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How to Network as a Student and a Graduate

Three young people sitting on steps looking at a tablet computer.

​In today's work environment, networking is as important as applying and interviewing for jobs. Networking effectively can open doors for you, either in the near future or years down the line.

But as most human resource students already know, networking doesn't begin after graduation. Aspiring HR professionals need to begin making contacts while they're still in school. In the following guide, we'll look at best practices for networking both before and after graduation.

Networking Goals

The first thing to keep in mind is that networking isn't about seeking out work. While a new job might ultimately be the result of a good networking interaction, it's important to go into it with the intention of building relationships.

"You can't skip the get-to-know-people phase," explained Laura Mazzullo, founder and owner of East Side Staffing, an HR recruitment firm based in New York City. "This means learning how to be an active listener, asking thought-provoking questions, wanting to learn more about the other person, and sharing articles/blogs/videos that the other person may enjoy."

However, networking in today's business environment isn't all about meeting people in person. While the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly made virtual networking even more prominent, professionals had already been making connections online for years thanks to the advent of social media. Mazzullo advises HR professionals to decide which social media channels are the best to explore. LinkedIn is clearly one of the best sources for professional contacts, but HR professionals may also find Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Clubhouse to be useful.

However, when searching for contacts, the key is not to think of networking as transactional. Instead, look at it as a strategic business function that teaches you how to connect, share, listen, and build long-term relationships. "Networking should be done whether employed, unemployed, junior or senior in your career," Mazzullo said. "Think of it as relationship-building, not networking. It'll be a game-changer!"

Networking in School

For current HR students who have yet to start building their professional network, now is the time to get on it. And one of the best ways of doing so is by joining the university's SHRM student chapter. This can provide students with the opportunities to connect with other aspiring HR professionals who could one day become professional contacts. SHRM student chapters are also a great way to meet established HR professionals.

Kyra Sutton, Ph.D., a faculty member at Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations in New Brunswick, N.J., noted that students benefit from interacting with both HR leaders and early-career professionals. "For example, some, but not enough young adults understand the value of completing HR rotational programs," she said. "Therefore, there are opportunities for SHRM to sponsor (virtual) events whereby young adults hear from practitioners in the final stages of, or recently completed, HR rotational programs." 

Becoming part of SHRM while in college can also expose students to learning opportunities that they might not have while in class. Sutton noted that very few have schools feature human resources information system (HRIS) courses in their curriculums. However, a SHRM event might feature HRIS employees on a panel and if students can attend, they might discover that HRIS is an area they want to ultimately pursue professionally.

None of this is to discount actual HR coursework, which also can provide unique networking opportunities. As a professor, Sutton directly helps her students network by inviting guest speakers to her classes. "On average, I have three to four guest speakers each semester, including when we were meeting virtually," she said. "I like to have a combination of early-career HR professionals and leaders as speakers in my courses. The early career professionals help my students understand the kinds of opportunities available immediately after graduation. Hearing from HR leaders helps early-career professionals realize what they can strive for later in their careers."

Alexandra Cafferty, SHRM-CP, human resource specialist at Alliant and recent graduate of Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., encourages HR students not to be afraid to put themselves out there and reach out to established HR workers. She noted that these individuals were all new to the profession at some point and are often willing to provide advice to help others succeed. "Connect with HR professionals on social media sites that work in an industry or company that you are interested in and set up an informational discussion with them," she said. "You will be able to learn more about what it is like working in that industry or company, gain insightful knowledge about how to successfully land your first HR job, and build a professional relationship with that contact that could potentially lead to a job in the future." 

Cafferty also advises students to use their college career center. Even after graduation, former students can usually still access career center services. "They can help you with tailoring your resume, interview preparation, finding a job, and connecting you with a mentor," she said. "The college career centers also put together alumni events throughout the year, which are great opportunities to connect with fellow alumni that may be working in an industry or company that you are interested in." 

Networking After Graduation

For recent graduates, Sutton advises SHRM membership. Doing so provides networking opportunities across the entire SHRM community, both online and through the SHRM Annual Conference. Additionally, it allows graduates to stay informed of changes and policies within the HR profession. "As a member of the national SHRM chapter, we receive a daily email that highlights news stories and important updates," she said.

Sutton also advises graduates to join their local SHRM chapters. This provides opportunities to meet—either virtually or in-person—other HR professionals in the local area. "When I lived in Atlanta, I attended monthly SHRM meetings," she said. "It helped me meet other HR professionals who were also early in their careers. Also, joining local SHRM chapters is helpful if you have to move to a new city for your job." 

Cafferty agreed that joining a local SHRM chapter is a great first step, post-graduation. "It provides you the opportunity to meet and form connections with many HR professionals from your state that can give you advice on advancing your career, education, and obtaining a SHRM certification, and they can connect you with their HR contacts that are currently hiring," she said.

Ashley Dugger, DBA, SHRM-CP, program chair of human resource management for Western Governors University in Salt Lake City, Utah, advises new graduates to seek out ways to simultaneously network and gain HR experience. "For example, I encourage our students seeking tangible HR experience before or upon graduation to look at local nonprofits or small businesses that may not have the resources for full time HR staff," she said. "See if they would be open to letting you deliver a training seminar, help with an employee handbook development or create a recruiting process for them. You can meet so many local business owners and professionals in a variety of industries with other connections in your community and get valuable HR experience at the same time."

Lastly, Sutton encourages young professionals who are serious about networking, to read "The First 90 Days" by Michael D. Watkins. "It is my favorite book to read before I start a new job," she said. "There is a lot of strategic yet practical advice about how to build a network." 

Adopting a Networking Mindset

While it's a challenge for a young professional in any field to constantly be on the lookout for new connections, this is the time in your life when you need to be constantly putting yourself out there. The network you build now will be the one you can rely on for years to come, no matter where your career takes you.

Dugger advises young and emerging professionals to consider everyone they interact with as potential networking connections. "Even walking the dog in our neighborhood has provided me the opportunity to interact with neighbors in a multitude of professional roles," she said. "You don't have to give everyone you meet a sales pitch, but as you chat with that new neighbor, new LinkedIn connection or alumnus from your university, don't be shy about letting them know you are seeking an HR role and see what comes out of the discussion!"

Quick Tips: How to Talk to Potential Connections

Perhaps the most difficult parts of the networking process are the actual interactions you have with new contacts. Whether it's in person or online, it can be difficult to break the ice. Here are some quick tips from Kyra Sutton:

  • Ask someone you both know to introduce you. This can be a college alumnus, former or current coworker, a senior leader, etc.
  • Make introductions on behalf of others. Just as you may benefit from a contact making an introduction for you, be sure to show the same courtesy for your connections.
  • Follow a potential new contact on LinkedIn. Reach out to them about a post they've made within the last 30 days or so.
  • Connect with anyone that reaches out on LinkedIn. Always keep an eye out for new professional relationships—especially when they seek you out. 
  • Do community service. Participating in community service organizations is also a great way to meet other professionals.
  • During in-person networking events, set a goal to meet at least two new people. Introduce yourself, tell them about your current role, and figure out something to ask their advice about during the conversation.


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