I wrote an article on Rediff about the importance of networking in context with studying abroad (in the US). What I had to say holds true for pretty much everyone. So here is a more general version of the article that appeared in Rediff.
Networking is the act of expanding one’s social sphere of influence by initiating mutually advantageous new relationships with people. Your network, if maintained well, could be the most effective tool for your success.
Depending on the nature of the relationships you build, networks can be classified into four types: (a) Academic networks, (b) Professional networks, (c) Social networks, and (d) Service networks.
- Academic Network: Your academic network is the relationships you build with your classmates, instructors, and academic advisers. Your academic network plays an important role in all your academic activities from choosing your application process, to choosing your courses, to applying for internships.
- Professional Network: Your professional network is the relationships you build with your colleagues, clients, business partners, et al. Your professional network can be useful in landing a job, closing that hard-to-get deal, get you foot in the door into places you would otherwise have a hard time getting into, etc.
- Social Network: Your social network is the relationships that you typically build outside your academic and professional life. They are often associated with your social and personal life.
- Service Network: Your service network is the relationships that you build through your outside interests, your extra-curricular and community involvements. I have made this distinct network type because your service network, unlike your social network, complements your professional network in the goals that the latter achieves. People within your service network are willing to vouch for certain abilities you possess which the people within your social network may not.
Having made the distinction among the four network types, I must underscore that these networks may not be distinct. Often friends become co-workers, and co-workers become friends. Your friends may become your classmates, and your classmates who graduate with you may become your colleagues. It is important to realize that the nature of your relationship with people will change over time, and so you have to be careful how you choose to handle any relationship; bridges once burnt are very difficult to rebuild.
How do I build my network?
To build any network you have got to interact with people. Start with your classmates, your friends, your colleagues, and your instructors and lecturers. This applies especially to students. It is tempting to go through college unnoticed, sit in the last bench, and attract no attention. But that is not going to help you much when you are trying to figure out which company to work for, or which university in the US to apply to. For instance, it is not going to help your instructor write a strong letter of recommendation simply because he/she doesn’t even remember you from class.
Are there any don’ts?
Remember, we are talking about building relationships with people here to form a network. The network is a tool that you can use, but people are not! I can’t emphasize that enough. Regardless of the nature of relationship, people are still people, and you should treat them as such. DO NOT try to use people to your advantage. That’s not only unethical, it is also self-defeating. When you make connections with people, treat them as friends, as acquaintances even if they have nothing to offer you, or you have nothing to offer them.
Another point worth mentioning is that you can sustain your network only if you can contribute to its constituents. In other words, you cant simply expect your network to keep delivering for you if you are not willing to deliver to people in it. Be a good Samaritan; if there is some way in which you can help someone out, then extend yourself. Remember that someone else did that for you when you needed it. Pay it forward. That’s how the game is played.
In summary, to build a good network: interact with people, build relationships, maintain them, pay it forward.
What makes a network effective/strong?
Everyone has a network. Its a combination of academic, social, professional, and service networks. But not all networks are of the same quality.
It is tempting to assume that a bigger network is a more effective network because there are more people you can call on when you need assistance. But it doesn’t work that way. A network should only be as big as you can commit to. A network larger than you can commit to will only dilute your commitment to each of your relationships, thus diluting its effectiveness (assuming commitment is reciprocal). Remember, after you build a relationship, you should work on maintaining it for it to be effective. So always maintain a network only as large as you can commit to.
Keep your network diverse. Include people from all walks of life. Why? Because in life you deal with people from all walks. You may be the world’s leading expert in ‘xyz’, but that does not mean your network should all be people from that background. Remember, you still have to buy a home, find the right school for your kids, make the right investments for your future, and so on. When you bring the diversity of your life into your network, it can only serve you better. This is a lot easier to do that you think. Look at your service network. It is unlikely that people with same outside interests are in the same professional/academic field. This is a great place to start diversifying your network. Who knows, that bank executive you met at the Amateur Photographers Club may be the key to securing the best deal in town for your upcoming home loan!
For all you career minded folks out there, pay special attention to your professional network. Leverage your academic network to expand your professional network. A great avenue to build a strong professional network is conferences. Don’t look at conferences as an expense, see them as an investment. Lets take my instance: In the first conference I went to in 2006, the struck up a discussion with one of the presenters at the conference about how to improve upon the results he presented. A few months later I was a co-author in the expanded paper sent for publication to a journal. At another conference I was in last year, I struck up a discussion with another presenter that matured into an offer for summer internship.
The key to the success in both the instance I mentioned above was what is called an Elevator Pitch. “An elevator pitch is an overview of an idea for a product, service, or project. The name reflects the fact that an elevator pitch can be delivered in the time span of an elevator ride.” [Wikipedia] Make sure you have your elevator pitch ready for you never know when you may need it.
An yeah, what I mentioned above illustrate only the short term benefits of an effective network. The long term benefits are far greater, and well… obvious :)