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Networking for your career

There are more vacancies in the hidden jobs market than there are advertised vacancies. Employers have many reasons for not advertising these vacancies, including the fact they may know somebody who could do the job or they ask their contacts for recommendations. You could be that ‘somebody’.

Whether you’re actively looking for a job or not, you’ll find yourself in situations, both formal and informal, where your networking skills could enhance your chances. In these podcasts you'll hear two of our Careers and Employability Consultants discussing what networking is and what the term means to employers, the increasing normality of virtual networking, when to begin networking and tips for success.

Networking - where to begin

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Chandni: Hi everyone. My name is Chan.

Penny: And I’m Penny.

Chandni: And we’re both Careers and Employability consultants with the Open University. We’re going to be talking about networking, what it is and where to begin. It’s fair to say the term networking often makes people want to run for the hills.

Why do you think that is, Penny?

Penny: Well, I think, Chan, that people sometimes confuse networking with selling. So they might picture it as trying to persuade another person to do something, which is, you know, a pretty uncomfortable idea for a lot of people.

Networking is actually a two-way process.

It’s a conversation, it’s an exchange of information. Maybe it will be helpful if we look at different people’s perspective on networking. So at the weekend, I reached out to professionals in a range of sectors and roles and asked them one simple question: what do you think of when you hear the term networking?

Chandni: Ooh, that sounds interesting. What did they say?

Penny: Okay, so the first person I asked was a healthcare worker. He actually said it makes him think of drinking cheap wine at events that he doesn’t want to be at, and talking to people he doesn’t want to talk to.

Now this might sound far from positive, you know, wine aside, but I think it would chime with a lot of people. In fact, the second person I asked, who was a marketing executive, laughed out loud as she replied with one word: awkwardness.

Chandni: Oh dear. So why do you think people have this reaction?

Penny: I think that a lot of it stems from experience of events that are created and labelled as networking events. Or, you know, when you’re at a conference or maybe attending some training, and the organisers schedule in networking breaks, or even lunch and network.

Chandni: Yes, I totally agree with that, and I know it well.

Penny: So a lot of people feel pressure from the expectation of networking.

You know, when a break or your time for lunch has that label attached, I think it can really put people off and make them feel like they can’t relax or be themselves. If I’m at a training session, and I’m focusing hard on learning new ideas, then I want my lunch to be an opportunity to decompress and process things, right?

Chandni: I totally see that Penny.

Penny: But the way I see it is that networking is a misunderstood term. If we stop thinking about it as a way of persuading people to do something for us, or to give us something, and start thinking about it as a way of gathering useful information and learning about something or someone, then it starts to sound much more appealing.

Chandni: Or even useful, even.

Penny: Yes, exactly, Chan. And actually, the third and fourth people that I asked about networking had a very different response. So a software developer said they saw it as a way of exchanging knowledge, experience and ideas with people who are either industry connections, or who could be.

And finally, someone working in education said that they saw networking as making connections, collaborating and sharing new perspectives.

Chandni: Well, these definitely sound more positive.

Penny: Absolutely. And, you know, everybody has a different understanding of networking, but fundamentally, it’s about making and maintaining professional contacts.

And as part of this, you could be sharing information, promoting something that you’re passionate about, collaborating to solve a problem or finding out about a range of different sectors and job roles. Sometimes it might lead to a job opportunity, but you shouldn’t be leading a conversation with, nice to meet you, can I have a job?

Chandni: Yes, that’s a bit blunt, isn’t it? So how should people be opening conversations with new connections?

Penny: Well, I think it’s important to be inquisitive and show interest in the other person. Ask them questions about their work, what they’re involved in, or what brought them to this event. Not only does that make them feel valued but yes, it’s just a nicer way to interact.

Chandni: So what you’re saying is, make sure you have a two-way conversation and ask questions?

