When I was a junior in college at Hollins University, the school instituted a new program that would be known as the Career Connections Conference, or C3. The idea was that the school would bring alumnae/i back to speak with current students about various topics relating to the professional life. At the time, at least six individuals in my class (which had a total number of around 100) were interested in pursuing library science. We were disappointed to discover none of the alumnae/i invitees had backgrounds in library science, despite the strong student interest. The following year proved to be about the same.
So when I received an invitation to attend C3 as an alumnae this year, I knew I had to make it, whatever obstacles came up. (And, naturally, they did — finding time off from work, travel, expenses, you get the idea.) I drove to Roanoke, Virginia from Washington, D.C., spent some time visiting old haunts, and before long I was in Lorimer House (previously known as the President’s House) at a reception hosted by the brilliant President Pareena Lawrence. Before I headed back to my hotel, I realized that reception was an example of successfully meeting fellow alumnae/i (many for the first time) and, well, networking.
Back in the hotel room with my nostalgic Wendy’s chicken nuggets, I marveled a bit at how I — I — had successfully networked. I, who had always lamented my inability to do so and regularly felt uncomfortable in regular social gatherings (let alone networking events), had done this thing and even felt pretty good about how I’d done it. Neat.
The following day, I went back to campus, networked more at breakfast — this time with more familiar faces, but still –, spent some time listening to others speak about interesting things, networked with current students at a luncheon, spoke on my panel, caught up with some staff and professors, polished off official conference events with a speed networking session (more on that later), and finished the day with a brief visit to the closing reception where I — get this — networked more, before doing a quick change in a public restroom and hurrying back off to D.C.
I learned a lot throughout the day, mostly that I knew a lot more than I thought I did. Most of this became evident to me during the speed networking session, which worked like speed dating. Alumnae/i sat at numbered tables, students shuffled in, we were given four minutes before “times up!” and then students stood, moved on to the next table, and we were back at it with the next one. These one-on-one interactions with students, though brief, were really eye-opening for me, as was the networking session during lunch.
These things that I learned feel so obvious to me now, but were decidedly not when I was a student during C3. And, what’s more, I was surprised to realize that the things I’d been so concerned about learning and knowing as a student were not things that I consciously learned, but rather picked up over the years in my professional life. Maybe I even knew some of these things, but couldn’t articulate them until now.
Below are those lessons, but I know there will be more in the future. I look forward to potentially serving at C3 again in the future and learning even more.
- When you’re young and/or new to networking, no one expects you to be good at it.
As a student, I could barely define networking and its uses, let alone do it well. The trick, I now know, is to go in to a networking situation not with a goal of networking, but of a goal of practicing networking. Then, you’ll want to pay attention to the kinds of questions people ask, even if it means just listening in a conversation. If you can, go in with an idea of what kinds of actionable or tangible help or things you want and from whom (especially if you know who will be there ahead of time). You don’t have to be shy about straight out asking for those things, either. While I thought the game to play was being coy and overly polite (and therefore, not direct nor clear), it didn’t do me any good — and now from the other side, I see that it just makes sense to go ahead and ask, “Do you know of any openings in libraries right now that would be good for someone in my position to apply to?
- Have an elevator pitch with keywords.
I got this advice as an undergrad and I thought it was some of the stupidest stuff I’d ever heard. Everyone knows how fake elevator pitches are. And yet. Every time I spoke with a student at C3, I found myself hoping for one because it gave me a quick snapshot of who they are and what they want and it made it easier to flip through the files in my brain. “She said photography! Quick, pull up the list of contacts on photography!” They feel silly and disingenuous, but I promise, they’re worth it. (And your partner in networking knows what nonsense elevator pitches are otherwise, so don’t feel embarrassed to use them.) Practice them, if it makes you feel better, but at a minimum, have those career-related keywords ready to go! (Something as simple as, “I’m interested in marine biology” could do you wonders.)
- When people offer themselves as a resource, believe them.
The example of C3 is perhaps more extreme than what most people are likely to encounter, but you can generally count on the fact that if someone made the effort to come out on a weekend to get coffee with you and talk about your career, they’re also willing to do other things, especially if you make the request at that meeting. As a student during C3, I felt that it was very nice of the alumnae/i to revisit Hollins and share their wisdom, but that any offers of assistance beyond that, whether vague or specific, were just them saying it to say it, like you ask, “How are you?” as you pass someone in the hall. Every time I offered to be available for questions or whatever else a student thought I could offer during C3, I sincerely meant it. (And if there’s anyone who responds poorly to you reaching out after an offer, that’s on them for offering in the first place when they didn’t mean it.) I can only imagine on how many opportunities I’ve missed in the past for not taking these offers at their face value.
