Networking is the practice of getting to know other people in professional contexts. Unfortunately, the term often elicits fairly strong, negative reactions from first-time jobseekers, because they incorrectly associate it with schmoozing. Networking, however, is the single most important step you can take when looking for new professional opportunities. By building and growing a professional network, you meet like-minded people who share your interests and aspirations; learn more about the companies and organizations that operate in the fields that interest you; and sometimes get the inside scoop on job openings. For these reasons, you need to be networking. We’ll teach you how to do it effectively.

First, a few basic things about networking:

Definitely do network. People like to hire people they already know or who connect with them by way of someone else they already know. For this reason alone, you should be networking. Moreover, most people are eager to pass along news about job openings to colleagues and young professionals, which is another reason why you need to start building your professional network.

Networking is not schmoozing. When done poorly, networking comes across as a slimy game that suck-ups play to get ahead. When done well, it comes across as a conversation between like-minded professionals who have similar career interests and goals.

Networking is about getting to know other people. Networking is about meeting and getting to know other human beings who are broadly interested in the same things as you. By focusing on the individual first, you’ll come across as a serious young professional interested in learning about other fields, rather than a sleazeball hoping to score a job. While you may in fact be on the lookout for a new job, the main goal of any networking conversation should be to become acquainted with the person who is across the table from you or on the other end of the phone line.

You’re probably already a skilled networker. If you’ve ever talked with people at academic conferences, collaborated on papers and projects, chatted after a lecture in your department, or attended a grad student party, then you’re already an experienced networker. In other words, you’ve already been meeting and getting to know other like-minded individuals in professional contexts. And, since most academics know and work with professionals outside of academia, your academic contacts will serve as the foundation of an excellent professional network that extends beyond academia.

Never ask anyone for a job. This is the number one rule of networking, and it bears repeating: never, ever ask anyone for a job, no matter the circumstances. Asking someone for a job shuts doors rather than opens them.

Sign up for LinkedIn. LinkedIn is like Facebook for the “friends” in your professional network, but it’s also a valuable tool that enables you to connect to new professional contacts. We talk more about how to use and get the most out of LinkedIn elsewhere, but it’s worth mentioning here that LinkedIn can be an excellent tool when used correctly.

Practice makes perfect. The more you network, the easier and more natural it becomes. And if you pursue your genuine interests, networking also becomes fun, since you’ll be meeting people who get inspired and motivated by the same things as you.