One of the most valuable tools I’ve learned to utilize within and outside of my graduate career is something that I’ve never heard mentioned in the classroom. Yet, this tool could be just as valuable to my career as the doctorates degree for which I am studying. This tool is called networking.
In “How Do You Teach Networking” (Chronicles of Higher Education), James M. Lang reviews his transition from “distaste” and mistrust” at the very idea of networking to pondering whether or not it is his responsibility to discuss the “importance of this basic skill” in his capstone course at Assumption College. Regardless of its mission, a college/university is supposed to prepare its students for their future, right? Thus, is making connections with industry leaders (or future industry leaders) not crucial to one’s success? Before answering this question, humor me while I tell you a bit about my personal experience.
Just so we’re all on the same page, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines networking as “the cultivation of productive relationships for employment or business.” I’m NOT referring to the definition you might find elsewhere on the web (e.g., Urban Dictionary)—a crude variation of “flattering ones superiors to earn an unworthy raise or promotion.”
Now that that’s clear, let me give you an example of how networking has worked for me outside of academia. A few years ago, I began coaching at a local CrossFit gym, hoping to utilize this position to stay in shape, practice pubic communication, and earn some extra cash as I attended college. One thing I did not anticipate was the effect this job would have on my landscaping business—my other side job. Although the clients I coached had never seen my landscaping work, they trusted me more than the landscape contractors whom they had never met. I didn’t have to “sell myself;” I was simply cultivating relationships. Eventually, the landscaping jobs I gained through coaching became more lucrative than coaching itself. Obviously, because of this experience alone, I agree with Lang: networking should be taught to undergraduates, even if it’s just teaching them how to recognize networking opportunities. After all, they come when you least expect it.
In academia, networking opportunities seem much more obvious. In these instances, it’s more about how than when to network. An academic conference is a prime example. Since these conferences are more explicitly about networking, it can be easy to blur the aforementioned definitions and become “that person.” “That person” takes every opportunity to demonstrate his or her superior intelligence and is immediately best friends with the leading scientists at the conference. Since I’ve encountered a few of these individuals at these conferences, I can empathize with Lang’s initial perception of networking. However, for the most part, my experience during these events has been very positive. I’ve found that these conferences are very conducive to introductions that may have not happened otherwise. Though these meet and greets may not be extensive, they allow graduate students and new faculty members establish an identity that is relatable, memorable, and, hopefully, credible, rather than just another name on an impressive CV.
Although networking is not a hard skill, we all know soft skills are just as important. As someone in a field that primarily focuses on hard skills, learning and understanding the nuances of networking may not always be second nature. Therefore, teaching this in the classroom is crucial if the goal is to truly prepare the student for the “real world”. Cultivating relationships can lead to opportunities at the most unexpected time, and it is important to prepare students to recognize and utilize such occasions.