Mastering the art of networking - A primer for university students
Updated: Jul 18, 2021
(This article has been modified from an earlier article about the challenges I faced as an international student in Australia. It can be found here.)
I want to start off with a quick explanation of tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge, which is the opposite of explicit knowledge, comes from experience, practice and sometimes repetitive honing of skills. It is the knowledge that cannot be written down, and even if it is, it cannot be learnt by reading the written down instructions.
Take, for example, driving. No matter how elaborately an experienced driver writes down the activity of driving with step-by-step methods, processes and flowcharts, and no matter how many times you read those instructions, unless you get behind the steering wheel with an instructor by your side, you will never become a driver. This is true no matter how much you read, reflect and acquire the theoretical know-how.
Explicit knowledge, on the other hand, is something that can be easily written down and conveyed, with the knowledge acquired by just spending some time trying to understand it.
If you are a fresh graduate or a currently enrolled student who has never had any work experience, this understanding of the different types of knowledge will convince you better about what I am going to discuss in this article.
Role of internships
Increasingly, universities all over the world are realising the importance of work-integrated learning and are making modifications to create work-ready graduates. Subsequently, internships and work placements are being made a compulsory part of curriculums in several courses. This trend is mainly a result of a recent string of research that found that students are increasingly becoming ill-prepared for work-life, and the idea of professional skills varies between employers and university lecturers.
For a student who was never involved in the workforce, typically joining an undergraduate degree straight out of school, it is an enormous culture shock when he/she joins a company as an employee.
In the workplace, you are suddenly expected to be accountable, responsible, punctual, and diligent, with several job postings even asking for someone with a ‘can-do’ attitude or a ‘self-starter’.
In university, though, it is okay to have an off day. If you don’t really feel like grooving with a subject, you can slack off and score an easy ‘C’ grade and not face any consequences. Though this is a decision that students usually take during their course, as an employee, there is no room for slacking off.
Not to sound scary, but this sudden shift plays a considerable role in the culture shock that students face. This is where internships can come in handy. Internships let you sample the workplace while still being a student. Having to produce a report at the end of the internship helps students to reflect and dissect the experience. A reflective analysis is found to be a potent tool for students’ learning.
On top of this, university education is a lot about explicit knowledge. You have a curriculum; you have recommended texts, exams and assignments. All these almost entirely form a part of imparting explicit knowledge. However, a lot of daily operations in an organisation involves tacit knowledge that can only be acquired ‘on the job’, working on real-life problems and challenges. This is where an internship can play a valuable role in providing a safe environment where students can use their theoretical knowledge from university and gain some tacit knowledge in the industry.
There are also many studies that show evidence that employers are now increasingly valuing non-technical soft skills more than academic achievements. I particularly like the analogy that is used between IQ measurements and the importance of height to success in basketball. Even though height is an advantage to playing basketball, it doesn’t mean that the taller you are, the better you are at playing basketball. Beyond a certain point, your fitness, stamina, skills and teamwork need to complement your height advantage. That is the same case with IQ measurement. Beyond a certain IQ level, a higher IQ level doesn’t guarantee a better career or a higher chance of winning the Nobel prize.
This is similar to the employability of a graduate. Yes, a recruiter would expect an interviewee to have good grades. However, beyond a certain level of academic prowess, the recruiter starts looking for other traits such as communication, problem-solving, teamwork, lifelong learning and creativity – all attributes that can more easily be acquired tacitly.
Thus, even if your course doesn’t prescribe an internship subject, it is advantageous for students to pursue one. This is especially true if you are studying abroad. In addition to acquiring the work-ready skills, an internship will facilitate a deeper understanding of the cultural aspects of your host country.
If you are an international student who is living and studying abroad, multicultural experience is, no doubt, a valuable skill to possess. It helps to know the underlying structural differences to be comfortable within a multicultural setting. That said, let me introduce you to polychronic vs monochronic cultures. Polychronic cultures include counties from Asia, Africa and some parts of Europe like Spain and Italy. The importance of time and punctuality in communication is of lesser significance in such cultures.
