Career Development, the U.S. Job Search, and International Students: Confusion and Anxiety Regarding Networking and Building Professional Relationships (Post 3)

Ross WadeRoss Wade, assistant director of career services, Duke University Career Center
Personal blog: http://mrrosswade.wordpress.com/
LinkedIn URL: https://www.linkedin.com/in/rosswade
Twitter: @rrwade
Blogs from Ross Wade.

A couple of days ago I had a career advising session with an international student. He was very anxious and was “losing a lot of sleep” over the fact that he had graduated a month ago, had not found a job, and was worried he would not find anything in the United States by the time his optional practical training (OPT) started in the next few weeks. I had seen this student several times before, and his resume was strong, and he had substantial experience that would make him a strong candidate for various opportunities in environmental engineering. I asked him to tell me about his job search.

“I spend hours looking and applying to jobs online,” he said. “I’ve applied to over 50 jobs in the past month, and I’ve heard nothing back. I don’t understand what I’m doing wrong. Will you look at my resume again?”

I reviewed his resume again. Yep…it still looked good. I asked him if he had done any networking.

“Oh yes, I’ve used LinkedIn and the alumni database to find contacts at companies with open jobs,” he said. “I reach out to them. In my e-mails I introduce myself and ask them to refer me for the position or tell me about any other opportunities.”

I hear this all of the time. In my experience many international students feel very uncomfortable networking for various reasons:

1. They lack confidence in their English language skills;

2. The job search in their home country does not necessitate “networking”—in fact employers may reach out to them to offer positions;

3. They are unaware of resources to use to find alumni or networking leads;

4. They don’t understand the nuts and bolts of networking, and that it is a long-term process with the goal of developing relationships that later lead to jobs. (And this isn’t just an issue with international students; it is an issue for ALL students.)

In order to motivate international students to start networking early (and not view networking as a last-minute, short-term thing), I try to reframe what networking is to them. I tell them that networking is about learning and serving through creating and sustaining professional relationships. I also use a bank analogy that seems to resonate with them. I tell them, “Networking is like creating a bank account, you must make deposits before you can make a withdrawal. Bank accounts, like professional relationships, grow with time and investment.”

Instead of “networking” I use the phrase “information gathering” with students, highlighting how to begin a professional relationship by learning from someone else (e.g., alumni, professionals) via informational interviews. I talk with them about asking the interviewee questions that will create future opportunities to serve them (i.e., sending the interviewee relevant articles or updates on how their feedback has helped).

Now…I know most of you reading this post are, like, “Duh…Ross. I already understand what networking is. Give me some tips I can use!”

I hear ya! Check out some ideas I’ve tried with some success below.

Networking Workshop Activity:

Have students search for a company of interest via an alumni database or LinkedIn, read about the company, find alumni working there, and create a list of questions (not only about the company, but the contact as well) to ask at an informational interview. Then pair the students up, and have them critique each other’s questions.

Next, bring everyone back into a large group and debrief and review some of the questions. Use prompts like: Which questions are the best? Are the questions open-ended, allowing the interviewee to provide plenty of information in her/his response? What questions best create space to serve the interviewee later?

After the question activity, have the students (individually) draft their own informational interview e-mail request. Ask them to pair up and share and critique. Next, bring everyone back into a large group to discuss.

Finally, ask students to create a basic timeline (by month), of when and how to follow up. This will be a very loose timeline as they don’t have an actual “real person” to create the timeline for at this point.

Students will leave feeling more confident now that they have tools, and an action plan to begin networking. I’ve also found adding a small panel of senior international students, that have successfully networked before, answer questions and serve as facilitators during discussions is very helpful (and proves that networking works!).

 Employer Relations Program Idea:

In my experience, most international students really dislike the “cattle call” style career fairs. They don’t feel comfortable with small talk, and feel that talking about themeselves is actually bragging. Overall they feel like they don’t get a chance to really show employers their skills in a meaningful and authentic way. In an effort to help international students connect with employers better (and with incredible support from my manager and colleagues), I tried a different type of employer engagement program, based on the good old science fair (yep—I went old skool, y’all!).

I targeted electrical and computer engineering (ECE) students, and sent them an e-mail about an opportunity to share their most exciting class projects with employers. Students had to sign up, send an abstract about their project, send their resume or LinkedIn URL, and show up the day of the event ready (with their project or poster) to engage with employers and talk about their work.

I also facilitated a networking lunch with the students, employers, faculty, and staff. I scheduled the event, the “Electrical and Computer Engineering Showcase”, the day before the spring career fair to maximize employer attendance. I sent a personal invite to ECE employers (those that had already registered for the career fair AND local companies) to attend this event at no charge to them, and told them to feel free to bring along any alumni working at their company.

The employers loved the idea, and many signed up to attend. The day of the event employers visited every student table to talk about the student projects. I collected feedback from the employers on the students’ conversational skills and projects and asked if, based on the students’ projects, if they’d ever consider hiring one of these new grads (and more than 70 percent said they would!). The employers and students both really enjoyed the event. One student said, “I really had a chance to shine today. We are doing this again next year, right?!”

Share your ideas and strategies for helping international students better understand networking.

This is part three of a series. Don’t miss parts one and two.

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