Networking is the act of interacting with others who have common interests in order to develop your professional or social contacts. It allows us to maximise our opportunities in every stage of life, as we may be one person away from our dream job or project.
Networking is an important skill to develop for students as it opens you up to different opportunities and experiences and allows you to build relationships that may be mutually beneficial. This may be useful to you in sixth form when you're trying to secure work experience or volunteering opportunities, as a medical student when you want to secure research opportunities, or as a doctor when you perhaps want to try something in a completely different field. It's through meeting new people and putting yourself out there that you'll be able to develop and maintain meaningful and useful connections with people, both in a personal or professional setting.
The best way to start networking is to simply start where you are, by connecting with people you already know.
It is easy to think that networking is purely for academics or entrepreneurs, but really, we network every day. When you make close friends, you're developing your personal support network who look out for you. When you're on a sports team or hanging out with your classmates, you're developing your social network who will always be down for a good time. We are constantly surrounded by people, which means we are constantly surrounded by opportunity.
You might think you don't know anyone and have no idea where to start, especially if you're trying to build a professional network, but the best thing to do is start where you are. Talk to your friends, your teachers, your neighbours or your family friends about what you're interested in and hopefully someone will be able to help you. Or someone will know someone that can help you. Building a professional network feels more daunting because often the people you want to interact with are older or more knowledgeable than you - but it's the same skills that are required in building your personal or social network. You have to take an interest in them and their work and show that you're keen to get involved. Even if you don't think you have a lot to offer them in return, a lot of people are happy to help.
There are various ways you can build an academic or professional network during medical school. These can be through your tutors at university, by attending a range of events, or by connecting with people online, through LinkedIn or Twitter.
The easiest way to start growing your network at university is through your tutors and supervisors. Most students will be allocated a personal tutor - instead of just having a quick chat and getting your sign off, ask them more about what they do and take an interest. Tell them about what areas of medicine you're interested in (e.g. research, specialties, public health) and ask them if they know of any opportunities in that area. They probably have a larger network than you, so there's a good chance they might know someone that can help. And if they don't have anything at that moment, they'll remember your interest and keep it in mind for when something comes along.
As the year's progress, some of these tutors will move on. They might get a different role, or you might be assigned a different tutor. But your relationship with them doesn't have to stop there. So stay in touch with them, ask them about what they're doing, and keep them informed on your own progress!
By attending different events in your area of interest, you'll be exposed to more people who can provide you with knowledge, advice, or opportunities. These events might be in the form of talks, dinners, or conferences. Take the time to talk to people at the event - not just the experts and lecturers, but the people sitting next to you in the audience too. Don't be afraid to ask questions or hang back afterward to discuss anything further. If you've spoken to them, you're in a better position to then ask for their email address or connect with them on LinkedIn, and get in touch later down the line. It might be a few months later where you want to get in touch - and all you'd need to do is say something like, "Hello! My name is [insert name] and I'm a medical student at [insert university]. We met a few months ago at [insert event]" and then ask them whatever it is you'd like. They might not remember who you are exactly, but they'll certainly remember the event and would appreciate that you remembered them and got in touch!
Another way to build your professional network is actively seeking out people who work in your area of interest. For example, if you're particularly interested in cardiology and are looking for research opportunities in this area, find out who some of the influential academics are in this area. You can do this by seeing who the authors are for some of the popular research papers in this field. Once you find them, connect with them on LinkedIn or Twitter, and interact with them. Drop them a message to say you're really interested in their work, share your personal interest and experience, and tell them you'd love to be involved in some capacity. The worst thing they can do is say no or ignore you, but best case scenario? They take you under their wing and give you an opportunity to get involved. So you've got nothing to lose!
Skills that are important to develop to improve your networking skills include:
No, you absolutely don't have to build a professional network during medical school and the reality is, most students don't. At the end of the day, your goal is to become a doctor, so as long as you're doing everything you can to achieve that, everything else is optional really. It doesn't hurt to build a network during medical school and it might be worth you doing it as you go along - making that extra bit of effort each time you meet someone new or in your field of interest. But it's definitely hard to network as a student as most of the people you're surrounded with are students too, so don't put too much pressure on yourself to have a massive network now. You have the rest of your life to build it - so even making one or two contacts during medical school is excellent, and remember, they can be your favourite tutors!
To finish, here's a lovely quote that summarises the essence of networking and why it's probably worth your while: Networking is not about just connecting people. It’s about connecting people with people, people with ideas, and people with opportunities.