Your Guide to Networking & Mentorship
Networking can play a crucial role in your job search and career advancement. Through your network, you may learn about new professional opportunities, share best practices with colleagues, or identify a mentor who can provide advice about specific challenges or broader career guidance.
You may feel nervous when attending events or reaching out to potential new contacts, especially if you are new to your field and currently have little to share. However, networking benefits all parties through the creation of new connections and avenues for sharing information. Mentors and other established professionals often view giving advice as an opportunity to pay back the support they received earlier in their careers.
This guide provides an overview of professional networking and mentoring, including guidance on preparing for an informational interview, following up on a new connection from an event, and using online networking tools effectively.
Formal vs. Informal Job Search Networking
Informal networking typically involves talking with friends, family members, classmates, or colleagues about new job opportunities. You may ask these contacts about a specific role or signal more generally that you are looking to take the next step in your career.
Formal networking, by contrast, usually includes meetings or events arranged specifically for the purpose of generating new professional connections. While often more difficult, formal networking better serves individuals looking to grow their professional circle beyond the people they already know.
When networking either formally or informally, concentrate on building genuine and ongoing relationships rather than immediately asking for a favor or recommendation.
Formal networking can take many forms. For example, attending an alumni event hosted by your college provides the opportunity to meet individuals with backgrounds similar to your own. Professional associations within specific industries often host networking events to help their members build connections and share knowledge. In addition, informational interviews allow you the chance to learn from an experienced professional in a more intimate environment.
To get the most out of these networking events and meetings, be sure to prepare. Bring business cards or, when appropriate, a resume. Write and practice an "elevator pitch," a brief summary of your experience and career goals. Prepare a short list of questions. And finally, make sure to follow up on all promising contacts and thank those who agreed to meet with you.
Informal networking tends to be easier and less stressful than formal networking, as it involves people you already know. However, the reach of this approach is limited by the size of your existing personal and professional networks.
When friends and family provide job leads or advice, you should explore all their referrals and thank them, regardless of the outcome. When attending social gatherings, you may discuss your job search or career goals generally, but avoid asking for specific favors or connections. Instead, ask if you can talk privately at a later date.
Tips for Successful Networking
Networking requires both preparation and practice. Very few people naturally possess the talent to advertise themselves to others and build personal connections from nothing. To succeed, you will need to learn from your failures. In most networking situations, thankfully, the stakes are relatively low, and most people will appreciate your effort, even if you stumble.
The sections below detail some of the key elements of networking success: preparing talking points in advance of a meeting or event, reaching out to others proactively, and following up to ask questions, close loops, or simply say thank you.
Preparation helps you avoid awkward situations and take full advantage of opportunities. To begin, identify your goals. For example, you may be interested in finding new clients, transitioning into another field, or simply growing your network. Next, prepare your "elevator pitch." This term refers to a brief verbal summary of your professional history, future plans, and what you can offer to others.
You may also benefit from brainstorming some conversation starter topics or questions for specific individuals, like what advice they might offer to someone new to their industry. Finally, remember to bring business cards or another way of sharing contact information.
At networking events, you must show initiative. Introduce yourself to strangers, contribute to conversations, and ask engaging questions. Afterward, build relationships with your new connections by asking additional questions and continuing professional conversations from the event.
Networking generally requires a proactive mindset. For example, if you identify people you would like to meet, don't be afraid to invite them to connect on an online networking site such as LinkedIn or send them an introductory email. Try to avoid cold-calling unless absolutely necessary.
To expand your network, you can also join professional associations, nonprofit boards, and online or in-person affinity groups.
Following up is one of the most important, but often most neglected, components of networking. It begins the process of transforming a single conversation into an ongoing and mutually beneficial relationship.
Start by organizing the contact information you collected. Then, send personalized messages to each individual, either by email or through an online network. Effective strategies include referencing any specific information they shared, asking a question they are uniquely prepared to answer, or thanking them for advice they provided. You can also suggest a second meeting or indicate you hope to see them again at a future event.
Sending a Job Search Email
Whether following up on a networking contact or reaching out to an individual you have never met before, how you draft your email often determines the kind of response you can expect to receive.
First, be as clear as possible. Introduce yourself and make an "ask," such as a request for a meeting or advice on a particular issue, within the first two lines of your email.
Second, be concise. You can provide more detail in the body of your email, but keep introductory sentences short and to the point.
Third, thank your contact in advance for their assistance, and include your contact information.
Finally, remember to proofread before hitting send. You can review two examples of job search emails below.
Example 1: Someone You Know
The example below outlines how you can ask for a referral from someone with whom you already have a relationship, such as a professor, colleague, or family friend. Write as you naturally would, but make sure to include all necessary information.
Hi Uncle Jim,
It was great to see you at the family barbecue last week! I wanted to follow up on our conversation and see if you would be willing to connect me with the human resources director at your office.
Like I mentioned, I'm looking for an entry-level sales position, and your company has always seemed like a great place to work. I know you weren't sure when they would be hiring new sales associates, but I'd still love to introduce myself to some people and get on their radar for when something does open up in the future.
I've attached my resume for you to share. But just to provide a quick overview: I graduated this year with my bachelor's in marketing, and I've worked for four years as a waiter and host at Dad's restaurant. I think that experience would translate really well to sales.
Thanks again for your help. I really appreciate the connection and all of the great advice you offered. I hope to see you and Aunt Jane soon!
Example 2: Cold Email
Cold emails are introductions to people you have never met before. For example, you may reach out to a high-ranking contact in an industry you hope to enter. Cold emails should be more formal than those to friends or family.
