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Networking | The Careers Service Networking – Oxford University Careers Service
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Why network?
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Reasons to network

Cultivating contacts with professionals in sectors of interest is extremely useful when searching for jobs. It allows you:

  • To become aware of opportunities. It is said that 60% of jobs are never advertised, and exist within “the hidden job market”. This could be because, for example, a start-up has no time or HR department, or because an organisation prefers to hire known people who have already proven themselves.
  • To understand what really goes on inside organisations. Inside knowledge makes it easier for you to choose the right opportunities to apply for – whether advertised or unadvertised.
  • To uncover the language and terminology of the organisation. This allows you to make your achievements sound as relevant possible and talk like an insider, demonstrating fit and enthusiasm.
  • To demonstrate good networking skills. Networking is a useful skill within many jobs. In certain sectors – such as journalism or PR – it is essential to cultivate and maintain useful contacts. Potential employers may like to see you exhibit the skills.
  • To allow professionals and organisations to become aware of you. Networking works both ways!

And these are just the benefits when searching for a job. Having and maintaining a professional network is extremely useful within a job as well.

Feel uncomfortable with networking?

In the twenty-first century we get a little uncomfortable when we hear “It’s who you know, not what you know.” We want to live in a meritocratic world where people are hired based on a diligent and transparent process that just considers:

  • Formal qualifications.
  • The size and scope of relevant achievements, demonstrating skills and strengths.
  • Sector and organisation knowledge that proves enthusiasm and a good fit with the role.

Other common reasons for feeling uncomfortable about networking include:

  • An ethical distaste for self-promotion
  • An ethical disapproval of using people for your own self-advantage
  • Shyness in initiating new contacts
  • A lack of confidence in one’s own achievements, making self-promotion difficult.

If this resonates with you, the advice below offers both practical tips, and ways to start thinking about networking differently.

Networking ethically
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In the words of Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court:

“Sometimes, idealistic people are put off the whole business of networking as something tainted by flattery and the pursuit of selfish advantage. But virtue in obscurity is rewarded only in Heaven. To succeed in this world you have to be known to people.” 

If you feel uncomfortable with self-promotion, consider that ethical networking actually involves less blatant self-promotion than a winning CV or a successful interview. As we explore below, networking is largely about building reciprocal relationships.

Networking doesn’t mean ‘using’ people

Networking is a way of life. In friendships, you build and maintain a social network, sharing interests, advice and knowledge, exploring ideas, and offering or receiving help. You build and maintain a professional network for the same reasons, but in a different sphere.

And, just as with friendships, you need to approach professional networking with emotional intelligence. As you walk into a room to network, don’t prepare to sell yourself, but prepare to understand people and how they may be helped. Networking is about conversation and generosity. Effective and ethical networking is about ‘reciprocal assistance’.

For example:

  • If you are self-employed you need to spend part of your time on ‘business development’ – finding new customers, who want to use your services. Once you have a vibrant network it will keep you busy.
  • If you find yourself in a large organisation, you will find most people network inside the organisation (sending e-mails to each other). But the most creative and productive people also network outside it, finding new opportunities for the organisation, and bringing new ideas into the organisation.

“It’s all about people. It’s about networking and being nice to people and not burning any bridges.”

– Mike Davidson (Vice-President of Design, Twitter)

Starting your network
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Use your current networks

Oxford alone provides a vast network of readily accessible people:

  • Your friends and fellow-members of clubs and societies (and their parents!)
  • Your tutors and all their ex-pupils
  • Tutors in your subject in other colleges
  • Senior college officers (many of whom are board members or trustees of other organisations)
  • College alumni (each college will have its own way to connect with alumni)
  • Department alumni (similarly departments will have their own links)
  • Recent graduates who have joined the Oxford Careers Network in CareerConnect.
  • The Oxford Alumni Community is a state-of-the-art student and alumni networking platform, each student and alum is verified as having matriculated in the University and you can join using your LinkedIn profile where details are automatically synchronised so that you do not have to set up a new profile.

In addition to contacts you have at university, you may have some from home:

  • Your parents and their friends, other relations, your friends and their parents
  • Your previous school head teacher and subject teachers
  • Members of your clubs, societies
  • Your political party, your local councillor, MP or Euro MP… they have to reply to you!

At the very start of your journey a starter question for networking either face-to-face or over email could be:

‘I’m exploring my options after I leave Oxford and want to learn more about XX industry/sector. Would you be able to give me some advice about X or Y? Is there anyone you know doing this type of work?’

Example for a career in advertising:

‘I’m exploring my options after I leave Oxford and really want to learn more about account planning versus account management in advertising agencies. Would you have time to give me some advice about entry level roles in this area?’

This is an “elevator pitch”, basically consisting of three points:

  • Who am I – tailor it to resonate with who they are looking for.
  • What do I want – tailor its to resonate with what they are offering.
  • A question – to start a conversation. Research it, and make it engaging.

