Mark: Do I Really Need Business Cards?

At the orientation for my grad program at AU's School of International Service, a faculty member told us to start networking and start networking now.

According to this faculty member, the most important first step for any grad student is to have business cards made. "Business cards?" I thought, "I'm here to further my education, not negotiate corporate deals or sell knives door-to-door (as I once did for three days in a misguided attempt to make some summer money). Why do I need business cards?"

The faculty member insisted.

"There are hundreds of events every day in Washington, DC. Go to them. Learn from them. But most important, network at them," he asserted. "Talk to those who are already in your field. Give them your business card. Follow up. Because when you've finished your studies and are determining the next phase of your career, it is these people who will be your most valuable resources."

I couldn't deny the logic of his point. We've all heard, "It's not what you know, it's who you know." Even though I'd just started a two-year quest to learn more of the "what," I decided I'd also make an effort to get to know the "who." I would get those business cards.

But this feeling of resolve quickly morphed into anxiety.

"Remember," he said, "you should try to attend a networking event every day. Only 25 percent of your graduate learning will come in the classroom; the other 75 percent will come from out there." He made a dramatic and expansive gesture, presumably indicating a place "out there," a place I had the growing feeling I had no idea how to find.

Could this have been right? Could I possibly be expected to attend one event per day? How could I manage this with a full grad studies workload? How could I even find one event per day I wanted to attend? I left the orientation dismayed and wondering what to do next.

Looking back, I think my alarm stemmed from a combination of two factors: exaggeration on the part of that faculty member, as well as my newness to the art of networking. I've since learned that while it's possible to attend one networking event per day (especially in event-saturated DC), it's certainly not practical. I've also learned that the first image many people envision when confronted with the term "networking"—shaking hands at receptions—is misleading. Successful networking is about much more.

Know Yourself before Networking

When I first moved to Washington, I did in fact attend a good number of networking events. I did not enjoy them. I handed out a few business cards from time to time (yes, I had them printed) but rarely followed up. Often I left an event without talking to anyone. I felt guilty. It made me question the purpose of networking. Why didn't I get more out of these events? Why couldn't I muster the courage to talk to anyone? Should I feel guilty because meeting people in a room full of strangers is not my forte? How is networking best accomplished? What purpose does it really serve, personally and professionally? Does one network simply to gain something? To secure an internship, a job, or a recommendation? Or are there other reasons to network? Is it an inherently selfish enterprise?

I've realized that I simply don't like networking events, at least ones where the primary purpose is to meet as many people as possible. To some, this kind of networking comes naturally. These extroverts walk into a room full of strangers and happily anticipate meeting colleagues and making new connections. Shake enough hands and who knows what might come your way.

For me, however, networking events are a struggle. I'm an outgoing person, but I'm reluctant to approach people I don't know. If I attend an event with a group of colleagues, I'll talk mostly to them. If I'm by myself, you might find me near the bar or slowly circling the room to avoid the embarrassment of standing alone. For better or for worse, this is me. Once I realized this, I stopped attending events altogether.

Yet, after a bit of time, I realized that just because going to networking events was not a favorite pastime, this didn't mean I should abandon them. Rather, I needed to be more discerning about the events I attended.

I liken it to being invited to a party. If I don't know anything about the person throwing the party, I probably won't go. If I know the host and have friends or interests in common with him, however, I'm more likely to attend and have a good time. The same holds true with networking events. I disliked going to those events that didn't appeal to my interests. But I did begin to appreciate events that piqued my professional curiosity and where I found people with similar interests. A specific example is the day I met Sherry.

I was in my first semester at AU, and Sherry, an alumna, came to give a talk on international exchange and citizen diplomacy. I'd recently discovered the work of the organization she headed, NCIV, and was interested in pursuing an internship there. I figured that by attending this event I could learn more about the internship. I had a specific interest in Sherry's work at NCIV. I also had a goal. These things made all the difference.

At Sherry's talk I was engaged. I took notes. I asked questions. Afterward I was compelled to hand Sherry my business card and ask about the internship. None of this felt forced; it flowed easily. When I eventually visited NCIV's offices for an interview, I again talked to Sherry. After my internship I kept in touch with her, occasionally e-mailing to stay on her radar: for help on a research project, to pass along an interesting article, or for advice on my job search. Eventually, just after I'd graduated, Sherry called. She knew I was looking for a position; she had a job opening at NCIV and thought it might be a good fit. She invited me to come for an interview. Soon after, I began a rewarding two-year stint at NCIV, my first "real" job out of school.

It's true that my networking encounter with Sherry was uncommonly successful. It led to both an internship and a job. Most meetings do not yield such tangible results. Certainly other factors influenced my ability to secure these positions as well: education, experience, timing, luck. But the point is this: When it comes to the art of networking, learn to recognize your own skills and comfort levels. If you're a person who enjoys working a room and introducing yourself to new people, by all means do that. But if you don't relish schmoozing, don't feel guilty or despair that you'll never find a job. Instead, choose the events you attend strategically—and consider other forms of proactive networking, such as the informational interview.

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