People are constantly telling you it isn’t what you know, it’s who you know. However, you have come to realize that it is neither what you know, nor who you know; it’s both. Without connections, you will be hard pressed to find guest speaking opportunities, funding, or collaborators. Without insightful and exemplary work, you will have little to attract connections to you. As a grad student, there are plenty of low pressure situations in your department where you can develop connections to other people in your field.
“Networking” really only means making connections with other professionals in your field. This includes the traditional method of cold-calling prominent speakers at conferences, but that isn’t the only method available to you. Some of the most successful and enduring “networking” is little more than socialization. Talking to potential contacts in low pressure environments is often a more successful strategy than on the floor of a conference with several thousand attendees. You don’t have to pay for an expensive trip to a conference to network either because there are plenty of opportunities to network right at your own university in your own city.
Who to Network With
Networking should include a wide variety of connections because different people, with different jobs, bring different opportunities to the table. Networking should also include connecting with people at the same level or below you in the hierarchy of your field because these more equally-footed connections are easier to make than connections with the leaders in your field, and have more potential because the junior contributors to the field will have more time to get to know you and more attention to give to your work. Also, just as you will advance in your field, so will they.
Participate in the Publishing Process
Journals are a big part of Academia, and getting involved in the journal publishing process as a reviewer is a good way to develop valuable contacts. However, the ability to get involved in journals does depend on your field and university to some extent because some have closer ties to journals than others.
Literary journals provide opportunities for grad students involved in creative writing. Literary journals receive so many submissions that they need people to tell the editors what is worth their time and what isn’t. Working or volunteering for a literary journal will allow you to connect with the other writers, editors, and professors connected with the journal in an environment that is relaxed.
Academic journals provide opportunities for grad students involved in academic or scientific research and writing. Getting involved with peer-reviewed journals is more difficult, but not impossible. PhD students are sometimes asked to serve in the peer-review process. The likelihood of this goes up greatly if your work has been previously published, especially if you have published with the journal you are wanting to peer-review for. There are also journals that have student editorial boards or are run entirely by students.
Attend Department Events
Your department likely host events with visiting authors or guest speakers who have something interesting to contribute to your field. These events are great opportunities for low pressure networking.
Usually, these sorts of events involve several components which can include a Q&A session, a lecture, reading, or presentation, and book sales and signings. After the official event, however, the guests don’t always leave. Frequently, the organizers, guest, and attendees will go to a restaurant, bar, or professor’s home to eat, drink, and socialize.
Choose guests whom you admire or find interesting, and then try to go to most of the academic and social components of the event. This way you can get to know the guest, and the students, professors, and coordinators at your university, on both a professional and personal level.
Another good way to use these events for networking is to help out with them. A lot goes into planning these events such as acquiring speakers, booking travel, lodging, and venues, recording and uploading video of the event, and more. Offer to help with the preparation and execution in general, and if you have particular skills, connections, or equipment, offer those as well. Helping out will likely get you more face time with the guest and will definitely get you more face time with your peers and professors who are coordinating the event.
Socialize Outside of School
Another low pressure way to network is to spend time with your peers and professors outside of school. This is a great way to develop relationships with other people in your field. Sometimes there will be events related to your field going on in town: Go to them, and try to carpool. If a local bar has a trivia night where departments from the university have unofficial teams, join yours even if you are bad at it, or if your department doesn’t have a team, start one. Go to parties where a lot of people from the department will be. Host a game night for people from the department. Start a small group that meets occasionally to review and critique one another’s work. Getting to know your peers and professors, and them getting to know you, not just as a professional, but as a person, will strengthen your connections and make it more likely that you will get the help or hand up you need, when you need it.