Dear Ms. Jackson,
I came across your profile in Education Week and hope you might have time for a brief meeting. I'm interested in becoming a school principal, and I would love the chance to get your advice since you are an accomplished leader in education.
I have been an English teacher at James Madison High School in Port Conway for five years and have a master's degree in education from the University of Virginia. I ultimately want to progress to an administrative role, but I have some questions about what steps to take next. For instance, I read that you earned a doctorate in education prior to becoming a principal, and I have wondered if you would recommend that approach to aspiring school leaders. I'm also curious to learn more about your transition from teaching in a rural area to serving as a principal in a large city.
I would be happy to meet whenever you are available, though I will be away for a professional development conference from July 7-10. Thank you in advance for your time.
You may not receive a reply to your email for many reasons. Your contact may be temporarily too busy to respond, or they may intend to reply but have simply forgotten to do so. Don't be afraid to follow up.
After sending your email, give your contact at least one week to respond. You may then send a second email to confirm that they received your first message and to reiterate your "ask." Be polite and concise.
If you still do not receive a reply, consider looking for another contact at that organization or finding a different organization within the same industry.
Leverage Online Networks
Social networking sites provide an easy way to make initial professional connections, helping you organize your contacts and understand the relationships that exist between them. Social media also allows more proactive users to engage with diverse audiences, draw attention to their ideas and work, and build and maintain their personal brand.
Online networking profiles often serve as your first impression to potential employers, clients, and business partners, so be sure to maintain an updated and professional presence. When looking for a job, you should consider making your personal social media accounts private. The three most common online networks are detailed below.
- With over 500 million users, LinkedIn is one of the most popular and influential professional networking sites. Users share their work and educational experience, give and receive professional recommendations, and post news and career development articles. Even if you do not actively use LinkedIn, keep your profile updated for recruiters and future employers.
- Twitter allows users to share brief messages, links, and media with individuals who choose to follow them. Though its primary function is not to facilitate direct connections, Twitter can help you stay apprised of news and trends in your field, provide a platform for publicizing your work, and help grow your online presence through consistent engagement.
- Facebook may prove useful in identifying informal networking opportunities. If you run your own business or act as a consultant, you may also use a dedicated Facebook page to advertise your products or services. Avoid making initial professional connections on Facebook, as many people use it exclusively as a personal social media site.
Dos and Don’ts of Networking
Networking Tips for Introverts
While introverts may feel less comfortable in social situations than extroverts, they can still succeed at networking with the right preparation.
First, schedule time for yourself, both before and after networking. This helps reduce stress levels and increases the energy you have to engage with others.
Second, set clear and reasonable expectations. For example, you may aim to meet two new people at an event. Modest goals may again reduce stress and prevent you from becoming overwhelmed.
Third, identify a partner. You can attend an event with a friend or colleague or ask the event organizer for an introduction to someone they think you should meet.
Finally, prepare questions in advance and let others do the talking. Use some of what you learn in your follow-up.
- Plan Ahead: Planning ahead lowers anxiety. Read up on the nature of the event, prepare questions and icebreakers, practice your "elevator pitch," and bring business cards or resumes.
- Bring a Friend: A more extroverted friend can make introductions on your behalf and help you cope with awkward stretches during an event. Don't spend the entire event speaking just to your friend, however.
- Be Kind to Yourself: You may struggle with the idea that no one wants to talk to you at an event. It's important to remember that most people have these feelings, and everyone attends networking events specifically to meet and talk with new people.
- Give Yourself Time and Space: Introverts often gain energy while alone. Spend time relaxing by yourself in advance of an event, and allow yourself the opportunity to decompress afterward.
- Seek Out One-on-One Conversations: Individual conversations forge strong connections. Find a person who is also alone and introduce yourself. Most people appreciate being approached and answering questions about themselves.
- Take Advantage of Your Current Network: Use your network to assist with introductions. For example, if you discover that a new contact formerly worked with a current colleague, you can suggest all three of you get together for coffee or lunch.
Benefits of Having a Mentor
Mentors provide wide-ranging career guidance, facilitate professional connections, and offer encouragement to the people they advise. Mentors often take a longer-term approach than coaches, who typically give advice on specific issues or challenges.
Your mentor may be an older friend, a senior leader at your company, or an established professional working at another organization in your industry. Mentors should not be your direct supervisors.
As a mentee, you have a responsibility to reach out and request a mentoring relationship. You should also be honest, clearly articulate your career goals, prepare questions, and remain open to feedback and criticism.
How Do You Find a Mentor?
Start by identifying an individual in your current professional network whom you admire and respect. Instead of immediately asking someone to become your mentor, learn more about their work, offer to help them as you can, and ask for meetings to get to know one another better. As you develop a relationship, ask your mentor for advice about specific issues.
While most mentoring relationships evolve naturally, you may also seek out a formal mentoring program through your college's alumni office or a professional association in your field.
Additional Professional Networking Resources
MeetUp helps connect people based on their interests. You can use MeetUp to find local networking events, join groups of professionals in industries like real estate and e-commerce, or identify potential mentors.
Like MeetUp, EventBrite allows users to organize and join events in their area. Career-focused events may include technical conferences, online marketing seminars, or mixers for young professionals.
The Muse maintains a rich repository of career advice resources covering topics such as how to follow up after attending a career fair, how to build professional connections at social events, and how to more effectively use social media to network.
Udemy is an online learning platform for massive open online courses (MOOCs). MOOCs hosted on Udemy explore professional development subjects such as honing your interview skills and beginning a freelance career.
In addition to hosting job listings, the Balance Careers offers advice on coping with the stress of the job search process, negotiating for a promotion or raise, and choosing the right certification or continuing education program.