Building Your Professional Network as an iSchool Student
Published: July 27, 2021 by Leslie Parry
Kim Dority, the iSchool Student and Alumni Career Advisor, recently gave an insightful presentation about an essential (if occasionally dreaded) topic: “How to Build Your Professional Network (Without Feeling Weird About It).” To some people, the idea of networking can be exciting and invigorating; to others, awkward and stressful. No matter if you’re an extrovert or an introvert, a graduate student or a seasoned librarian, network-building is core to the profession. But don’t let your anxiety get the better of you. As Dority describes, it’s not about schmoozing or having transactional, superficial relationships; it is about growth, connection, and helping your colleagues and friends. “Building a valuable, sustainable network is a long-term play that involves creating genuine relationships of mutual benefit,” she says.
Networking vs. network-building
First, Dority explains the difference between networking and network-building. Building a professional network (or a “community of colleagues,” as she describes it), is a long-term, mutually beneficial endeavor. “A professional network is your community of personal and professional relationships, and it’s the ones that you build and nurture over the life of your career.” Networking, by contrast, is “when you reach out to individuals for a specific purpose, generally to ask for a favor, to share knowledge, to connect to people that you know.” While this can feel uncomfortable, she admits, it is not as self-serving as it appears: you will also be of service to others. “This is not about using people. It is absolutely about finding ways to help each other.”
The benefits of network-building are manifold. It makes it easier to explore career paths and employers, and to search and land jobs. You can learn from each other’s expertise, give and get advice, and brainstorm ideas. In addition, network-building sets the foundation for successful networking later on. “You want to start establishing and nurturing these relationships well before you need to reach out to someone and ask them for a favor,” Dority says.
Ways to build your network
Dority highlights the differences between active and organic network-building. Active network-building involves purposefully seeking out contacts, “reaching out to people or putting yourself in situations where you are going to meet people.” In particular, she recommends using LinkedIn as a resource, “because it allows you to reach out to people for introductions and referrals.” If you’re looking to connect with people who share your interests and values, you might also consider volunteering in some capacity.
Organic network-building, by contrast, means nurturing relationships that may already be forming, or “figuring out who you already have in your life as the start of your existing network.” As an iSchool student, this could be anyone at SJSU with whom your path intersects: classmates, instructors, student group colleagues, internship site supervisors, guest speakers, and professionals you may interview.
Above all, Dority stresses, follow your interests and share your enthusiasm with others. “Build on what you have in common with people,” she says. Identify professionals who are doing interesting work in your field of choice, and don’t be afraid to reach out to them for an informational interview. “It is the nature of LIS professionals that we are here to share, and we are here to support other people’s success,” she says.
Building your network as a student
Fortunately, there are plenty of opportunities to start building your network in grad school. If anything, being a student is a huge advantage. As Dority states, the iSchool is already a resource-rich community. Get to know your professors and advisors. “They can become advocates for you” if they know who you are, she says – so don’t be afraid to introduce yourself and open up a line of communication. It’s also important to get to know your classmates beyond their Canvas avatars. Take advantage of group discussions and projects and learn what other people are doing, she says – after all, they could be your future colleagues! If you get to know them now, Dority observes, then together “you can find out how you can help each other succeed.”
Beyond making connections in the classroom, students can also pursue internships and volunteerships, as well as join professional associations, special interest groups and student-run organizations. Whatever activity you choose, Dority says, don’t lie low – look for every opportunity to learn. Introduce yourself, ask questions and take on projects as appropriate.
Ultimately, however, it’s important to be selective about your responsibilities. “Choose what you can fit in, what’s in your bandwidth,” Dority says. Don’t overextend yourself. “Mental health and class assignments come first.”
But what if I’m an introvert??
This is actually a very common concern! Dority explains that you don’t have to be comfortable in big groups to build a successful network. She recommends focusing on one-on-one settings or small group opportunities. When you’re at an event, look for other people standing by themselves. Ask them questions. And practice introducing yourself! You don’t need a long spiel or an elevator pitch, Dority says – just get comfortable introducing yourself briefly conversationally. Give the other person an opening to start talking, and actively listen in return.
You never know when a relationship you’ve cultivated will provide you with a valuable career opportunity – or when you may be able to provide that opportunity for someone else. So don’t go it alone, Dority says. This is a profession that values community, service, knowledge and empowerment. Lifting each other up benefits everyone in the end.