Your Network is Your Most Valuable Resource
If you’ve been listening, you’ve probably heard that more often jobs (and especially good jobs) are acquired through networking than any other means. In my experience, this is completely true. But what are these networks, exactly, and how do you get one?
For a lot of people, the term “networking” conjures up images of a room full of people in suits, exchanging handshakes and business cards. That’s only a small part of the picture, though, and your network may already be stronger than you realize. Let’s explore this idea by looking at a few of the ways my network has helped me out when I’ve been on the job market.
Your academic network counts
People spend a lot of time talking about how to make academic experiences relevant in the professional world. Most of that conversation is out of scope for this blog post, but one thing is very true – your academic connections count for a lot. Your colleagues are highly accomplished experts who form selective associations and whose careers involve a lot of opportunity management. Those connections reflect well on you, and help make you unique. The thing is, though, that academic networks tend to be tight-knit and have relatively few connections to the professional world.
The exception that proves the rule
Just because many academics have limited connections to industry, though, does not mean those connections don’t exist, and you never know when they might pop up. My first job out of grad school was partially arranged by my department chair, who is not a person I ever associated with potential industry connections. As it turned out, though, one of his former colleagues had been working for some time as a linguistics advisor to a branding firm, and when the firm decided to hire another linguist, he reached out to his network, including my chair, to solicit recommendations. It’s worth noting, too, that the perceived detachment of academia from industry is decreasing with each additional person that finds a happy home outside the university.
It’s a small world, after all
When I left the branding firm and moved into data science, I was briefly amazed at how smoothly the interview went, and especially surprised that they never asked for a reference check. It was only afterwards that I came to learn the whole story – I still list my thesis committee on my professional resume (one of the last remnants of my academic CV). One of my new colleagues was also a UT alum and had studied under one of my committee members! She took the initiative to reach out to him for his opinion, and (lucky me!) he had some nice things to say. The lesson here is to remember that your network is not restricted just to people you approach for opportunities, and that it’s always worth being aware of what connections you and others may share.
Your next opportunity might be hiding somewhere unexpected
If people tell you not to pursue hobbies and have fun during grad school, don’t listen to them.
When I lived in Texas, I fell in love with the game of shuffleboard. I spent a lot of time down at the Horseshoe Lounge, and I don’t regret a second of it. I got pretty good, too. When I moved, I was pleasantly surprised that there was a competitive league in San Francisco that let me continue my hobby. Shuffleboard players tend to be good, laid-back folks and I made a lot of friends from the league, even though most of us didn’t stay too closely in touch.
I bet you can see where this is going! Normally, I’m not one to mix work and friendship, but I’m also friends with a lot of my younger colleagues. So during my most recent job search, I put a message out on Facebook (not publicly visible, of course!) that if anyone knew of fun data science openings in their organization, to let me know. I received a bunch of supportive responses, with varying degrees of fit, but the one that really stood out to me was from an old shuffleboard teammate. We hadn’t spoken in more than a year, and they aren’t a data scientist, but purely by chance they had heard of something that was right up my alley. I’ve been there going on four months now, and it’s shaping up to be one of my favorite roles.
Your network is made of people.
The key to having a strong network is not racking up the most LinkedIn connections (though a certain amount will help you appear more established, and by extent more credible). Instead, the key to having a strong network is about building meaningful connections – and that’s something that goes a lot farther than just lining up your next big job. The best connections are ones that aren’t built out of short-term ambitions, but instead out of a genuine desire to connect with people you share interests with. Sometimes it might be a person with the clear potential to advance your career, and other times it might be a person who can help you straighten out your rail shot. In my experience both are good types of people to know, and sometimes they can overlap in surprising ways.
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