The how and why of building a network in higher education

Sandy Jones gives advice to her 22-year-old self on the value of networking and how to get started – despite not owning a single high heel

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22 Jun 2023
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Networking for academics

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Colorado State University Global

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When I reflect on my 22-year-old self, an entry-level administrative professional working at a large, private research university in Los Angeles, the concept of networking felt like something that didn’t apply to me, as I didn’t own a suit and had never set foot in a martini lounge. The idea that anyone would consider me a connection of any value to them felt ridiculous, and even if I had felt worthy of engaging in the enterprise, I had no idea where to start. This article is written to both my 22-year-old self and the entire higher education community to articulate the value of a network and explain how to get started building one regardless of whether or not we own a single tie or high heel.

First, I’ll tackle the big question: why bother networking if we work at a college or university where we have equal opportunity hiring practices? Well, according to Harvard Business Review, research suggests that networking leads to more job opportunities, knowledge, improved capacity, promotional opportunities and greater perceived status. Even if the needle isn’t moved on your career or brand, building professional relationships is likely to improve your quality of work and increase your job satisfaction. In my 20-plus years in higher education, I’m aware of countless examples of an executive or faculty member being hired in a move that could – at least in part – be traced back to a connection with an influencer on campus who passed along a job link or helped the candidate understand the role requirements in advance of the interview.

Assuming I have made a strong case for the “why”, a further key question remains: how does one get started?

Thankfully, technology has advanced since I started my HE career in 2002, with LinkedIn being the leading digital platform for professional engagement. It’s common for me to receive LinkedIn message requests related to a job posting at my institution, CSU Global; I always respond even if I cannot connect with them outside our formal hiring process. Alternatively, if an entry- or mid-level professional used the platform to schedule an informational interview, I would carve out the time, especially if they agreed to keep it under 30 minutes. This is a tactic that works for everyone – especially those who are averse to “working a room”. It’s also a great option for HE professionals aiming to grow their network outside their institution with limited flexibility to leave their desks.

But don’t forget to network with leaders within your institution, too. Even if you’ve worked at your current college or university for many years, an invite to an introductory coffee (whether in person or virtual) is almost always welcomed – again, though, keep it short. If you’re unsure of how you would open the conversation, this simple starter should do the trick: “I’m very grateful you agreed to this coffee/lunch. I’d love to start by asking you how you came to the university and your role, and then discuss how I can support you or your department better in my role.” If my 22-year-old self had asked me this question today as my current self, I’d likely respond in kind and offer a resource to help her get to the next rung on the career ladder.

Another great way to get started with building a network is through involvement in professional organisations. Note the word “involvement” – simply attending the annual conference next year will be less impactful for building a network than volunteering at it, joining a knowledge community or committee, or enquiring about a leadership role in your region or division of the association. This way, if you ultimately decide to attend the conference, you are networked into key “nodes” (highly connected individuals with many contacts) within your profession before you arrive, and you can lean on them to make strategic introductions to speakers, vendors or attendees.

Even if building your network doesn’t help you move up in your career tomorrow, it will improve how you approach your work today, which is just as important. For university professionals, unfortunately, it’s unlikely to occur in a cocktail lounge, but it is likely to occur almost everywhere else: at the touch of your fingertips on LinkedIn, on your home campus, and in your professional associations. And finally, a note to my 22-year-old self and to you: we all have things to offer a new contact – our perspective, positive energy, knowledge, experiences, contacts, resources and friendship. Networking is for everyone, especially you.

Sandy Jones serves as vice-president of strategic engagement at Colorado State University Global, where she drives the university’s stakeholder partnerships, brand awareness and enrolment experience.

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