Penny: That’s exactly it. In your personal life, you develop a social network, and you’ll often share interests, advice and ideas with each other. It’s mutually beneficial. So you might love reading and join a book club. You’re going to go there and you’re going to talk about your shared interests and learn from one another.

In the process, you might find that another member wants to collaborate with you to write, you know, I don’t know, a play script, for example. And you end up working on this together, because you both have different skills to bring to the project. That’s great, but that’s not why you joined the book club in the first place, and nor did you go there expecting that to happen.

So you should think about your professional network in a similar way. You aren’t selling yourself, you’re sharing knowledge and passion. You’re understanding other people. And importantly, how you could help them or work together.

Chandni: This makes a lot of sense, Penny. And it helps to compare it to your personal life. I think that makes it easer to get what it’s about, and to see the benefits and how it’s just a natural process, and part of building relationships with each other.

Penny: Yes. And I know we’ve mentioned going to an event or training as an example of where you might network, but it’s certainly not limited to face-to-face situations. And it’s not just for people who are already in work.

Chandni: Good point, Penny. And that’s especially important at the moment, with more home working and people looking for work, if they face redundancy or being furloughed.

Penny: Definitely. A lot of networking is done online now. Think about LinkedIn, the professional networking site that allows you to connect with people around the globe.

You can actually start to grow your network and engage with people from the comfort of your own living room.

Chandni: LinkedIn is a great way to connect with other people in your industry. Right, Penny?

Penny: Yes, but that’s not all. If you’re looking for a career change or you want to get into work after a break or a period of unemployment, you could join groups that are relevant to the work you want to move into, you know, so that you can read and contribute to the discussions going on there.

You can make contacts with people working in your chosen sector, and you can even think connecting with OU alumni for insight and guidance.

Chandni: This all sounds great. And I think, for our students, LinkedIn can be a really good way of making connections and exploring different sectors. So networking skills are useful, whether or not you’re actively looking for a job. Right?

Penny: Yes. No matter what, you’re going to find yourself in situations where networking skills can be useful.

Chandni: And do you have any quick tips on how people can widen their network?

Penny: If you want to make more connections, I say you could consider something like volunteering or work-shadowing in a sector, or in an organisation that interests you.

You might also want to see if there are any student societies you could join.

Chandni: Oh yes, that’s a great way to meet new people. The Open University Students’ Association has a wide range of different clubs and groups students can get involved in.

Penny: Yes, absolutely. You know, and finally, don’t forget to start close to home, with your own personal network. Think about family, friends, colleagues, the people you volunteer with, members of your religious community, if you have one, neighbours. The list could go on. So you might not realise it yet, but your friend’s brother’s wife might just work in the sector that you want to learn more about.

Chandni: So it’s all about being open to conversations and being willing to ask questions. Great. Thanks, Penny. Hopefully our students will be able to take something away from those tips.

When is the best time to begin networking

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Chandni: Hello everyone, my name is Chan.  

Jackie: And I'm Jackie.  

Chandni: And we’re both Careers and Employability Consultants with the Open University. We’re going to be talking about networking and when is the best time to start. This is a question we often hear from students. Jackie, what advice do you have? 

Jackie: Well, my advice would be, it’s never too early. Building up contacts and networks in a particular industry or sector is something you can be doing right from when you start studying, or before, and will hopefully continue through to when you're established in your career. You might feel a bit nervous about doing this at the start of your studies, but this depends on what you mean by networking. I think Penny will go into a bit more detail about this later, but I just wanted to suggest a few things you can do at the different stages.  

Early on, you could find and join some groups on LinkedIn. You can just read the posts at first, but as you get more confident, you might want to ask a question or write a post about something you are passionate about. This will build your profile among people in your sector and help you to build up that really important commercial awareness that employers look for.  

If you prefer real-life contacts, you could have a go at creating a mind map of all your networks. Draw yourself at the centre and then jot down all the different networks you belong to. This could be your family, your children’s school, hobbies, work, previous jobs, study, anything. Try and think of anywhere you have links. And then through them to see if there are people you could talk to, to find out more about your chosen career. 

