Networking – how to persevere without being a pest


You’ve found someone you think could help with your career, your degree or your research. You’ve steeled yourself to approach them – and you’ve been knocked back, or simply ignored. What do you do?

“Networking” can be daunting for many postgraduates but it’s an important skill which can improve your chances of finding specialist jobs in your field or exploring alternative careers. It’s also critical if you want to become a successful academic – other academics need to know you and your work if you want an academic career.

It’s a risky stance to decide that networking isn’t for you and just to give up, but you don’t want to be seen as a pest. Here are some suggestions for learning how to get it right next time, if you’ve just been knocked back:

Does the person you approached know you, or were you “cold calling” them?

  • If they don’t know you, don’t be surprised if they ignore you – would you respond to a random person contacting you out of the blue wanting advice on doing a postgraduate degree? Cold calling sometimes works, but it’s a (very) long shot.
  • Did you make it clear why you chose to contact them? Try getting a friend to look at any text you sent – get them to review it from the point of view of the person receiving it.
  • Could you try again but see if a mutual contact could introduce you? That may be more fruitful.

You’ve met someone before and approached them later for some advice or help

  • When you approached them, did you remind them of your meeting? They may simply have forgotten you – it’s always courteous to remind them of where you’ve met before.
  • Remember that having attended a talk or seminar by someone isn’t the same as having met them. You know who they are, but to them, you may just be a face in the crowd, or the nameless person who kept asking questions. Turn it into a more memorable encounter by introducing yourself afterwards and talking to them – try asking them face-to-face if you could follow up on some points with them later. Then, you’ll have a reason to keep the contact going.

No reply to your email?

  • Some people can receive 100+ emails a day – it can be very easy to get relegated to the “deal with it later” pile, especially if they don’t know you, and that “deal with it later” pile will quickly get submerged under tomorrow’s 100+ emails.
  • Try a different approach – phone them, if they’re on campus you could “drop by” their office/lab (but don’t expect a long meeting there and then – aim for setting a time to talk at a later date), get a mutual friend to introduce you – or even try snail mail. Receiving a real letter can be a novelty nowadays, so you may stand out. However, do give them your phone and email contact details, or even follow up with a phone call or email, where you can remind them of the letter.

They seem vague or reluctant to help?

  • Were you clear about what you wanted? It’s a fine line between not wanting to impose on someone and not telling them what you would like. Get a friend to check your “pitch” to see if they can figure out what you want.
  • Are they too busy to give you what you asked for? Ask if there might be a better time – make sure you offer to fit round them.
  • Make sure you’re only asking for an easily manageable amount of time – 20 minutes is often long enough to get some real value from a meeting but not too long to sound off-putting. Could you offer to meet them outside their normal working day? Offer to buy them coffee before they start work, or lunch, or a quick after-work meeting.
  • Maybe they don’t have the expertise you seek, or just don’t want to take on another person to help – or maybe they see you as a potential competitor? Often the reason isn’t anything wrong with you or your pitch – it’s them! You could ask if they could recommend someone else you should talk to, or you could give up graciously and try someone else.

For a lot of people, networking isn’t something that comes naturally, but it is something you can learn to do better. The first step is to forgive yourself for not being perfect, dust yourself down and try a different approach.

I’d love to hear any other suggestions, questions or advice – just drop me a comment (below).

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