Networking for Liberal Arts Majors

Networking: many students are pretty sure they’re not going to enjoy doing it. They often seem to be imagining a scenario like this Kids in the Hall sketch:

Never fear: networking looks nothing like this. Really.

For a more positive, accurate, and relevant account of how networking really happens, read this article from Poets & Writers, “The Business of Relationships: How Authors, Agents, Editors, Booksellers, and Publicists Work Together to Reach Readers.” One of the authors profiled here is the U of Illinois’s own Prof. Nafissa Thompson-Spires. Her story of getting Heads of the Colored People published starts with “I ran into an old colleague” and ends with her editor’s 20-year connection to a bookseller in Seattle. The other stories are similar. People like to work with people they know. Networking is how you make use of that phenomenon.

Here are a few things to know about networking.

  1. You’re already doing it.
  2. If it feels slimy or opportunistic, you’re doing it wrong.
  3. It’s good to ask for information, not a job.
  4. It always goes both ways.
  5. It all counts.
  6. It is about building relations and a community.

Here are those key points in more detail.

1. You’re already doing it.

Have you ever

  • helped a friend get the same part-time job you have?
  • made friends because of an extracurricular activity or a class project?
  • chatted with a stranger just to pass the time?
  • gotten involved in a club or volunteer opportunity because you knew people doing it?
  • connected to others on social media and maybe participated in the conversation

All of these things are continuous with the kinds of connections people call “networking.”

Networking includes:

  • talking to people you don’t already know
  • making your circle of friends and acquaintances bigger
  • join an RSO to connect to like minded folk
  • reaching out to specific people that you would like to know
  • building relationships
  • connecting others (or getting connected) to resources and opportunities

You don’t need a whole new personality to “network” — it’s an extension of every other kind of social interaction you ever have.

It’s easy to start by asking people you already know questions that don’t come up in the course of ordinary socializing (“Hey, Uncle Jay — what made you decide to start working for the US Postal Service?”) and finding ways to talk out to people beyond your usual circles and situations (“So what do you do for a living? What do you like about it?”).

2. If it feels slimy, you’re doing it wrong.

Many people assume that if you’re doing those things and calling it “networking,” then you’re making new friends and building relationships in a narrow, opportunistic, and self-serving way. No. Trust your gut and reach out to people in a way that feels consistent with the person you want to be.

The Kids in the Hall-esque scenario most people envision, where you put on a suit and “network” and magically a job offer appears somewhere down the line, is NOT how networking happens. Networking generally involves building relationships. It’s an unpredictable and open-ended process that plays out in ways you can’t engineer or anticipate. People are receptive to staying connected with others who care about the same things they do; they are less interested in people who seem to be using them to get ahead. If the only reason you’re staying connected to someone is that you hope they’ll get you a job — not because you find them interesting or informative — then you might be better off redirecting your time and energy towards people whose company you enjoy.

3. Ask for information, not a job.

Asking for information is a great way to build relationships

  • “What does it mean to work as a _________? What kinds of things do you do all day?”
  • “What do you like about your position/company? What kind of people thrive in this line of work? What do you hope to do next?”
  • “I’m really interested in a job like yours that doesn’t keep me tied down in an office — can you tell me more about what you do that has you outside most of the day?”
  • “How did you get into this line of work? how did you get your first job? what kinds of experience did you have?”
  • “It sounds like this work can be really frustrating/tiring/difficult. What keeps you motivated?”

The answers you get may inform you that you don’t want to do what your networking contact does — but that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the relationship. People change jobs, they have insight into other parts of the industry they work in, or they may be interesting entirely independently of what they do for a living. There are lots of reasons to maintain a connection.

Asking for a job can get in the way of building a relationship. The path from networking to a job is often circuitous and unpredictable. Some people simply aren’t in a position to hire, and being confronted with their inability to help you in this way starts the connection on the wrong foot. Others might be open to helping you get a job, but they want to get to know you before they make their connections available to you. Some people need to understand what your goals and strengths are before they can know how best to help you.

4. It always goes both ways.

A network goes in multiple directions. When you connect with other people, they always connect with you. As part of a network, you are always giving as well as getting. This point may seem completely counter-intuitive when you, as an unemployed student, reach out to established professionals, but it’s still true. Alumni mentors frequently mention things they learn from the students they talk to — insights into the entry-level end of their industry, information about how Gen-Z interacts with media, and a better understanding of how college has changed. Most people like talking about themselves and sharing their hard-won expertise. When you listen closely to someone (and even more when you let them know that what they’re telling you is going to make a difference in your life), you are giving them something.

You, too, have connections. Sooner than you think, it will occur to you that your roommate’s parents work in a field that your other friend is curious about, or that your classmate might be a great candidate for the internship you just completed. You may come to realize that your friend might be more interested in your networking contact’s career path than you are — and you can help bring them together.

5. It all counts.

The world is full of interesting people doing all kinds of important things.  The more opportunities you have to connect with people, hear their stories and ask for their insight, the bigger your world becomes. Every conversation will help you better understand what is out there. You are going to grow and change (and so will the people you talk to) and it’s impossible to game which connections will matter and which ones won’t.

Getting started…

  • Brainstorm a list of all the people you know who might be interesting to talk to about their work: family members, friends, former work supervisors, people you worked with on service or volunteer projects, and acquaintances.
  • Make a mental list of the careers, industries, and fields, that you would like to know more about. LinkedIn can be a great way to identify potential contacts. See the bottom of our Opportunities page for ideas on fields.
  • Email people or link to, whom you’d like to talk. Our guide to writing cold emails can help.
  • The initial scheduled conversation that you have with people you reach out to is what the experts call an informational interview. If all you come away with is information, then that’s what it was. If it’s the beginning of an ongoing connection, then it was networking. Our campus offers various externships (short experiences that connect you to employers).
  • Talking to a family member, friend, or familiar faces around your community about their job (particularly when you’ve never done so before) can be a great way to practice — even if their career isn’t one that interests you.