Chandni: That’s great Jackie. So, what else can students do as they move through their studies? 

Jackie: Well, as you progress in your studies, you could consider joining professional bodies as a student member. Many organisations will have reduced or free memberships for students. This often allows you to access industry-specific careers advice, find lists of registered professionals, and sometimes, attend events or training. If you are able, joining in with any of these events can be a great way to continue to build your networks.  


Imagine if you went to an interview for a placement or a graduate job and being able to say that you’d attend some industry training or refer to a presentation at a conference that you attended. 

When you're at the stage of applying for jobs and looking to change or develop your career, continuing to use your networks is vital. Make the most of your social media, and remember Twitter and Instagram are useful as well, not just LinkedIn. It’s important to keep your profile high and increase your contacts. You can then link up with people to find out about any work-shadowing experiences, and get the inside information about a company, or arrange an informational interview to chat to them about their jobs.  

Chandni: This sounds interesting. So, students don’t have to wait until they’ve finished studying to start networking? 

Jackie: It can take time to build relationships and contacts, so we’d recommend starting as early as you can, really. During your studies is a perfect time to be exploring your career ideas and building up what you’ve got to offer. So, why would you wait until you graduate? 

Chandni: Brilliant, that’s great Jackie. And how can you keep the momentum in engaging in networking regularly? 

Jackie: I think this is about identifying what works for you and what’s the most useful way to spend your time. You could set yourself manageable targets, but make sure you're being realistic about what you feel able to do. Keep a log of people that you come into contact with, and any outcomes of conversations. And then, as you see the lists growing, you’ll start to feel more confident and motivated to keep going with that.  

And if you do go to an online event or a face-to-face networking conference or event, and it doesn’t work out, remember to pick yourself up and get back on it. I bet even the most successful networkers will have had difficult meetings sometimes.  

Chandni: Great, thank you Jackie. Hopefully our students will be able to take something away from those useful hints and tips.  

In face to face situations at job and careers fairs, conferences and workshops

It can feel daunting to walk into a room full of employers, delegates and others but don’t worry, they're there to promote their organisation and answer your questions. Try these tips:

  • Go prepared: Look at who will be there and research those you want to approach.
  • Talk to employers: Introduce yourself and explain what you can offer them.
  • Show you’re interested: Use your research of the employer to ask good questions and ask for details of any department or type of role you’re interested in.
  • Keep in touch: If you collected business cards and leaflets, send thank you emails after the event and ask if you can connect on LinkedIn.
  • Connect with others: Connect with and follow employers, speakers and delegates.

Follow our news and social media pages, we regularly post news about careers and job fairs.

Use LinkedIn to create a great impression

Using social media isn’t just about searching for job opportunities, it's also about creating a good impression. Recruiters use LinkedIn to search for people who have the skill set they’re looking for. The following tips will help you get the most out of LinkedIn:

  • Create a professional looking bio: Complete your profile and use a professional-looking photo. Employers search through profiles for the right candidate.
  • Gather LinkedIn endorsements for your skills: Endorsements are an easy way to list your skills especially when other people validate them.
  • Ask for recommendations: Written recommendations from people you have worked go further to endorse your skills.
  • Connect with prominent people in your sector: The more connections you have, the higher profile you’ll have but make sure your connections are valuable and expand your network.
  • Find out about specific employers: It’s more likely to be up-to-date with their latest news and allows you to build insight into what’s important for that business.
  • Read our step-by-step guide to making the most of your LinkedIn profile (PDF, 1.2 MB).

Use Twitter and Facebook to support your career

Employers are unlikely to search through Twitter and Facebook for suitable candidates, but they may come across your account if they're researching your background. Look after your online presence to support your career.

Other opportunities to network

Widen your network by:

Useful links

Last updated 5 months ago