Two of the questions I field most frequently from student advisees are:
“How can I learn and practice effective networking with professionals in my field?”
“How can I get an on-campus support or research/TA position?”
Let’s kill two birds with one stone and talk about networking on campus, with an eye toward one’s transition to professional work in the field beyond.
First off, be assured that your presence at Illinois Tech puts you in handy proximity to a very powerful set of professional network connections from the get-go. All it takes are some good habits and attitudes to activate that potential for your own ends.
Let me offer a “case study” example from my own experience as a Political Science undergrad here at IIT. I took a Research Methods course with Associate Professor Matthew Shapiro — a core requisite for all social science majors, no big deal. And like most core reqs, where students are enrolled by obligation to program curricula rather than personal preference, many of my classmates seemed “checked out”: saying little or nothing during classroom discussions; playing Candy Crush or checking Facebook on their school-issued iPads whenever they thought no one was looking; and generally flying under radar as much as possible. In my classroom experience, this is pretty typical practice for students — and also a huge mistake in terms of missed opportunities for networking, as I’ll argue here.
Because of my rather, um, unconventional background/bio, my habits as a student were a bit different from the norm. While I was far from perfect — disorganized, frequently tardy, turning in ambitiously outlined but sloppily executed papers — my brash outspokenness and fondness for kicking around ideas kept me active in discussions. I also appreciated Prof. Shapiro’s evidently earnest passion for teaching the basic subject matter; he naturally worked his own specific research interests into the readings and discussion as well. So when I started a few casual conversations with him after class as he walked back to his office, just to indulge my curiosity, before long the talk somehow turned to research work opportunities. For an undergrad. With no highly specialized qualifications at the outset, beyond a willingness to engage with the instructor outside our classroom obligations.
Next thing I knew, I was employed part time as a student assistant with the CASM Lab research group. Near the end of spring semester, Prof. Shapiro urged me to apply — successfully! — for the Undergraduate Summer Research Stipend, and the resulting draft research became the basis for a working paper presented with co-author Assistant Professor Daniel Bliss at the 2013 Midwest Political Science Association conference. My two professors later improved on that rough paper and submitted it for publication in a 2016 issue of Local Government Studies. So that was a significantly productive outcome — from a relationship started with just a few casually curious conversations!
One more point, courtesy of Prof. Shapiro, who offered the following advice as I reflected on this experience with him recently: If you really want to get on a college professor’s good side, do a bit of homework on their research and publication work beforehand, to be well-informed about their interests and able to engage in a smarter conversation. Steve Dalton gives similar advice for alumni contact outreach in his invaluable book, The 2-Hour Job Search (copies still available free in HH 113 or to borrow from Galvin Library).
I could go into other anecdotal examples to illustrate the point — I’m very proud of my multiple campus employment experiences, both during and after undergraduate studies — but the “best practice” takeaways are all demonstrated in the story above. I will say this much about my other on-campus jobs, though: every single one of them was initiated through friendly conversation with a faculty or staff member, rather than a “cold” application to an online job posting.
- Adopt an “open stance” toward professors and peers. You won’t learn anything from or about others, and they’ll never know anything valuable about you, if your default practice in a classroom or group setting is to interact at the level of bare minimum requirement. Speak up and be a part of the academic community!
- Do some reflective personal inventory to identify your strengths, affinities, “home turf” and/or natural constituencies. Your passion and curiosity for a particular subject, or habitual routines in the same lab, library, or other shared campus spaces, can set up natural opportunities to connect with people who have common values and idioms.
- Focus on relationships first; let “ends” emerge organically, by and by. While you do need to leverage available connections, no one likes to feel explicitly used as a means for another’s sole ends. By building on affinities and cultivating alliances with a modicum of personal care, as you would any friendship, you can foster mutual benefits without forcing results.
- Use mentor feedback to inform and propel your next tack on a forward course. Reflection and advice from any concerned party, especially an academic adviser, can give you better insight on your strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities than you can possibly generate on your own ex nihilo.
- Profit from mutually beneficial alliances and enjoy new friendships! Trading favors and building social capital, openly and ethically, are the ideal means to your practical ends. This is the way the world really works, beyond the polite fictions of bureaucratic procedure and technical meritocracy. So your foremost objective in any networking situation should be not to “make a sale,” but rather to convert a stranger to an ally or friend.