Growing your network when you have none as a student

That was my experience: no connection with anyone in the industry for the job I want to know more about. What can I do?

I will share with you two routes that have worked for me.

Unanswered questions

I came from Taiwan to United States for graduate school, and I knew literally no one in this country.

When I was looking for a job in data science, I had lots of questions, but I had no one to turn to besides the internet. I had no idea about what the job market looked like, about what to prepare, and about what kind of job I was getting into.

When I looked back, I couldn’t even answer one of the most basic question:

Do you even want the job?

If I ask myself as the graduate student from three years ago and ask: what do you think my day look like? The graduate student me will probably give an answer that is very different from the reality.

It does not mean the work I am doing is boring or not valuable. Instead, it means that as a graduate student, I didn’t have enough information to make an educated guess. I heard the pay was good and the work was interesting, but that was it.

I had no idea what I was trying to get into. Do I even want to hang out with the people in the industry? What does the work environment look like?

Why talk to people?

Talking to people calibrates your reality

By talking to people and listening to their stories before you get the job, you can set realistic expectations and prepare yourself better for what’s to come during the job search process.

Besides, there are many paths to a job that are hidden to untrained eyes. Talking to people and hearing their stories may help you find ways that you may have not considered before.

Job search is brutal

You can read about my job search experience here.

With an internship and basic coding knowledge, it took me over 60 applications to get my first job. It can be a lonely and discouraging process. Having people in the field to talk to is a great way to see what’s on the other side and remind myself to trust the process.

Meeting people in person

There is no substitute than meeting people in person. Therefore, I want to start by giving you two ways that I tried and found effective in building an in-person network.

Meetups

What I did

After my internship ended and I went back to Nashville, I started thinking about learning from others. But outside of my colleagues at the internship, I knew no one. How can I find people in the field to talk to?

One day, I saw a post on Reddit about meetups. I had never heard of meetup, so I looked at meetup.com and found several in town. Meetup.com looked pretty crappy back then, and I was like: do people really go to those events?

I decided that the only way to find out was to go. So I went to a meetup on machine learning, and the topic went over my head.

Although I had no idea what the talks were about, I stuck to a few meetups and kept going. Eventually, I found a few people that I enjoyed talking to that had become a great resource that helped me grow my skills and knowledge, even after I moved to Charlotte.

This was basically how I started making connections. You can read my experience at the Developer Launchpad in Nashville and see what it was like for me.

What can you do

Find a meetup that hosts regular meetings and keep going. It is likely that, just like me, you will find 2-3 people that you see over and over again and enjoy talking to.

Don’t worry about not knowing the topic of the talk or even, not knowing what the meetup was about. What the heck is JavaScript? The talks and the events are only the device to bring people into the room—the focus of meetups is people. Learn from them: what they do, why do they want to be here, what would they do if they were you?

There is one caveat about this route: this works better if you live in a city.

What if there is none in my town?

Then you have a great opportunity: you can start your own.

In my experience, if you can find one person who is interested and willing to commit to meeting up a once a month for 6 months, then you can build a group. Find a coffee shop and schedule “socials,” and people will come.

When I moved to Charlotte two years ago, the Python user group was dead. John Lockwood decided to spin up another meetup with a Saturday Lunch Socials at Panera Bread once a month, where we grab lunch and chat for an hour.

In the first 6 months, there’s about 5-10 people each. After two years, now we regularly have over 20, and as a side effect, the lunch socials also brought the original Python user group back to life, and we moved the lunch social back to the original group.

If there is no meetup in the area that you are interested in and in your city, I would encourage you to not look at it as a disadvantage but an opportunity. All you need is the commitment to put it up and show up.

You don’t have to only put socials: try putting up a study group on a topic and see what happens. e.g. Deep Learning RTP Study Group

It only costs $15/month to start advertising events on meetup.com—a small investment for a huge leverage in my book.

Volunteering for conferences

A disclaimer: I know this tip works in tech, but I am not sure about how people organize conferences in other fields. A good question to ask your contacts may be: what kind of conferences do you go to?

What I did

In 2017, I was between jobs: graduated, but haven’t found my job yet. During a meetup, I learned that an upcoming local coding conference, Music City Code, that is looking for volunteers.

I thought about it—the topics are likely not what I can understand. But it probably doesn’t hurt to go and see what is out there. I was unemployed—anything sounds better than sitting in my room. So I signed up to volunteer.

So, I stood at the parking lot and guided people for the one morning. In exchange, I get to go to the conference for free.

In the next few days, I gave my first lightning talk there and went to a great session by David Neal that made me pick up the sketch book. (You can find David’s same talk at CodeMash here, highly recommended) And I met great people that helped me and encouraged me to submit talks.

And it was free!

What can you do

Most conferences need volunteers. In the field that you are interested in, there is probably a conference nearby that you just don’t know.

Try google a few combinations of these:

[city name] [keyword of a field] [conference]

For example, if I put in “Nashville coding conference”, the first entry showed up is Music City Tech.

After you find a conference that you are interested in, go “Contact Us” and send the organizer a message. Tell them that you are a graduate student (which often leads to people immediately assume that you are broke) and you want to volunteer for the conference to get an idea of what it is like to work in this industry.

If you get to volunteer and have down time during the volunteering period, don’t spend all your time going to the talks, What you want to do is to talk to people.

Go to the workshops, tell them that you want find someone to work together in the workshop. Go to the hallway and find people to talk to. Wear your volunteering shirt and find a group of conference attendees to eat lunch with.

What else?

Here are a few ideas:

  • Go to a company’s office: just show up at the desk and ask to meet the team.
  • Ask an alumni to help you set up a meeting with someone she knows.
  • Send cold messages to people on a subreddit in the field that you are interested in and ask for a chat on Google Hangout when you have a good conversation.

There are many ways to do it, and I will allocate at least 20-30% of job search/study time for meeting people.

Set up a channel for following up

After you meet people in real life, make sure that you have a way to follow up. I recommend setting up three things:

  • An email with your first name and last name that’s not a .edu,
  • a LinkedIn account, and
  • a Twitter account.

Dos and Don’ts

  • Do: Ask open ended questions, preferably with what and how and focus on them. For example: what are some interesting developments you saw in the field?

  • Do: Ask for the permission to send follow up questions/set up a chat over coffee if you had an in-depth conversation on a topic with a person.

  • Do: Let the other person talk and learn to listen without getting the last word.

  • Don’t: Avoid asking questions that can be answered by yes or no. They are the best way to shut down a conversation.

  • Don’t: Don’t be that needy person who goes around, hand out business cards, and ask for connection in an event before you have an in-depth discussion or conversation on anything.