If someone had told me 13 (eek) years ago when I was at the University of Sheffield that one day I’d be talking to undergraduates about careers and navigating the world of work, I would have thought you were joking.
As the first in my family to have gone to university, I can remember how intimidating the university experience was at times. Working out what on earth I should do after was an even bigger challenge and I don’t think I really grasped what might be involved. My parents have always been amazingly supportive, but in terms of practical tips and ideas on what to do next, there was a limit to the experience they could share. And we were also limited in terms of our personal networks, living in an East Midlands suburb, family friends weren’t generally in the sort of media and publishing careers I thought I might be interested in and suited to.
City Connections is an employability initiative at the University of Sheffield to help undergraduates from widening participation backgrounds develop soft skills such a networking and CV writing as well as the opportunity to visit London and see different types of workplaces. The students were generally either the first generation in their family to attend University, from areas where lower numbers of young people go to University, receiving financial aid to attend University, or from groups under-represented in higher education, such as black and minority ethnic groups, those with a disability, young carers or students formerly in care.
I was invited to a City Connections evening networking event with other alumni and 30 students. It was lovely to be invited but I was particularly excited to be able to help because I’d once been in a similar situation to them. At university you meet a lot of people from public schools and many of them possess a natural confidence about their future prospects and while it’s never any good to compare yourself, in interview situations confidence is something potential employers love to see. It’s easy to see how those grads could have an edge. An event that helps develop networking skills could create a real boost for young people who’ve not had much experience of meeting people in a professional context.
The 30 Arts and Humanities students set off for London at 7.30am and visited three different businesses all linked to Sheffield alumni, partcipating in workshops, tours and talks before meeting the alumni. It was great to relive some of my uni days, and talk to other alumni about which halls had been knocked down (sadface) and the boozers and takeways we used to frequent. Most importantly though, I met some interesting students who described their day as eye-opening, inspiring and intimidating – I remember how that feels. Whatever preparation the students had been given was excellent, they asked smart questions and explained their interests passionately (potential employers/mentors love this!). Some were already showing signs of being what I’d call ‘super networkers’, directing their peers to other alumni in the room that could help them with their goals. Final year English Language and Literature student Rebecca Jackson told me:
“The City Connections programme has been a real eye-opener. I’ve learned what professionals value in prospective candidates and look forward to putting the advice I was given at the networking event into practice. I also realised networking is a key skill to build lasting and valuable connections. I’m so grateful and honoured that I have been able to meet with alumni of the University and value the advice from each person I had the opportunity to speak to.”
If you’re not lucky enough to have an awesome programme like City Connections at your uni, here are five tips for no-stress networking.
Find your people
The best place to start when networking for your career is to go where your interests are. Sounds simple, right? It actually is. Things like meetup.com, Eventbrite and Billetto have literally hundreds of searchable events around specific topics, many of which are free or very low cost to attend. The beauty of Meetup events is you can see your fellow attendees on the guestlist too – so it’s really easy to keep in contact afterwards. Don’t see an event in your chosen field? Why not set-up your own, you can invite speakers who inspire you and it will look great on your CV!
Ask your current network
You might actually be surprised what people in your current network are interested in or can help with when trying to build your career. A quick shout on Facebook or an email to your contact book can yield loads of new leads. Similarly, if you have a project you want to promote, always start by asking for help from the people you know – they like you and want you to succeed.
Do it digital
Networking doesn’t have to always be in person – sometimes you can make great connections through Twitter, Linkedin groups or even commenting on blog posts by people who write about subjects you’re interested in. By building on an informal online conversation, you might be able to develop an in-person relationship that will feel comfortable early on.
Whether it’s a tweet, a LinkedIn connection or an email – the people you meet will in the overwhelming majority of cases be happy you found them interesting enough to keep in contact with (honestly, who isn’t flattered by other people finding them interesting?) – remember to get their name.
Manage your expectations
You might meet some great people and have an initially promising exchange. The reality is though, people get busy and don’t have time to keep in close contact with everyone they meet. While you might be hoping for a certain opportunity with someone you meet, they might have something else in mind. Check in with them periodically, and stay positive, they may be able to help in a way you hadn’t expected.
What were your thoughts on #CityConnections15? Let us know in the comments below or tweet us!
Photos: University of Sheffield