It’s important to keep it this brief. Busy people don’t like reading long messages. And it makes sense to have this prepared and ready to network at any time. You are, for example, most likely to bump into an important music industry contact at a gig.

Next steps

Once you’ve established contact and opened up a channel, you can then arrange an information interview – see the section below.

Very quickly it becomes important to leverage your extensive research and engage your network with more well researched and insightful questions, so that they want to continue the conversation out of interest rather than altruism.

Feel uncomfortable?

You may feel daunted by talking to unknown professionals, or feel uncomfortable promoting yourself. If so, consider that you are willing to do just that in a job interview! Compared to a job application, networking involves less self-promotion, and is more informal. There are also few negative consequences if it doesn’t go as you had hoped. This means you can find opportunities to practise, and start getting used to networking.

Using LinkedIn
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LinkedIn is the most well used professional social network, with over 500 million members. The majority of features are accessible with a free account.

LinkedIn can be used to:

  • create an online profile
  • search advertised vacancies
  • add peers and professionals you know as ‘connections’
  • research industries and individuals using searches
  • join groups to read and contribute to discussions
  • message connections or ask for introductions to their connections

Additional premium access is priced competitively, and gives access to greater search parameters and the ability to message those who you are not connected to (‘InMail’). It is notable that the majority of the careers advisers do not have premium accounts, and find the free accounts provide more than enough value.

Students are often put off from starting a LinkedIn profile, because they would rather have no profile than a poor one. Yet by utilising the LinkedIn guides on how to create and use an account, you can make sure that the account you are creating is an asset. Below you will find links to LinkedIn’s student tip sheets and videos. These guides have been created by LinkedIn, to ensure that students can create professional accounts, and get the most out of the many features they offer. In addition, The Careers Service also runs a regular talk on how to create a profile on LinkedIn, and how to use the site to network. If you already have a profile, join our LinkedIn group.

Tip sheets

  • LinkedIn Profile checklist – If employers search for you, a LinkedIn page ensures they find what you want them to know. It’s a place to showcase your skills and qualifications, and to get publicly recommended by those you’ve worked with. You can add rich content to your profile such as video, images, and documents.
  • Building a Great Student Profile – Students are often put off from starting a LinkedIn profile, because they would rather have no profile, than a poor one, so read this tip sheet first – and remember to use ‘Settings’ to control what (if anything) appears on your public profile until you’re ready. If you’ve already got a profile and connections, use ‘Settings’ to turn off ‘activity broadcasts’ to make sure your connections don’t receive an email for every edit to your profile you make!
  • Using LinkedIn to find Jobs or Internships – Few know that it is free of charge for an employer to post an internship or ‘entry-level’ job on LinkedIn. Expect that to change as recruiters realise this new way to share their opportunities, but for now employers typically pay c.£190 to advertise their vacancy on LinkedIn in the job search. This means that for situations where the recruiter might be disinclined to cover this cost, you might find few jobs in the job search, and more mentioned in discussions (free of charge) in relevant professional groups.
  • How to Network on LinkedIn – Go to the University of Oxford page on LinkedIn and click “alumni” to be able to search the 200,000 Oxford alumni on LinkedIn. Here you can identify young people in one of your target sectors. It may be possible to select people who studied your course, so you have as much in common as possible. On their profile there will be a map showing the person in your network who can introduce you to them, always get introduced, LinkedIn punish those who try to connect with strangers. Set up an information interview (see below) to gather information but note the language people use to talk about their job, we will use this language to tailor your cv, cover letter or application. Only when you have mastered the language and detail of a new organisation by talking to younger alumni, should you consider contacting more senior alumni in the organisation.
  • Tailoring your Profile to your Goals – Tailoring your profile is important; you want your profile to help you achieve your dream career. Remember that you want your profile to show who you want to be, make it forward looking, it is not important for people to understand the details of how you were in the past.
  • How to Communicate Effectively on LinkedIn – With so many people using LinkedIn, you want to make sure that your messages, comments and updates stand out from the crowd.
  • Build your personal Brand on LinkedIn – One of the main reasons for using LinkedIn is to show your professional on-line brand to potential employers. It is best to focus on what makes you unique and what you can offer.
  • The LinkedIn Alumni Tool – There are over 200,000 Oxford University students and alumni on LinkedIn, and the alumni tool provides a powerful search facility, giving you the ability to filter alumni based on keywords, employer name, subject studied, location, their skills and sector. Knowing more about what alumni have gone on to do can help you to make academic and career choices, and find people who you could search for on the wider web before making contact to ask for further advice on following in their footsteps. To use the tool, search the “University of Oxford” in the top search bar to go onto the University of Oxford” page and click “alumni”. You can search all Universities in this way.

LinkedIn also provides short, four minute informational videos.

Get your profile reviewed

You’re welcome to book a short discussion with a careers adviser on CareerConnect to talk about your LinkedIn profile or using LinkedIn. The adviser with a particular interest in LinkedIn is Dr Mike Moss, although any adviser can help. If you do choose to use your appointment to discuss your LinkedIn profile, remember to bring your user email and password so that you can easily access this on the computers provided.

