Tips for Building Your Professional Network as a Graduate Student

To be a successful graduate student and upcoming professional, you must fully embrace the concept of “it’s not what you know, but who you know.” For a professional, networking is an essential part of engaging with others in your field and planning for your future — and it starts when you’re still a student.

Many young people and new professionals feel networking isn’t authentic or feel it’s a chore, rather than a productive, essential part of success in graduate school and beyond. As a student, you have a lot of built-in opportunities to expand your network, and you need to take advantage of them. The trick is finding those openings and then getting over your nervousness or fear about engaging in what may feel like shameless self-promotion.

Networking Starts on Day One

Dr. Fredrick Loomis, Associate Professor of Higher Education at Penn State and a major advocate for network-building, says, “I always advise students to focus on building relationships while in graduate school, since many of these relationships will last a lifetime.”

Dr. Loomis points out that your network starts immediately with professors and fellow students. You must “get to know your professors and make sure they know about you and your interests,” he says. First, this helps teachers tailor their advice and lectures to you. They are also more likely to introduce you to others who share your interests, whether it’s other students or professionals in the field.

Reaching Beyond the Classroom

Dr. Loomis also suggests reaching out to alumni. Associations, events, and even webinars make this easy. In addition, most institutions have offices for alumni affairs with lists of contacts for current students. He emphasizes, “These individuals are typically committed to students and will respond to you by email or agree to a request for a formal informational interview” without hesitation.

In a similar vein, Dr. Loomis emphasizes that a strong digital presence on sites like LinkedIn or school-sponsored ePortfolios is also critical for this generation of emerging professionals.


Networking is not a dirty word

Networking Is Not a Dirty Word

Although the opportunity to connect with others is fairly easy in graduate school, putting yourself out there as a young and learning professional can feel intimating. In an article for Harvard Business Review, Tiziana Casciaro, Francesca Gino, and Maryam Kouchaki directly addressed this through a study of the networking habits of 165 lawyers at a single large firm. Confirming earlier research on the subject, they found a direct correlation between the ability to network and professional success. Furthermore, they confirm that “building and nurturing professional relationships also improves the quality of work and increases job satisfaction.”

Networking is tough, so researchers asked questions of those who were and were not effectively networking and compared their answers with previous research. Casciaro, Gino, and Kouchaki discovered some clear patterns among successful networkers, leading them to offer four networking tips for new professionals and students to help them get over their fear or hesitation.

  1. Focus on Learning: Research from Carol Dweck of Stanford University indicates that individuals with an aversion to networking need to focus on changing their mindset from “prevention” to “promotion.” In other words, rather than seeing networking as a necessary evil, look at it as another opportunity to discover and learn more about your field.
  2. Identify Common Interests: Genuine interaction is far preferable to small talk and beneficial to both parties. Take some time to research and understand the people you network with and identify areas where your goals and interests intersect. This type of “substantive networking” leads to more meaningful conversations and relationships.
  3. Think Broadly About What You Can Give: Of course, it isn’t always easy or possible to identify common interests, especially as a student who is just scratching the surface of your field, but there are many intangible benefits to networking, even if it’s just the sense of genuine gratitude you can offer to others. Public gratitude, or “singing the praises” of a boss or teacher, can enhance that person’s reputation as well as encourage him or her to continue to help other new people in your field.
  4. Find a Higher Purpose: Thinking about networking in terms of the collective benefit (“helping clients” or “supporting my school”) places its purpose on a higher plane and makes it easier to swallow. In fact, the authors especially emphasize that for underrepresented populations, putting yourself out there and being an example in your field has a domino effect on others of the same population, which expands networking and success for all.

The Graduate’s Journey

As a graduate student, building a network of professionals who can advise, orient, and counsel you through the intangibles of your field is one of the most valuable “unlisted” benefits of your education. Learning to present yourself professionally, as well as entertain and engage with others in your field, is critical for your long-term success.

In that respect, knowing where to look for networking opportunities, getting over your fear, and even knowing what conveniences you can use, such as CORT Furniture Rental, to help enhance your public image, are all crucial during these early years. The best networking benefits everyone involved.