Now, I hate to use the “mature student” card but I feel I simply can’t do this topic justice without drawing on some personal experience. After completing my Master’s degree, I decided it was time for a break from academia, try my hand at a “real job” and so I set out to find employment in big London town. It’s important to emphasise that my experiences may not apply to everyone, as one post-University life is totally different from another but, as I slogged through application after application for each job I began to realise one niggling regret: I wish I’d made more of the University’s networks.
If I could go back and do it again, I wouldn’t change a thing about my University experience. Not the all-nighters in the library, the haemorrhaging of student loan funds on Coffee Revolution baked goods or choosing to live at the top of steeper-than-steep Conduit Road for two years. The only thing I would definitely, 100% do differently is just allocate some more time to exploring the University’s resources in terms of academic and professional networking opportunities.
Having done some research for the purposes of this post, I’ve actually found that one of the biggest regrets past students have is not making the most the networks available to them. The University is massive, and I don’t just mean the Information Commons but in terms of international academic renown. So now, having the chance to go back and “have another go” with my doctoral studies, I was keen to get as involved as I possibly could in intercollegiate activities and build connections. In my case, it’s with the Sheffield Animals Research Centre, whose weekly seminars and workshops allow me to meet people from all walks of academic life; attending conferences with like-minded people from Leeds, Manchester and at Universities as far afield as Tasmania and New Zealand. I’ve met no end of people with similar interests who have not only remained in touch, but who have actually recommended invaluable resources that are now keystone inclusions in my studies.
At a time when students are taking on far greater financial burden to complete their studies, surely it can’t do any harm to engage with these networks, broaden horizons and use the opportunities that only a student status can offer. Whether it be in an academic or professional capacity, these networking opportunities can offer nurturing environments in which to develop connections that may, in the future, be very useful indeed. Students especially shouldn’t be put off by academic hierarchies, as academic staff are most likely there to satisfy their own interests too. Should people attending be external to the University or corporate representatives, it’s safe to say that the variables of light conversation or mingling were most definitely taken into their calculations before accepting the invitation to attend.
These days, the term “networking” seems as synonymous with other corporate jargon such as “synergy” or the seemingly endless arsenal of acronyms. However, in the University environment, it doesn’t need to be as intimidating as all that. Simply chose an event either inside or outside your field that interests you, perhaps learn up a little about key speakers and themes of the event, and jump in! The University also has events specifically aimed at developing networking skills, experience of which is seen as more and more desirable by employers. Whatever event you choose to begin with, be prepared to establish a dialogue and be aware of your own body language but, more likely than not, you’ll find yourself making some useful relationships that are mutually beneficial. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from networking, it’s that very rarely do you meet someone who isn’t willing to share their experiences or interests with you; even more so at Sheffield.
So, to borrow the slogan of a well-known sportswear company: just do it. It’s totally normal to feel slightly nervous when putting yourself in an environment where meeting new people is the order of the day. Like everything, it takes a little while to get used to. Whatever way you do it, don’t be intimidated and whether you keep in touch or even make new friends, you never know what it may lead to. When it comes time to leave University, the world suddenly gets much bigger and the contacts you make during this time may give you an invaluable place to start when looking for your next step. I guarantee, even if your first foray into networking results in one measly LinkedIn contact, it will only ever open doors to you – it will never, ever close any.