Information interviews
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About information interviews

An information interview is a one-to-one meeting with someone who has a role or career in which you’re interested, they are visits or phone calls to find out what jobs are like. It’s a chance for you to ask questions, gather information about a career field, learn about job options and career paths, and ask people for help to identify opportunities in their fields. One of the best things is that it’s NOT a job interview, so there is less pressure on you and on the interviewee.

What can I get from an information interview?

You can gather important information about a specific organisation and industry. You’ll also get to learn what industries you don’t like, and will meet some really interesting people and gain insider knowledge. You may also get some more contacts that lead to more information meetings. Note the language people use about their job or company, we will use language insights to tailor CV, Cover letter or application to resonate more strongly with the recruiter.

Why would anyone spare the time for me?

Most people will help others and will be happy to talk about their career for a short interview, say 10-15 minutes. They were young once and will have been in your position. Just as it’s a low-risk meeting for you, so it is for them. They know you’re not expecting them to give you a job (because you’ve told them that) so they won’t disappoint you but will, in fact, be sharing their knowledge. Who knows, in a few weeks or months, they may have a job or project for you. And one day, you will do the same for other people – you may already be doing something similar for pupils from your old school, or your friends here.

However, people do not want to waste their time, do sufficient research in advance so that you can be credible, people will get frustrated if you ask basic questions that could be answered by going on their website. This is not a short cut, this is the next step after you have done your diligent research on Google and LinkedIn.

How do I obtain an interview?

Pick out the key people you want to talk to. Sometimes it’s better to go through a ‘warm contact’, someone known to you and to your prospective contact, so that you can say when you contact them ‘your name has been given to me by Ms X, who said you might be able to give me some valuable advice’. That way your contact is more likely to want to help. Ring first, careful word-for-word preparation of your approach can help, or send a CV and cover letter, by email (or even by post), which says you will be ringing later. Make sure you DO ring a few days later and ask for an appointment.

Bear in mind though that information interviews don’t have to be done in person: they could be conducted by telephone, Skype, or even by email.

Top tips

  • Ask for 15 minutes of their time, at any time that suits them, to ask their advice about the work they are doing and how to set about looking for jobs in that field.
  • Do NOT ask them for a job or work experience. The conversation is likely to be very short, as this is not good networking etiquette! Technically it isn’t networking at all, but making a speculative application: see our webpage for effective ways to do this.

Questions to ask

The key to a useful information interview is preparation. Your questions could include:

  • What is the nature of the work? What actually happens day-to-day?
  • How long have you been doing the job? What did you do before? How did your previous experience help you get this job?
  • Do employers in this field tend to look for particular qualifications or skills sets? If so, which ones?
  • Are there any particular qualities or accomplishments that distinguish those who are promoted from those who are not? What is the future of this field in terms of new and expanding opportunities?
  • What satisfactions are available from the work? What are the negative aspects?
  • What are some of the principal difficulties the organisation/industry sector faces, and how are they dealing with them?
  • Would you mind looking at my CV or LinkedIn profile and offering any suggestions or criticisms that you have?
  • Towards the end of the interview, if things have gone well, it may be productive to ask, ‘If someone with my background and interests applied, how would they be viewed by a prospective employer?’
  • Could you recommend two more people I could contact for information interviews of the same kind?

Don’t forget to thank them

Immediately write to thank them, tactfully reminding them of anything they promised to do, and once again mentioning your own interests and appropriate skills.

Mentors

It is worth picking out three or four of your contacts – those who have been particularly helpful or who are particularly influential – and keeping them in touch with your progress, occasionally asking their advice. If you treat them in this way, they will become your supporters, and they will want to further your interests as if they were their own.

Keep in touch

Write to everyone you’ve been in touch with every few months, even those who were of little apparent help, to let them know how you’re getting on. This is especially important once you have the job, since everyone likes being associated with success. Keep building the network.

Resources
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Video: How to Nail Networking

Careers adviser Jonathan Black tells you how to control your nerves, break the ice and gather useful information when networking.

The Oxford Alumni Community

A state-of-the-art networking platform exclusively for Oxford alumni, the Oxford Alumni Community has over 16,000 alumni willing to help.

150 Regional Alumni Groups

There are currently more than 350,000 alumni around the world and in excess of 150 regional alumni groups in over 90 countries; so wherever you are in the world you are sure to find Oxonians near you. Some of these groups are run jointly with Cambridge alumni. If you are new to a region, or just passing through, do contact the local group secretary to let them know!

Books

The following books are available to read in our Resource Centre at 56 Banbury Road:

  • Teach Yourself Successful Networking, Alison Straw, Dena Michelli
  • Improve your communication skills, Alan Barker
  • Networking for People Who Hate Networking, Devora Zack
  • Confident Networking for Career Success, Gael Lindenfield, Stuart Lindenfield
  • Brilliant Networking, Steven D’Souza
  • The New Rules of Networking, Rob Yeung
This information was last updated on 05 February 2020.
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