Monochronic cultures include countries from North America, Western Europe and Australia, where time plays a crucial role in communication. In other words, punctuality is so important, and it is not seen as an impressive feat to be punctual – it is a given. A lack of time-consciousness is seen in a highly negative light.
This is also closely linked to direct vs indirect communication or low-context vs high-context culture. These monochronic cultures use direct communication as a result of their low-context culture. They say what they mean and mean what they say – nothing more, nothing less.
Asian countries, however, follow an indirect form of communication, also known as high-context culture. In addition to the words uttered, other forms of communication such as tone, context, body language, and facial expressions are used. The daily conversations can be laced with hidden or unintended meanings, concealed sentiments, assumptions and unuttered conversations.
Be it your rights as a tenant or an employee, the requirements to start a business, your university assignment instructions or subject learning outcomes – everything that you need to know in a monochronic culture will definitely be clearly written out that you can always refer back. This is a characteristic of the direct communication method that these cultures follow. Everything is clearly written out for everybody to see.
An internship is a safe place to explore these differences and get used to them. In addition to practising the technical skills, acquiring non-technical skills related to communication, teamwork and collaboration are extremely valuable.
Networking is a valuable skill
Get used to hearing the term ‘networking’ a lot, especially during the job search phase. Let me explain about ‘networking’ in such a way that you know the ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘when’.
The easiest way to think of networking is – never say ‘no’ to anything. Always be prepared for any experience, any conversation, any new acquaintance or any event. Be ready to jump out of your comfort zone at will. You never know where your new experience is going to lead you. Never miss a single day of your university orientation, info session, or meet and greet. Just talk to people, and get curious about their life, irrespective of their background. Join clubs, attend free classes/events, be active on your group assignments or find some friends to play your favourite sport with.
The key here is to always be willing to challenge your comfort zone. Seeking refuge within your comfort zone is the worst thing that you can do to yourself and your ambitions.
It is so easy and convenient to just spend the weekend binging on your favourite show and ordering in food rather than dress up, go to an event, and make small talk. But, getting on the networking bandwagon will come in handy to put your foot through the door and get your breakthrough, be it an internship or your first job.
LinkedIn is a goldmine
If you haven’t started using LinkedIn, I would highly recommend you do that. It is the easiest and effective platform to network and potentially land your first/next job. Even when you are at a conference or a career fair, just quickly ask a potential connection if they are on LinkedIn, and give out a connection request.
It is an exciting platform for career professionals, and the success stories of people finding jobs through LinkedIn are numerous. You don’t have to regularly churn out post after post or write articles. Just logging in every day and updating key highlights of your student life or any volunteer/internship experience will suffice.
I personally know a dear friend who was ‘head hunted’ on LinkedIn and landed a job three times by appearing on employer searches. Granted, he was working in a niche field and has a total work experience of 8 years till date, but he was approached by potential employers just by regularly updating his LinkedIn profile with his roles and responsibilities.
I am not saying that his success can be replicated by everyone. But, due diligence pays, and you never know who is noticing your career progress.
University career support
Finally, making the best use of university career support can do wonders for your confidence levels. Nowadays, almost every university has a job portal website, in addition to aiding in interview preparation, resume editing, and conducting workshops.
These are tools that can polish a rough diamond of a profile into the perfect finished product that employers can just not refuse. It is all about adding a little bit of a perspective to your interview answers, rearranging the resume headings to suit the role, and working on your weaknesses.
Just by being forthcoming and approaching these career support services, it is possible to elevate one’s personal brand to a higher level. In the end, landing a desired job is all about one’s personal brand and how appealing the brand is to a recruiter.
In summary, if you are sceptical about treading a path to your future career, an internship is a perfect place to start, even if it is unpaid or short-term. If you are already actively searching for a job, working on your networking skills and making use of your university’s career support services will reap huge rewards. Moreover, if you are an international student living in another country, paying extra attention to cultural differences will prove to be a crucial ally in your career.