Career Center

Wooden latter standing straight

Clinical psychology doctoral student Ken Liberatore isn't shy when it comes to networking, whether it's schmoozing with psychologists at conferences, joining them at advocacy events or making small talk during chance meetings aboard a plane. Already, his professional network has helped him land a practicum, two internships and leadership and research opportunities in graduate school.

"Networking has been an important part in shaping my professional identity," says Liberatore, a fifth-year doctoral student at Alliant International University in Los Angeles. "Getting outside of the classroom shortens that gap between us and actual psychologists."

And one relationship often leads to others. When he interviewed for a practicum position, the supervisor was an alumni of his school and a former chair of the California Psychological Association of Graduate Students (CPAGS)--a position that Liberatore now holds. That instant connection helped him stand out among other applicants and secure the placement.

Eventually, he discovered that same supervisor was a former intern at Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles--where Liberatore wanted to apply for a half-time internship. His supervisor wrote him a letter of recommendation, which he says helped him land the position.

Recently, when Liberatore applied for a full-time internship, he found yet another connection: His Twin Towers supervisor was a former intern at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles and still conducts assessments there.

"Those connections gave me a foot in the door," says Liberatore, who started that internship in October.

Once your qualifications meet the organization's basic criteria, "knowing somebody really does help," he says.

In fact, if you don't schmooze, you may lose, experts say. Building contacts can not only lead to internship, practicum and research collaboration opportunities in graduate school but also to postgraduate job openings.

Indeed, about 31 percent of recent psychology doctorate recipients report the most successful method of finding a job is through informal channels, such as networking with professors, colleagues and friends, according to APA's 2003 Doctorate Employment Survey.

How can you build a network? Experts suggest students seek opportunities to meet new people, overcome their nerves, do some research to initiate contact effectively and follow up so they aren't forgotten.


SEEK OUT OPPORTUNITIES

Students don't have to go far to build a network.

Molly Clark, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the department of family medicine at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, periodically contacts past advisers, supervisors and fellow classmates to expand her professional network.

"If people know where you are located and your career goals, they can be an extra set of eyes and ears to locate opportunities," Clark says. Too often, she says, these are the easiest and most underused sources for information and connections.

Stretch beyond your comfort zone too, says the APA Science Directorate's senior scientist, Clare Porac, PhD, who has spoken at career workshops. Porac encourages students to go beyond their department and intermingle across psychology and occupational fields. Why? Many academic positions seek applicants who have broad experiences, and it's important for research collaboration and in business settings that students understand and appreciate diversity, Porac says.

Experts also offer the following ideas to build a network:

  • Join local, state and national professional organizations, such as the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students, your state psychological association and APA divisions. Then, join one of the group's committees, such as its membership outreach committee, so you have ample opportunities to connect with members, suggests psychologist Lynn Friedman, PhD, a career consultant and associate faculty member at Johns Hopkins University.

  • Attend conferences, workshops, community events and department colloquium series. Better yet, get on the committee that organizes these so you can meet the speakers.

  • Join listservs and mentoring programs. For example, APA sponsors several listservs for students and early-career psychologists at APA APAGS Listserv. (For more on mentoring programs, see the January 2005 gradPSYCH issue.)

"No one is going to seek you out as a graduate student," Porac says. "You are going to have to seek out the opportunities yourself."


GET PAST HANG UPS

However, fear of embarrassment or of being rejected can hold students back from making connections, says Pauline Wallin, PhD, a private practitioner in Camp Hill, Pa., who often provides career guidance to students.

To curb your nerves, start out by tagging along with outgoing students or your adviser.

Once you gain some confidence, strike out on your own by focusing networking on specific tasks. Volunteer for the faculty search committee or an association's advocacy event, for example. Indeed, successful networking relationships are often built on trust, which can be spurred by working with others on projects and committees, according to researchers Monica Forret, PhD, and Sherry Sullivan, PhD, in an article about networking in Organizational Dynamics (Vol. 31, No. 3, pages 245-258).

Once you're in a situation to tap contacts for advice, what do you say? Some tips to initiating contact include:

  • Have a 16-second networking speech. Don't just say you're "Jane Smith, a graduate student," but reveal more about yourself and your interests, Wallin says. For example, "Most people don't like dealing with troubled youth, but I find them fascinating." Then, follow it up with a question tailored to the person you're speaking to, such as "Do you ever see kids like that?" You'll reveal something interesting about yourself and also spur a conversation with the other person.

"At this point, you don't have a reputation or specialty, but you do have a personality," Wallin says.

  • Ask what they do. People love to talk about themselves. One approach: Wallin used to ask people if they'd always known they wanted to be in their current line of work. If they said "No," then she'd ask how they got there.

"Asking people for a story can be very powerful," Wallin explains.

Also, after a lecture, you might ask speakers to send you some of their research. If you've studied the topic too, briefly share some of your findings.

  • Stay on point. Wallin says she responds to direct e-mails, such as ones that read in the subject line, "Dr. X interested in your research" rather than the vague "I have a question." Also, she prefers short paragraphs of no more than four or five lines, not long rambles.

Even so, "You won't get lengthy responses or it might take two weeks for them to respond," says Joshua Rosenthal, a fifth-year clinical psychology doctoral student at Long Island University, who has landed practicum positions and grown his company, TherapyMatch.com, from networking. Don't assume they are brushing you off if you don't hear back right away, but realize they may be busy, Rosenthal says. Make it easy for them to respond, such as with specific questions that fit their interests and expertise, he adds.

  • Arrange an informational interview. Ask if you can learn more about what they do by visiting their lab or meeting them at their office for 15 minutes. Such encounters are great opportunities to make a lasting impression.

That's what David Cades did, and, he says, it helped him land his top choice for graduate school-George Mason University's human factors and applied cognition program. Before he applied, he arranged to meet the head of the graduate department and several students at a national conference and visited the research lab.


MAINTAIN CONTACT

Once you've identified common interests, follow up with an e-mail or phone call every few months, Friedman suggests. For example, you might send them congratulations on their accomplishments, keep them apprised of yours or forward them an occasional research study or news story that pertains to their interests.

"That keeps your name there," Wallin says. "You aren't asking for something then, but you are giving something."

However, networking isn't just a means to employment. You network throughout your career to forge better connections with individuals in your field, Porac adds.

"Sometimes you will be successful, sometimes not," she says. "But put yourself out there."

When you do, you'll create a strong support system that can also provide you with the reinforcement and confidence you need to help get you through the stresses of graduate school, Liberatore says.

"There are other students that when they come to the end of graduate school, I get the feeling from them that they haven't had the experience that I've had," he notes. "They feel isolated and kind of left out there, not knowing which direction to go. The route I've taken has prepared me for what I know is going to be ahead of me. The support is so vital."


Melissa Dittmann Tracey is a writer in Chicago.

“No one is going to seek you out as a graduate student. You are going to have to seek out the opportunities yourself.”

Clare Porac
APA Science Directorate