Networking for Higher Education Professionals

Category: Career Resources

Most higher education professionals understand the benefits of networking, such as professional development, advancement opportunities, and career guidance. However, many are unsure of how to go about it, and may be intimidated by the process. Here we offer some simple strategies for developing your professional network.

Make Networking a Professional Goal
Approach networking the way you would approach any other professional goal – and in fact, it will often go hand in hand with your professional goals. That means making it a priority, carving out time for it, setting objectives (i.e. I will meet 2 people this month to add to my professional network – one whom I can help, and one who can help me), and envisioning a roadmap toward developing your network.

Don’t Be Intimidated
It’s helpful to remember that, as with most professional communities, many professionals in the higher education community have gotten to where they are due in part to the help of someone else, and are therefore open and happy to give back by helping others achieve their professional goals. If you are intimidated by the process, start out small with people in your immediate circle and whom you feel comfortable reaching out to. The fact of the matter is, networking will come easier to some more than others – and that’s okay. As with all things, the more you do it, the easier it will become and the better you will be at it.

Start Early and Be Persistent
One of the keys to networking is to start early, and be persistent. Relationships take time to build, and ideally, you will have a solid relationship footing in place, before asking for favors or job opportunities from a contact. Keep in mind that not all meetings or connections will lead to immediate results, but many will lead to other connections, giving you an opportunity to continually expand your network. Keep careful records of all your contacts, and whenever possible, as your connections to suggest other people you might speak to.

Seek Out Relevant Networking Opportunities
Seek out social and professional groups, and participate in events that are relevant to your field and interests. Look for opportunities to become more involved in your extracurricular professional activities, whether it’s helping to organize an event or offering to be a speaker. Academic and professional conferences make excellent places to connect with others in your field.

Use Technology to Your Advantage
Whether it’s a simple phone call or email, or connecting to people through social media – use technology to strengthen your ties to your network. Social media in particular gives you the opportunity to keep up easily with those in your network, and to connect with them on a regular basis. LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook are all great platforms to meet and talk to others in your field. Be proactive and ask your social media contacts to make introductions for you, whether to other individuals in their social media network or to one of the many higher education, professional communities that are active and available on those platforms.

When Meeting People, Be Polite and Prepared
It’s very helpful to have a statement or “elevator speech” prepared for meeting new people at networking events or in group situations. Your statement should cover your interests and professional goals. Treat networking the way you would treat any other type of first meeting – be polite, listen attentively to the other person, ask good questions, and show interest in them beyond what they have to offer you.

Invest Time in Building Real Relationships
In many ways, networking is a game of numbers – the more you reach out to, the more likely you are to make a great connection. At the same time, approaching networking this way can be a disadvantage, particularly if you are insincere or your sole motivation is to meet as many people as possible who can help you. Part of networking is learning who can help you and presenting what you have to offer – another part is getting to know other people in your field and building real relationships that deepen and last over time. You will find that the real relationships that you build are the ones that will end up yielding the most benefit to you.

Manners and Maintenance
Be vigilant about following up with and maintaining your network. Keep your network updated with the progress that you’ve made, while keeping up with their accomplishments as well. When you meet with a contact, be prepared and respectful of the time they have allotted to meet with you, and always send a thank you note immediately afterward. Finally, give back and reach out to your network when you have opportunities you can offer others.

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Ellen Heffernan

President - Spelman Johnson

Ellen Heffernan graduated from Smith College with a B.A. in economics and government. She joined Spelman Johnson in 1996, after a ten-year career in higher education that included positions at Smith College and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is also a national speaker and writer on topics related to recruiting and professional development in higher education and serves as faculty for several national higher education association professional development programs. Ellen also currently serves on the executive board of the National Association of Executive Recruiters.