- This goes for professors, too.
Although I’d heard the advice to make connections with your professors while on campus, I didn’t take it seriously. First, I figured, professors are insulated with other academic connections — not people who would necessarily be helpful in my career (I was wrong to believe this on a few levels, but moving on…). Second, even if I went to office hours, I wouldn’t have known what to talk about to make those connections. That’s still a tough thing, but a great old standby is to share articles in which they might have interest with professors. An email can be as brief as, “Thought of you when I saw this!” (Though ideally you’d also add a comment about the content and maybe a question, even just about their thoughts on it.) The good news is, you can also do this post-grad.
- Be confident, but not arrogant or condescending.
Go into each interaction assuming the person with whom you’re speaking is the missing link between you and your dream job, even if that doesn’t appear to be the case based on whatever information you have about them beforehand. If you go into these interactions assuming the person not only can’t offer you anything, but is also definitely less knowledgeable than you are in the given field, you’re setting yourself up for a useless conversation. Even if the person across from you doesn’t know as much about caring for starfish as you do, any arrogance you project could make the person shut down, and you might miss out on discovering the person’s cousin is the top dog in starfish caring because no one wants to be condescended to. Don’t be that guy.In short: always assume your communication partner has something to offer and treat them accordingly. If you’re someone (like me) who struggles with tone and can come off disagreeably, practice, in earnest, with someone you trust to point out your shortcomings. Always, always be gracious and open-minded. You might be surprised what useful things people can dig up for you.
- You know more than you think you know.
On the flip side, if you’ve had even a semester of college level chemistry, you are basically an expert as far as I’m concerned. At C3 as a student, I imagined myself as a total novice. Surely even the lawyers and professional chefs who came in knew more about libraries and publishing than I did, despite the independent research and academic work I’d done toward both ends. Nooope. Plenty of students with whom I interacted had a better understanding of their area of interest than I did. Or, if not more, then a different set of information. Don’t assume everyone older than you are also knows more than you do. You might have to elaborate a bit and it’s okay to recognize the knowledge and expertise you do have.
- Know what you need.
Frequently early in my job search, I felt at a loss as to how to make myself stand out to employers. Inevitably, I applied to things only to be told I didn’t have sufficient experience. Looking back, I wish I had taken the time to sit down with job descriptions before I graduated and then figure out how to get those experiences in less traditional ways. I couldn’t conjure up an MLIS, but I might’ve sooner applied to write for Book Riot than I did to bulk up my experience with readers’ advisory.
Take a look at the requirements and duties for jobs you have interest in. Then, if you can’t determine the best way to get that experience yourself, ask around (this could be a great networking question! “How would you suggest getting experience answering reference questions outside a traditional librarian position?”). You can also build a portfolio as a response to some of these things — blogs aren’t exactly all the rage these days, but sometimes just writing it out helps and you can always link folks to it who ask about your credentials. Then, make a name for yourself elsewhere — ask to do guest blog posts, write articles and letters to the editor, attend conference (and present, if you can). Eventually, you might find people connecting you to your work and most of the networking is done for you before you even step foot in the room where it happens. (#NotThrowingAwayMyShot)
- No one is looking at your clothes (that closely).
As an undergrad at C3, I agonized over what to wear (and later, in interviews, too.). Was wearing a non-neutral primary or secondary color too bold? What if I chose flats instead of heels? Is the jewelry from Claire’s obviously not from Tiffany’s? Except for one exception, all the students I saw at Hollins who were participating in C3 (all directed to dress to impress) were dressed just fine as far as I was concerned, and some of them were far more casual than anything I would have picked when I was in undergrad. And that’s not a dig — I say this to point out, no one is looking that closely. And, honestly, the folks who included a bit of their personality in their outfits were more memorable to me than those who wore neutrals (looking at you, past me.). Bonus Tip: Take pictures of people with whom you network (with their permission), followed by a picture of their business card (and take keyword notes on their business card for maximum memory retention, too) with your phone. I didn’t this time around, but learned from others and will definitely take advantage of this strategy next time!
So that’s the wisdom I have now, with many thanks to those who invited me to C3 this year and who contributed to my education — both official and unofficial — over the years. What have you learned since beginning your professional life that seems obvious now, but was not before?