My favorite online definition of networking comes from Investopedia: “Networking is the exchange of information and ideas among people with a common profession or special interest, usually in an informal social setting.” I also like the short and sweet definition by my colleague: “Networking is making professional friends.” International students especially like it as it removes some of the anxiety from the foreign concept of networking.
It’s common to feel like you should apply to many jobs as soon as you get to school in order to use the Optional Practical Training (OPT) time permitted for your program. Why “waste” time on networking and building relationships?
As unbelievable as it might seem to you, networking is not only three times more efficient than applying online but also an unavoidable step for an international student to start a successful career in the U.S.
First, networking allows you to tap into a hidden job market that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to access. Last time I checked, the hidden market made up at least 70 percent of all open positions in the U.S.
Second, networking is a great way to help you explore career interests, learn about the industry you would like to enter and get ready for your interview success. This is extremely helpful for you to gain insights so you can answer interview questions such as “Why did you pick this industry?” and “Why do you want to work for us?”
Finally, networking is crucial as it allows you to get used to connecting with experienced professionals and build a knowledge base for the transition from student to professional. According to reports by the Graduate Management Admission Council, oral communication skills and the ability to work with others should be an international student’s top priority to practice.
While classes offered through your academic program are essential to help you get the technical skills you need to be successful, you are in charge of developing your soft skills to become a highly valued professional.
The networking approach below is customized for international students. You’re not alone if you’re shy when it comes to initiating conversations with strangers, feeling rejected when there’s no response, or worrying about the awkward silence when you don’t know what to say. I hope these steps are helpful and easy to follow.
- Ask existing friends and acquaintances for a 15- to 30-minute Zoom chat to learn about their career paths (classmates, professors, friends at the gym, people you met at a friend’s party, etc.). Also, send customized invitations on LinkedIn to professional contacts you’d like to get to know.
- Make sure that you’re sincere in your desire to connect and that your contacts know you’re not asking for a job, internship, or referral. Asking for advice and insight (rather than a job, internship, or referral) makes others more comfortable and more willing to respond. Be grateful to those who say yes; be understanding of those who say no or don’t respond.
- If you’re not sure what to say, think of times when people have reached out to you. What did they say that made you want to say yes to them?
- Think about what interests you about the contact’s career path so far and what you want to learn the most from this person. If you need additional ideas, try searching “great informational interview questions” on the Internet.
- Write down three to five of your favorite questions to ask.
- Learn by example and listen to podcasts of coffee chats done by other professionals.
- Start with and focus on connecting. Ask questions such as “How was your weekend?” or “Do you have any fun summer plans?” (The art of small talk.)
- When you run out of topics, ask one of the questions you’ve prepared in your notebook.
- Take notes on key things you’ve learned about your contacts and the professions they’re in.
- Be sure you get all of the contact information of people you chat with so you can follow up and thank them.
- Refer to your notes and send a personalized email or handwritten thank-you note.
- Reciprocate if you can, and say yes to others who seek your advice and insights.
- Let your contacts know if something you read or hear reminds you of them, such as articles about their companies or interesting news about their favorite restaurants in town.
- Invite your contacts to in-person chats over coffee or lunch if you’re going to be near their offices.
- Keep follow-up emails or communication on Wisr and LinkedIn short and sweet. If you have a lot that you wanted to share, maybe it’s time to schedule a second Zoom chat.
- This approach helps you focus on connecting with and making professional friends. Remember, you’re encouraged to ask for insights and advice, but not for jobs, internships, or referrals. The industry knowledge and connection experience you gain from networking form a foundation for your career success as an international student.