Networking for engineers: your questions answered
Networking is about interacting with people to exchange useful information and contacts. It is a great way for university students to meet a variety of people in the engineering industry, from recruiters and executives to graduates and other undergraduates. It can also help you to:
- get advice on how to get an internship or graduate job, including writing a CV and attending assessment centres
- find out about job opportunities, including those that aren’t widely advertised
- get insider information about the engineering industry – and individual companies – that isn’t available online, including current trends and challenges
- build your confidence and communication skills in a professional setting
Crucially, networking is about maintaining strong relationships with your contacts by keeping in touch, not speaking to somebody once. It’s also not a one-way street – it’s about offering help as well as taking it. While it’s likely that you’ll be getting more help than you’re giving for the time being, this will change as you gain some experience. Master the art of how to network now and you’ll thank yourself in 20 years’ time.
Who can I include in my professional network?
Before you look at expanding your professional network, think about who you already know. This could include:
- family and family friends
- friends on your course (you might not be able to help each other now, but you may be able to in the future)
- university housemates
- fellow society or sports team members
- friends from home
- old school teachers, particularly those who taught you maths and science
- university alumni
- lecturers, placement officers and careers advisers in your department
- line managers and colleagues from any previous work experience
If anybody you know works in engineering, ask if they’d be willing to offer you some advice and answer any questions. Even if somebody doesn’t work in the industry, it’s worth mentioning your career aspirations if you get the chance. They may know somebody else who can help.
What networking opportunities are available to engineers?
Look out for the following events at university:
- careers fairs
- employer talks or presentations
- guest lectures
- workshops or skills sessions run by recruiters
A lot of engineering students join an engineering professional body as a student member – and it’s a good idea to do so. Members can attend events including technical lectures, competitions, technical visits, seminars and social events.
TARGETjobs also runs two annual events that will help you network:
You should also talk to your lecturers. It’s common for them to keep in contact with former colleagues in the industry and former students. If one of their connections is doing a job that interests you, they may be able to introduce you. The careers advisers and placement officers in your department are usually in touch with recruiters, current placement students and university alumni, too. Most universities also have an official alumni network – make sure you join it after you graduate.
What about online networking?
If you haven’t already, join LinkedIn. You can join engineering-specific groups, follow engineering employers and professional bodies and participate in discussions.
Connect with people you know (fellow students, recent graduates and colleagues you met on work experience), but be cautious about asking to connect with somebody you haven’t met, for example an engineer whose work interests you. The golden rules here are:
- Don’t just send connection requests to everybody you find. Only ask to connect if you’d genuinely like to talk to them.
- Always send a customised message explaining how you found their profile and why you’d like to connect. For example, would you like to ask them about the area of engineering that they’ve specialised in? You’ll need to go to the person’s profile and click on ‘connect’ to do this.
While recruitment consultants are keen to connect with students, graduate recruiters who work for individual engineering companies often don’t want to. It’s best to meet them in person at careers events and ask whether they’d be happy to connect with you.
- You’ll need to make sure your own profile is up to scratch. Follow our six steps to getting an all-star LinkedIn profile.
You can also use Twitter to follow engineering employers, professional bodies and other relevant engineering accounts. Get involved by sending relevant tweets, re-tweeting others and using relevant #hashtags. This is also the best place to follow well known CEOs and engineers (often called industry influencers).
How can I prepare for engineering networking events?
- If multiple organisations are attending an event, identify which ones you want to talk to.
- Once you know who you will be talking to, do some research. This will stop you asking questions that can be answered by a Google search.
- For an employer, browse its website to find out what it does, what roles it offers, deadlines and the recruitment process as a bare minimum. If you’ll be talking to an individual (such as a guest speaker), look at their LinkedIn page, Twitter feed and their employer’s website.
- Prepare a list of questions you could ask.
- Take a notepad and pen to the event so you can write down the names and contact details of people you meet and any useful information they give you.
What should I wear to a networking event?
For formal events, dress as you would for an interview. For events such as careers fairs, smart casual is fine.
How should I introduce myself to people?
Shake the person’s hand and introduce yourself. Keep it short and to the point: tell them your name, your degree, your university (if it isn’t obvious) and what you want to talk to them about.
For example, ‘Hello, I’m Sarah Williams and I’m a second-year mechanical engineering student at the University of Nottingham. I’d like to work in renewable energy after I graduate and I was hoping to find out a bit more about your placement year opportunities.’
Or, ‘Hi, I’m Matthew Jones and I’m a first-year engineering student at the University of Bristol. I’m currently narrowing down which area of engineering I’m interested in and I’m hoping to find out a bit more about the aerospace industry.’
How many people should I talk to?
You should talk to more than one person (you don’t want to monopolise them for the entire event) but don’t make it your mission to talk to everybody in the room. ‘Don’t just network for the sake of seeing how many business cards or LinkedIn connections you can get. That isn’t the way you meet people and get to know them,’ says Patrick Clarke, director of network operations at UK Power Networks.
It’s better to have in-depth conversations with fewer people and come away with some valuable information and advice than to have lots of brief conversations full of small talk.
The variety of people you speak to is more important than the number of people. Engineering employers usually send both recruiters and graduates to careers fairs for a reason, so don’t just make a beeline for the recruiters. The graduates are the ones who have been through the application process and are doing the job you want to do.
What should I talk about?
The good thing about networking is that it involves less talking and more listening. You’ll need to ask the right questions, though. You could ask about the person’s job, the graduate recruitment process, the skills and qualities needed, current trends in the industry, a recent news story and so on.
Ask open questions that require a more detailed answer than yes or no, for example ‘What do you enjoy about your work?’ or ‘What do you think is a challenge in the industry at the moment?’. It’s also important to think about who you are talking to; it’s no use asking a recruiter a technical question or what their day-to-day job involves.
It’s fine to jump straight in and ask about whatever topic you want to discuss, so don’t feel you have to make small talk about, say, the weather first. However, if you happen to hit on a topic you’re both interested in during a conversation, such as tennis or travel, it’s fine to chat about this briefly.
How can I make a good first impression?
- Approach employers on your own rather than with a group of friends. This shows recruiters that you are a capable, independent individual and you are more likely to be remembered.
- Speak to the employer before you pick up the freebies. It’s likely that they’ll encourage you to take the free USB stick or sweets, but it will look much better if you engage with them first.
- If you’re waiting to speak to somebody, don’t be tempted to get your phone out and scroll through Facebook to look busy.
- Be polite and courteous: don’t interrupt other students or skip the queue.
- End your conversations by thanking people for their time and advice. If you’d like to and you’ve built up enough rapport, ask if they’d be willing to connect with you on LinkedIn.
- Don’t ask for a job or internship. Employers understand that most students network because they’re looking for a job, but they probably won’t appreciate you asking for one straight out.
How can I stay in touch with the people I meet?
If you’ve exchanged contact details with somebody, drop them a line shortly after the event to say it was nice to meet them. You could continue the conversation if you didn’t manage to finish your talk or ask any other questions that have come to mind since you spoke. If they agreed to send you some more information or put you in contact with somebody else, gently remind them.
You can then get in touch in the future if you would like some more information or advice. If it’s very important for you to stay in touch with this person, you might want to send a catch-up email every few months to ensure you don’t lose contact.
Remember to keep in contact with your line manager and colleagues from your work experience, too. Drop them a line periodically and update them on your progress.