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Insights, tips, and tricks to build a professional network for success.

Palo Alto Networks Social Graphic 23

This blog originally appeared on RippleMatch on April 5, 2023.

As a college student or recent graduate, a strong professional network can jumpstart your career — from helping you discover new opportunities and career paths, to landing you an internship or job. In fact, in a recent LinkedIn survey, 73% of job seekers credited networking for helping them to get hired.

That’s because networking is critical for building a personal brand and gaining access to mentors who can help you reach your career goals. It enables you to form valuable relationships with professionals in the industry, and create a support system as you chase your dream career. 

It’s important to start networking as early as possible and take advantage of your connections. To help you get started, we sat down with Hailey Smyrniotis, who is a member of the early talent recruiting team at leading cybersecurity company Palo Alto Networks. Read on for her valuable insights into the value of networking and tips for growing your professional network.

1. Start by making connections on campus

You don’t have to look far to begin creating a strong professional network. In fact, your college or university is a terrific place to start! If you are a first or second-year student, it could be really helpful to form relationships with upper-level students who have some experience in your field of interest, especially those who may have interned at companies you’d like to connect with. 

“Join a club that relates to your major or a career interest so that you can start to build relationships that put you in the right direction,” Hailey suggested. 

Even engaging with your peers in class can benefit your future career, because you can tap into their networks as well, she added.

“Group projects are helpful outlets for connecting with peers, because they might have a parent, friend, or classmate who can help you get your foot in the door somewhere,” Hailey said.

But don’t stop there. Hailey shared that professors and professional staff at your college are other great resources you’ll want to add to your network, as they can serve as references for you and expose you to career opportunities you may not have even known existed.

“Be willing to participate in class, go to office hours, and seek out resources from career centers on campus to build meaningful relationships,” she added.

Once you’ve made those connections on campus, you’ll have a solid foundation to begin building out your network as you enter the professional world and begin interacting with professionals outside of your school.

2. Use social media platforms to expand your network

In addition to forming connections on campus, you can also broaden your network by taking your efforts online — especially on sites specifically created for professionals, like LinkedIn. To do so, you’ll first want to make sure that your profile is optimized and accurately reflects where you stand today in your career search, Hailey said. 

Here are some elements that Hailey suggests you invest some time in:

  • Add a banner and professional profile picture.
  • Add keywords to your headline that relate to a role you are searching for.
  • Have an eye-catching “about” section that expands on what’s already in your profile. Do not just repeat what already comes through in the experience section. 

Once you have that all set up, Hailey recommends “taking some time to post original content or share insightful stories that build on your personal brand.”

You’ll also want to begin “following” some of the companies you are interested in working for on LinkedIn, and recruiters and/or employees at those organizations. To stand out, be sure to interact with the content they share, in addition to asking them to “connect.” 

3. Show up to conversations prepared

Now that you understand a little more about how to grow your professional network, Hailey shared some tips with us for how to engage with new people in your network. 

First and foremost, Hailey said to always be your authentic self. 

“Authenticity is important, so embrace your unique self and lived experiences. Don’t forget that professionals are still people, and they want to get to know you,” she explained. “Depending on the context of the conversation, don’t be afraid to share your interests outside of your work.”

Additionally, being prepared for any conversation is key. If you arrange a time to chat with someone in your network who works at a company you are interested in, Hailey explains that it’s critical to research the company beforehand, adding that proper preparation lets the contact know that you care about the opportunity.

Hailey shared some ways to prepare, including checking out their careers page and social channels, and getting to know their opportunities, programs, and culture.

During the conversation, Hailey also recommends being an active listener, and following the “70-30 rule” — which means that you listen 70% of the time, and talk for 30% of the time. When it is your time to talk, be sure to ask thought-provoking, open-ended questions and listen carefully, showing you are genuinely interested in the person you are speaking with. 

Some examples include:

  • What does your day-to-day look like? 
  • What is the most challenging part of your role? 
  • What have you found surprising about your role? 
  • What skills do you recommend I build to be successful in this role? 

Preparation through research and knowing what you want to ask will make the experience much more enjoyable and worthwhile. 

Once the conversation is done, Hailey suggests following up the meeting with a thank you, and requesting to connect on LinkedIn if you haven’t already. When sending that request, it’s great to add a note referencing the recent discussion. This will leave a lasting impression and show that you were listening.

4. Remember you can still network on the job

Not only can networking help you find a role, but it can also help you advance in your career on the job. That’s because as you make more connections within your company, you’ll have more chances to learn about new opportunities that might be opening up that you might be interested in. Hailey noted that it’s important to network with everyone at your company, regardless of their division or role, because you never know what might come up that you’d be a good fit for.

“Ask mentors or managers who you can reach out to, and take on cross-functional projects when they come up,” Hailey suggested. That way, you can meet people outside your direct team and showcase your skills.

Plus, continuing to network on the job will also serve you well if you want to leave your current company to pursue other opportunities.

“Professional networking takes time and effort to blossom, just like relationships in your personal life,” Hailey said. “You never know when the next opportunity will arise too, and you want to stay top of mind if you start looking again.”

5. Keep your network engaged

Networking is a continuous process, and doesn’t end when you land an internship or job (as explained above). Therefore, it’s critical to stay connected and engage with your network over time. That could be anything from sending a news article to a contact you’ve met that you think might interest them via email or LinkedIn, to asking an upper-level student to grab coffee to ask questions about which classes to take to prepare for a job after graduation. The important thing is that you come prepared with something to chat about!   

Networking doesn’t have to be daunting. Now that you understand that you can begin building out your professional network right on campus, and can even use social media to expand it, you’re ready to start making those career-changing connections. Don’t forget to be yourself, be a good listener, and to keep your relationships strong through regular check-ins. Now it’s time to get out there!  

Interested in networking or finding career opportunities in the cybersecurity space? Learn more about the Palo Alto Networks team here.

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