Education

Importance of passive networking for career success (opinion)

Whenever I speak with doctoral students about networking, one thing that I encourage them to do early on is to create a LinkedIn profile. In fact, that is often the key takeaway I leave them with at the end of my talks: “If you do one thing after today’s workshop, start using LinkedIn.”

Just a few years ago when I gave this advice to doctoral students, I would sometimes get confused looks in return — LinkedIn often felt like foreign territory to those immersed in academe. However, my recommendation has become increasingly well received in recent years, as even career academics have begun to develop their LinkedIn presence. And I find LinkedIn to be an especially important resource for doctoral students who are considering career paths outside the academy.

I can offer an illustration drawn from a recent discussion I had with a student whom we will call Iris. It was Iris’s first day in her Ph.D. program, and she reached out for early guidance on what she should be doing to ensure her career success. In particular, she wanted to know how to cultivate a strong network and overcome the awkwardness of reaching out to other professionals. She conveyed the sense, at times, that she was trying to generate engagement with new contacts but not really sure how to steer the conversation. Within a few minutes, I found myself talking through the concepts of active versus passive networking with Iris — and discussing how LinkedIn plays a key role in this process.

In cases like this, you should first remember that the networking process unfolds over several years. Second, you should understand the distinction between active and passive networking. The “icky” feeling that students sometimes describe when reaching out to other professionals is probably sometimes a result of jumping directly into active networking mode. In other words, students may find themselves quickly trying to ramp up their networking during the late stages of their doctoral program in order to lay the groundwork for the next phase of their career.

Active networking really is another term for leveraging your network by seeking to extract information or job leads from people you know. Active networking may also include focused attempts to build your network within a specific area. This task is certainly doable, and many students have had success with such an approach. However, I have also observed that this process understandably feels daunting and uncomfortable for many students — discomfort that could be mitigated by investing in passive networking techniques earlier on in your degree program.

Let me share an example. Creating a LinkedIn profile early on — and establishing a regular habit of using it — allows students to cultivate their network over time and in a fairly organized manner. If you are a first-year Ph.D. student, your online professional brand may be somewhat generic. Perhaps, for instance, you are not yet sure of your research emphasis or haven’t yet identified any clear long-term career interests to list on your profile. Nevertheless, establishing your presence on LinkedIn will allow you to grow your network over several years and stay connected with those whom you meet along the way. As you make contacts at conferences or networking events, meet alumni from your department, or make connections on your campus, you can add information about those people to your LinkedIn network and begin painting a larger picture of your professional world over time. As I tell students, even browsing the LinkedIn app once a week while riding the campus bus is a useful investment of time — and it can briefly allow you step outside the academic sphere and engage with professionals in other settings.

This is the essence of passive networking. Simply by pulling your contacts into your professional orbit and maintaining touch points along the way — even through indirect means such as occasional posts on the LinkedIn news feed — you are slowly “warming” your connections toward more purposeful engagement in the future.

For doctoral students, one of the truly beautiful things about this process is the minimal amount of time you must invest for successful passive networking. Even by spending just five or 10 minutes on LinkedIn each month, you can add new contacts to your network, read about what others are posting and share periodic updates about your own work to successfully push your network closer to maturity. As you grow more diligent about building your network in certain areas of interest, your news feed may become an increasingly useful resource with contacts who share job postings, company updates or other information that is beneficial to your long-term career goals. Other people in your network may also gradually gain more awareness about your career aspirations as you hone your professional brand over time and update your LinkedIn profile to reflect a more specific set of interests.

As you are likely observing, passive networking isn’t really passive at all. In my mind, it is really about small levels of engagement and long-term habits of cultivating your network over time rather than conducting an outreach campaign for a specific purpose (i.e., finding a job). As a graduate student, it is important to understand both approaches. And as a human being, you may just find that passive approaches to networking offer a convenient starting point for further developing your relationship-building skills and for setting the stage for more defined networking outcomes in the future.

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