Many people (not only students) find networking difficult. Most find it hard to know what counts. Is it enough to say “Hello” and learn someone’s name? Are you supposed to have business cards? Can you just use social networks? At what point to you give someone your CV?
Making new contacts
The rule with networking is that more the merrier. If you encounter someone new that is in your field (and even if not), play nice. You never know who will be the person to give you an opportunity. Business cards can be handy at conferences (especially in academia) and social networks can do a certain amount. But if you are directing your efforts towards a particular person or job prospect, be strategic and personalise your contact. So if you are at a careers fair, for example, try to pick a quiet moment to speak to the potential employer or representative. Do introduce yourself confidently but do not immediately thrust a CV into their hand. Get into a conversation, ask insightful questions, learn their name and then, as you are signing out, give them your CV. Now what? Relax? No! Probably the most important part of making a new contact is the follow up. Remind them of you by dropping them an e-mail or using relevant social media. You could even make this an opportunity to send an updated (tailored) CV, to replace the more general version that you likely handed out at the fair.
Maintaining old contacts
Don’t forget your contacts. More to the point, don’t let your contacts forget you. Just because a contact didn’t deliver an opportunity before doesn’t mean they won’t have one for you in the future. Keep your contacts up to date with your career progression. Social networking has made this easier than it used to be; sites like LinkedIn can be an easy way to broadcast updates and keep in touch with professional contacts. The old ways aren’t bad either. If you see someone you know at an event, make a point of talking to them. Letters and e-mails also continue to be effective ways of keeping in touch (and, again, all the better if you attach an updated CV).
Finally, remember that networking is a two way street. Your contacts may well call upon you for something one day: do your best to reply and help. If you keep your contacts close, they can last a lifetime.