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Study abroad: The what, why and how of networking
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January 31, 2008

Networking is the act of expanding one's social sphere of influence by initiating mutually advantageous new relationships with people. It can be a very powerful tool in helping you succeed in the United States. It can start paying dividends as early as from the time you begin applying to US universities. Success as a student, and professional in the US depends heavily on your networking skills.

Depending on the nature of the relationships built, networks can be classified into four types: (a) Academic networks, (b) Professional networks, (c) Social networks, and (d) Service networks.

Academic network
Your academic network is the relationships you build with your classmates, instructors and academic advisers. Your academic network plays an important role in all your academic activities from choosing your application process, to choosing your courses, to applying for internships.

Professional network
Your professional network is the relationships you build with your colleagues, clients, business partners, et al. Your professional network can be useful in landing a job, closing that hard-to-get deal, get you foot in the door into places you would otherwise have a hard time getting into, etc.

Social network
Your social network is the relationships that you typically build outside your academic and professional life. Often social networks are associated with your life outside your professional interests.

Service network
Your service network is the relationships that you build through your outside interests, your extra-curricular and community involvements. I have made this distinct network type because your service network, unlike your social network, complements your professional network in the goals that the latter achieves.

People within your service network are willing to vouch for certain abilities you possess that people within your social network may not.

Having made the distinction among the four network types, I must underscore that these networks may not be distinct. Often friends become co-workers, and co-workers become friends. Your friends may become your classmates, and your classmates who graduate with you may become your colleagues. It is important to realise that the nature of your relationship with people will change over time, and so you have to be careful how you choose to handle any relationship; bridges once burnt are very difficult to rebuild.

When in your undergraduate college
To build any network you have got to interact with people. Start with your classmates, your friends, your instructors and lecturers. It is tempting to go through college unnoticed, sit in the last bench, and attract no attention. But that is not going to help you much when you are trying to figure out which university in the US to apply to; it is not going to help your instructor write a strong letter of recommendation simply because he/she doesn't even remember you from the class.

When applying to universities
Before you begin applying for graduate studies in the US, you have to do substantial research on the various schools, departments, faculty members, etc. Unfortunately, there are very few sources which can help you in this regard. Every school is convinced that they do quality work and impart quality education in just about everything they do.

Faculty members seldom update their website to reflect their current research. If they had worked in some area 'xyz' 10 years ago, you will still find it in their research interests, and so on. So where do you go for information that will help you make a decision on the schools you should apply to? Answer, your networks.

It is more often than not that anyone who is applying to schools in the US knows people in various schools in the US, or at least knows someone who knows someone. They are a part of your academic and/or social networks. Use these networks to gain first hand information about the different schools you are considering. Talk to these people know the open secrets like status of funding in the department and faculty members, find out which faculty members are slave drivers, how is life there, etc.

The information you can get from your networks is often accurate, current, and more reliable than any book or website you may refer to. Use your network to your advantage. And importantly, be a good Samaritan, when you get questions from people about the university you are in (in the future), make sure you respond back courteously, give an honest and accurate picture. Remember, someone else did that for you when you were struggling for information. Pay it forward.

After you have compiled the list of faculty members you are interested in working with, make sure you write to to them. Note that it serves you better if you already have a network in the US when you arrive there. Since you are sending out a cold email to the faculty members, and faculty are a busy lot, make it short, to the point, and honest.

Do NOT mass email faculty members, or use a common template and substitute names. It is very easy to spot such emails, and faculty often lose no time in trashing them. And remember, there is nothing wrong in asking for funding. No one expects free labour (and if they do, then you probably do not want to work with them), and be upfront about your funding situation, and about your research interests. Honesty is a widely appreciated quality, and will aid you in building a good academic network when you get to the US.

It is also important to build a social network in the US. You can start that process even before you get to the US. After you have been admitted to a school, go to Google groups, Yahoo groups, or social networking sites. You will find many groups associated with your school. Join these groups and start asking any questions you may have: housing, transportation, budgeting, roommates, other prospective students.

Once you find other prospective/ new students in your city, organise a meet up. Get to know your peers before you go there. It will help you through the most difficult phase in the US, the first few weeks: finding an apartment, roommates, adjusting the US culture (includes, not converting all prices to rupees), so on.

After getting to the US
While in the US, your networks are useful in several different avenues ranging from getting an internship, landing a full-time time, getting you in touch with fellow hobbyists, pursuing your outside interests etc.

If you are keen on pursuing a career in the US, then it is imperative that you understand how the American culture works, understand how business is done in the US. You graduate school provides you with a great sandbox to try things out. All schools in the US have student organisations. Make it a point to visit these organisations and join an organisation that interests you and you can contribute to. Networking with people in leadership positions in organisations will help you in two ways:

1. It will help you better understand how people communicate and interact. It will teach a lot of cultural nuances that cannot be taught, only experienced.

2. Student leaders are typically ambitious and driven. They are likely to be valuable contacts for you in the future when you are out building your career, looking for a job, or just looking for some group to pursue your outside interests.

Ensure that you build relationships with a diverse group of people. The more diverse your network is, the better connected you will be in the future. You life will not revolve around your area of specialisation. A diverse network will ensure that you have a pulse on various aspects of your life ranging from filing tax returns, to finding the right school for your kids, to understanding mortgages.

One of the best ways to build such a diverse network (especially your service network) is through local organisations and volunteer groups. Take my instance, I first served as the president of a student organisation, and that was my first foray into volunteer groups.

The contacts I made from there have eventually lead me to be an actor in the community theater, and I now have my own radio show. I do have a research assistantship, but I am not worried about my funding, thanks to my network. Even if I were to lose my assistantship, my network is strong and diverse enough (ranging from staff and senior faculty in various departments, to business owners and city administrators) that I am confident of finding another source of funding/ assistantship in a matter of weeks.

Similarly, it is important to build your academic network as well. At the very least, a reference from the appropriate person who can vouch for your academic credibility can mean the difference between a long interview process and a quick hire after school.

Conferences (both, student and professional conferences) are the great place to grow your academic network. In my very first research conference I attended, I initiated a discussion with one of senior researchers at the conference and the discussion eventually matured into a paper submission to a journal.

At a student conference I attended last year, the communication I initiated with one of the attendees culminated with an offer for summer internship with the firm he represented. And these are just the immediate results with growing my academic network. The long-term benefits are far greater, but require an investment on your part to maintaining the relationships you build.

Going ahead
A good network is the key to a successful career and life in the US. A strong network ensures that your reputation precedes you where it matters. It is a lot easier to market yourself if the people you are marketing to already have a favourable impression of you thanks to the endorsements you have received from your networks. A good network will be help be at the right place at the right time.

For a strong network: start early, build relationships, maintain them, pay it forward.

The author is a PhD student at Texas A&M and may be contacted at .


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