You know the type. She knows every professor, is friendly with each classmate, and seems to have contacts in all the right places both nearby and far away. Maybe you don’t trust her motivations because she seems to be constantly “networking,” that dirty word applied to a person who is enviably connected.

For students and new professionals, networking may feel as unseemly as a politician working a room of pharmaceutical reps. And it may seem like only a politician or someone with a politician’s knack for hobnobbing can be good at networking. But career experts and academics say that networking is simply an investment in relationships. An investment that could pay high dividends throughout your career. And anyone can become good at networking, even if you feel like you have nothing in common with that classmate or coworker who seems to know everyone.

You can begin to change your attitude about networking by thinking of it as a two-way street. You are not contacting people just to ask for their help but to offer some kind of exchange.

“No one wants someone around them who is always asking and not wanting to do anything in return,” says George Fraser, speaker and author of Success Runs in Our Race. “You cannot effectively network unless you are ready to serve.”

Networking is not about asking others for handouts the perfect internship, the dream job, free advice—it’s about building relationships, offering your help to others, and gathering information that will set you apart from the competition.

Those who excel in their field know what steps are necessary to reach a particular level. They communicate with people in positions of power that they know are knowledgeable. So, being informed about your industry not only helps you create a career path, but it also shows others that you know what’s going on in your field.

When you’re a student facing graduation or a professional beginning a new job hunt, everyone from professors to colleagues to family and friends insist that you must network. Every book you read on job hunting will emphasize the importance of expanding your circle of contacts and offer impressive statistics about how few jobs are found through classified and online ads compared with how many are landed through personal connections.

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But reading about networking and actually doing it are two very different things, and many students and young professionals are loathe to network or are overwhelmed because they just don’t know how to get started.

Getting Started

Donna Fisher, certified speaking professional and author of Power Networking: How to Make Your Business, says you must begin with clear goals.

“You have to have self-awareness and clarity about what it is you want and need and awareness that there are people all around you who want and can help you,” says Fisher.

Even if you are unclear about what specialty or type of job you would like to pursue, know what you are seeking from your network. Maybe you are looking for help in deciding between two career paths; in this case, your goal might be to talk to as many people as possible about what those professions are like and which path might be wisest to follow based on the current job market or industry trends.

“Let people know you’re networking and researching possible career choices,” says Fisher. “Whatever it is you don’t have clarity on, let people know.”

Make a List

Next, start strategizing. Sit down and make a list of all the people who could help you gain more information about your field. This step can seem particularly overwhelming to students, who might feel like their network is limited to classmates and family. These are also good resources, but think about your parents’ friends, too. They don’t have to be influential medical practitioners; they could be friends who know someone else in your field or who know someone in the state where you are considering relocating.

Also, look at the people surrounding you in your everyday life. Start with your professors, academic advisor, former classmates who have graduated ahead of you, and even current classmates. If you have a job, even if it’s a part-time job unrelated to your field of study, ask your boss and coworkers who they know. Let’s say you’re interested in physical therapy. They might know a nurse at a local hospital, for example, who could connect you with a physical therapist, your ideal contact.

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The point is to be creative about your network; think of everyone you know as a potential connection to your ideal contact.

“I promise, that for whatever you want or need, there is a steppingstone person: professors, recent grads, etc.” says Fisher.

Be sure to include in your list of contacts your professors and other school resources.

“Set up appointments with faculty who can help match your interests and skills with those used in a particular profession,” says Dr. Harold Jones, dean of the School of Health Related Professions at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Go Back to School

Once you have made a list of people you already know, you may be surprised by how many people are already in your network. As you talk to your inner circle about your career goals and your questions, consider ways to take full advantage of existing resources at your college or university.

If a clinical rotation is part of your school’s program, be sure to contact the clinical coordinator early on during your time in the program.

“[Students] need to sit with that clinical coordinator and say ‘I would really like to practice in this area,’ or ‘I’m really interested in going back to this city or this particular hospital or rehabilitation center,’” says Jones. “If you talk to the clinical coordinator early in the process, that person has an opportunity to find a placement for you.”

In the end, good networking really translates into taking initiative and devising a plan. This doesn’t mean you must have your whole career figured out by the time you’re done. Your goal is to gather enough information to figure out what you want to do in the short run and still leave yourself plenty of good options for later.

“You don’t have to sit down in one session and figure out what you’re going to do for the rest of your life,” Jones says. “The really difficult situation is when you just let things happen to you,” she adds. “Then you’re in the position of taking the first job that’s offered.”

