coffee chat, always remember to send a thank you note to the person who took time out of their day to talk to you. It’s best to mention specific anecdotes from your conversation, and reiterate your experiences and what you’re interested in. Feel free to keep it brief:
Hi [their name],
Hope you are doing well! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me about [topic]. I learned a lot from our conversation and especially really enjoyed hearing about [their experience/what they talked about]. [Sentence about an action you plan on taking going forward/what you took from the conversation.] Best of luck and keep in touch!
Ghosting someone after they’ve offered their time and only reaching out if you need something from them is an ineffective way to form real connections and will likely make the interaction feel transactional. Like you would with any other relationship, it’s important to check in from time to time — asking the other person what they’ve been up to, as well as updating them on new experiences you may have had.
After all, at the core of networking is learning how to create and strengthen meaningful, long-lasting relationships. It’s not as scary or alien as you might think.
Teresa Xie is a freelance writer for publications such as Pitchfork, Teen Vogue, NPR, and The Nation.
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