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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. For example, they would prefer to ask their contacts for recommendations, or they may know somebody who could do the job. You could be that ‘somebody’.

Networking for beginners

Networking is a skill that you can develop. While it can feel daunting at first, you will become competent at it with practise.   

Everybody has a different understanding of networking, but fundamentally, it's about making and maintaining professional contacts.

Penny Beecroft, OU Careers and Employability Consultant.

Try to shake off any expectations that you have about networking, both good and bad, and think of it as a chance to get to know people. While the ultimate goal of your networking is to support your careers, you may also be able to make friends and help other people along the way. Remembering networking is beneficial for everyone may make it feel easier. Keep in mind it is not about selling yourself, but about finding ways to connect with other people.

There really is no secret to starting a conversation with someone. Commenting on the weather or asking about the event, the food or other person's journey are all good ways to strike up a conversation with someone new. If you're a current OU student or completed your study within the last three years you can access our  Conversation starters cheat sheet which is a helpful tool to prepare for networking opportunities. If you're not sure how to sign-in see Help with signing into OU systems. You’ll find more information about our careers tools and services, including how to manage your data in About the Careers and Employability Services.

Sometimes we can worry that the people we would like to network with won't want to network with us and this feeling can be a barrier. Have a look at these webinars to help with confidence:

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Networking podcasts

Whether you’re actively looking for a job or not, you’ll find yourself in both formal and informal situations 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

Click here to listen 252

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 X (formerly 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.  

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Informal networking

A good place to start is by looking at your existing network. Think about everyone you know: your friends, family, professional contacts, and other social contacts. You might find it useful to draw a mind map or spider diagram to visualise clearly how you know everyone. There’s an example below.

Spider diagram showing possible contacts in the centre with branches to work, family, friends, university, volunteering. Each of these branches then connects to names. some of these names are labelled with job titles, such as 'manager' and 'youth worker'.
Example networking spider diagram

Another way to build your network of contacts is to get in touch with someone working in a field that interests you and ask for an informational interview.

An informational interview is a one-to-one meeting where you can find out what someone's job is really like. It's a chance for you to find specific information about a particular role and sector. For more information, you can read this article on informational interviews.

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Networking with LinkedIn

LinkedIn is the main social media platform for professionals which many recruiters use to search for people who have the skill set they’re looking for, so it's a great place to start networking. Developing your network with LinkedIn could help you to:

  • Understand different sectors and roles.
  • Find out about new job roles.
  • Learn about specific employers.
  • Find new customers if you have your own business.
  • Access information, support and advice.
  • Get familiar with approaching and being approached by recruiters.

Before you start you may want to see our advice on creating a LinkedIn profile in Create a professional profile or portfolio for job applications.

Start building your network with people you already know. See LinkedIn's guide and 5-minute video to help you find and add connections. LinkedIn also offers further suggestions based on your contacts. Find out more in Your Network and Degrees of Connection.

Here are five tips to help you further develop your network and build relationships:

1. Develop your own connection strategy. Think about who you want to reach out to and accept requests from. For example, this could be those in your current sector or a sector you're interested in moving into.

2. Be personal when reaching out. LinkedIn allows you to personalise your connection requests which is a good way of introducing yourself if it’s someone you don’t know or is only an acquaintance.

3. Keep active. Share relevant updates in your news feed, comment on articles and in groups, and offer your insights on events. Activity like this increases your visibility to other members.

4. Find and join a LinkedIn group. You could start by joining The Open University Careers Network (TOUCaN) then use the 'Discover groups' tab next to 'Your groups' for further suggestions. You may even want to start your own group. Find out more in Find and join a LinkedIn Group.

5. Publish an article. This is a great way to share your thoughts, demonstrate your capabilities and interact with people who comment on your article. See LinkedIn’s help page for Tips for writing articles on LinkedIn.

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Making the best use of employer fairs and events 

Employer fairs are designed to support you networking with employers. While this can feel challenging, many OU students have benefitted from them. Consider your goals before attending the event. For example, you may want to: 

  • Build your knowledge of a sector.
  • Find out more about specific organisations and their recruitment processes.
  • Understand the scope and range of different jobs within a sector.
  • Identify the skills that employers value.
  • Understand how employers view the experience that you already have.

The OU regularly holds in-house online careers fairs for students, but you may also want to look for other fairs that are specific to the sector you want to work in.  A regular check of the top careers websites for your sector should help to uncover any suitable events. Some large organisations hold their own events that you can also register to attend, so checking the websites and LinkedIn profiles of employers that interest you will keep you up to date. 

Here are some top tips for engaging with employers during a fair or at a live event. These will work equally well online and in person: 

  • Create a line or two you can use as a standard introduction for yourself to break the ice. 
  • Research the organisations you’re planning to talk to and ask tailored questions about what you’ve found to show you’re keen.  Depending on the organisation questions could include: the sorts of opportunities for new graduates, any training offered, and how the work varies between different teams and roles. 
  • Start networking with organisations that are less important to you so that you are more confident and practised when you speak to the ones that are most important. 
  • Use open-ended questions, questions that cannot be answered with one word, to encourage whoever you’re talking with to take the lead.  
  • Show your genuine interest in other people. Even if you don’t find exactly what you’re looking for, it's a chance to expand your network and knowledge.  
  • Keep in touch: collect and give out contact details and follow up with your connections after the event via email or LinkedIn (remember not to post your private information publicly).  
  • Listen to Hashi Mohamed provide advice and personal insight into networking and making the most of the opportunity to create a lasting first impression with employers.  
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Making contact with employers 

Informal contact 

There are many ways to reach out to employers informally rather than waiting for a job to be advertised or by sending in a speculative application (when you contact an employer you are interested in, even though that role is not advertised). Some large employers actively encourage this by holding their own informal events to meet prospective employees and attending employer fairs. 

Formal contact 

When you are contacting an organisation about working for them a more formal approach will be required, whether this is in response to an advertised position or as a speculative application. Your career planning guide breaks down each step of the career planning journey and helps you identify the role that suits you and how to secure the job you want. Section 4 within this guide, Getting the job, takes you through the process of applying for jobs and provides solutions to the challenges of writing CVs, covering letters, attending interviews, and preparing for assessment centres.  

Diversity networks 

We may find it difficult to network confidently if we do not see ourselves reflected in how organisations present themselves.  Many OU students find their study opens up new but unfamiliar opportunities, such as graduate training programmes or new career sectors.   

Zeeshan Nazar is a Commercial Manager on BT’s Commercial Management programme. He explains in his video, Be the best you can be, how to network effectively to find employers that pride themselves on their diverse culture and share the same inclusive values as your own. 

Diversity networks, such as disability, race or LGBTQ+, exist in all major career sectors. Our Diversity networks guide (PDF 130KB) can help you as a starting point to explore and research further what groups are in existence, how you can join them, and whether a company has partnered with them.

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Next steps with networking 

If you are an OU student or recent graduate who is already networking with some confidence, but you want to develop your skills further, there are bitesize learning opportunities from the Video Hub to take your networking skills to the next level.

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Last updated 8 months ago