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Not sure where you want to work or in what specialty? Discuss your options with your coordinator and others in your network. Talk about what your strengths are, what kinds of tasks you enjoy, and what you know you do not want to do. Because you have planned ahead and landed a clinical experience that fits your needs, you will have better opportunities to talk to practitioners who work in your field and can offer good advice and, possibly, a job lead or two.

Jones also advises shadowing a practitioner in the field so that you can get a first-hand look at what the day-to-day work is really like. See if faculty and other staff can connect you with a practitioner who would be willing to spend a few hours with you on the job.

“More students leave [a job] because they realize it’s not what they want to do, not because they can’t do the work,” says Jones. “If you’re thinking about going into [a particular profession] you ought to spend at least half a day with an individual who does that job.”

Another great way to take advantage of all that your school has to offer is to attend career days and alumni events. Also consider joining a professional association and going to a regional or national meeting. Dr. Stephen Wilson, director of the School of Allied Medical Professions at Ohio State University, says that association meetings can be a great way to meet practitioners who are doing what you aspire to do.

If you are graduating or have already graduated, be sure to stay in touch with faculty and advisors from your program. Wilson also recommends frequently updating your address and email with your school’s alumni association.

“[Alumni] should make sure they are connected back to their programs, letting the programs know when they change jobs,” says Wilson. “We lose them if they change jobs or move to a new city.”

Do Good Work

One way to expand your network and make a good impression is by volunteering.

“As a young person, I spent hours and hours volunteering,” says networking expert George Fraser. “As a result, people took a liking to me.”

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This principle of giving and helping might go against everything you ever thought about networking, but it is a central theme experts discuss when defining networking. Fisher says that reframing your approach to networking so that you see it as an opportunity to share and give rather than a ploy to make false connections to get a job will also help change how you feel the next time you make a call to a contact.

Remembering that you have something to offer others makes dreaded phone calls to people you don’t know easier. Fisher advises doing research about the person and, if relevant, their employer. For example, if you’re contacting an occupational therapist at a local rehabilitation center, learn as much as you can about the center and their patients. The more you know about someone and their work, the more genuinely interested you will be when you start up a conversation. Your questions will come more naturally and be more specific, which shows people that not only are you interested, but you are not calling to waste their time.

Also, keep in mind that your contact may need your help. “It is very important to be willing to be a resource,” says Fisher.

At first, it might seem unlikely that you could offer help to someone you are hoping can help you. But maybe they have a son or daughter who is looking at colleges, and you might be able to help with information about your program. Or maybe the person you are calling is on a committee for a charitable organization and needs volunteers. You won’t know unless you ask questions, sound interested and listen carefully.

“You want to find out everything you can about them,” says Fraser. “Asking interesting, engaging questions. When you express interest in someone else, they become interested in you.”

Perhaps most importantly, remember that every job- or volunteering experience is an opportunity to meet new people, learn from them, and impress others with your hard work.

“If you’re going to work or volunteer, do it well,” says Fraser. If you can go above and beyond the call of duty—stand out a little—you will never have to worry about competition.”

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Don’t be Afraid to Ask for Help

If the prospect of making phone calls to people you don’t know still sends you rushing to find household cleaning projects rather than face your list of contacts, remember that this is not an exercise where you can really fail. Fisher and Fraser both say that one reason people may avoid making those calls is a fear of rejection. Just remember that most people want to help and will be glad to answer your questions or point you to someone who can.

“It is human nature for people to want to help and contribute,” says Fisher. “If you have a call that didn’t go well, learn from it.

“Asking is not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of strength. The people who have been very successful have asked for a lot along the way.”

How to Find a Mentor

The same principles of networking apply to finding a mentor. Here are some key pointers:

• Be clear about what you want. Is it your priority to live in a small town? A big, but safe, city? What would be your ideal position?

• Ask a professor or other school contact for help—Tell your contacts that you are looking for a mentor. Do they know anyone who would be helpful and who would want to be a mentor?

• Join professional associations—Go to an association meeting and find ways to get involved, such as sitting on a committee, so that you can develop relationships with more established practitioners.

• Approach and acknowledge the person for who they are—Tell your prospective mentor why you’ve chosen them. “I value who you are as a person and what you’ve done as a medical practitioner, and I wanted to see if you’d be interested in having a conversation about being my mentor.”

• Get referrals—If the person you’ve asked doesn’t have time, do they know someone else who might?

—Tips from Donna Fisher,

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