Recent grads always hear the advice that finding the right job isn’t just about your resume – it’s also about knowing the right people. It’s true that getting to know more people in your field strengthens your chances of being thrown in the way of opportunities, whether it’s an invitation to apply for a job or a choice piece of advice from someone doing the thing you want to do. This doesn’t mean you need to be well-connected in order to land a dream job – you totally can – but when it comes down to two job candidates with similar credentials and experience, formal and informal references can make a big difference, and a stranger can’t vouch for your work the way someone who knows you can. Luckily, a stranger is just a colleague or mentor you haven’t met yet!
We know it can seem easier to launch yourself into the sun than to chat up a bunch of randos wearing blazers that they probably didn’t buy for $7 at Value Village. (Trust us, WE KNOW.) But, a couple things: 1) it gets easier with practice, 2) the stakes aren’t actually that high so it’s okay to sometimes mess up, and 3) you might discover that sometimes a good schmooze is actually pretty satisfying! Just read our FAQ and you’ll be shaking hands and taking names in no time.
Where do I even find places to Network?™
Talk to your old profs in the field you want to network in. Ask the good folks over at MRU Career Services for resources. Heck, just type “Your Field + Your City” into a search engine – you’ll probably find a local professional association or two you could join, and there’s a good chance they occasionally host networking mixers.
Meetup.com is also a great place to start – not just to find formal, professional networking events, but also for finding like-minded people who are into the things you’re into and who are happy to grab a beer and talk about it. Here’s a networking secret: you’re always networking – that is, you never know when you’ll meet a collaborator/mentor/person with a lead to a great job, whether you’re at your weekly board game pub night or French club practice. That doesn’t mean you have to be in HARDCORE CAREER MODE all the time, just, be open to meeting new people and keep your eyes open when you do.
What do I do about the nervous sweats? How do I talk to all these fancy-pants VIPs? What if I stuff my mouth full of crudités and someone asks me a question? OH GOD
Don’t panic. Like we said above, the stakes aren’t actually that high; your professional reputation won’t live or die on whether or not the CEO of Whatever Incorporated gets your Burning Man joke. The etiquette of networking events varies from field to field, but if you’re worried about slipping up or getting in your own way professionally, or if you have social anxiety that makes talking to people at events harder, there’s a few things you can do to mitigate your stress. First, if you can, bring a buddy with you – someone in the same or a related field – or find out if you’ll know anyone at the event beforehand. It’s easier to show up for stuff if you know there’ll be at least one cool person you can talk to (and bonus: if you get trapped in a terrible conversation, you’ll have someone to rescue you with Very Important Business so you can excuse yourself gracefully).
Another thing you can do to have a good networking experience is to make a few goals for yourself going in. Make sure they’re pretty modest and within your control; something like, “I will have at least one conversation with someone I don’t know,” or “I will hand out five business cards.” Feel free to peace out immediately after hitting your target. Asked the organizer a question? Victory! Stayed for 45 minutes and didn’t puke? Crushed it!
Think of this as practice. You can’t guarantee your networking will lead to any opportunities, and you can’t control what other people do – but you can slowly teach yourself to be more comfortable in networking environments, so if you make yourself go to a thing and get just a little bit better for next time, your effort won’t have been wasted.
What should I wear?
Again, this depends on the norms of your field, but business/smart casual is usually appropriate. That means khakis, slacks, skirts, polos, etc. (Basically no T-shirts, jeans or runners.) Wear something comfortable, clean and reasonably un-wrinkly. We’d recommend dark colours – not because it’s more professional, but because when you inevitably slop chocolate fondue sauce on yourself out of nerves, it’s easier to hide. Carry a Tide-to-Go stick in your pocket, for similar reasons. Absolutely speaking from experience.
What do I talk about?
A lot of early-career networkers feel like they’re supposed to wow the other participants with their brilliance in order to “make an impression.” That’s a lot of pressure, especially if you don’t feel like you have a lot of experience or expertise yet. If you’d like to speak up but you don’t have any insights to add to the conversation, why not ask questions? Start with something easy like “How did you learn about this event” if you’re tongue-tied. If there was a speaker or event beforehand, ask people what they thought of it. If you’re talking to someone with a lot of experience in the field you’d like to work in, feel free to ask them about how they got their start – nearly everyone likes to be asked for advice. Asking questions shows interest, greases the wheels of conversation, and hey, it might result in you learning a thing!
If you do have something to add but you feel like you’re too junior to speak up, try to remember that you have good ideas and skills to offer the world – not in five years, not once you’ve filled out your resume a bit, NOW. Sure, you’ve got a lot to learn, but so does everybody. That’s why we network in the first place – to learn, grow, and help one another improve. We’ve been so inspired by the amazing MRU students who partnered with Calgary Economic Development to reimagine the potential of downtown Calgary’s vacant office space. They’re using their education to look at a problem in new ways, and the results are amazing. We’d lose out on so many good ideas if we shut them down just because they came from someone who’s early in their career.
So show up, ask questions, don’t sell yourself short…and if you get super nervous after 20 minutes and have to scuttle out of there, be proud that you were brave enough to try.