This morning, I participated in a faculty panel for undergrad students transferring into our CS major. Each faculty was given some time to say a few words before doing a Q&A session, and since I didn’t want to overwhelm students with a long laundry list of advice, I gave a very brief speech and focused on a single topic, which I have come to believe is one of the most important things students should work on during their time here: that is, growing their professional network.
This article is an approximate transcription of what I explained this morning, in the hope that it can help other students in the future.
The best job search experience one can have is when you don’t actually have to search for a job. For example, a connection of yours directly reaches out to you when they have or hear about a job opportunity (this is how I got into a PhD program); or you reach out to your connections when looking for a job, which often allows you to bypass the standard application process. This is only possible when you have a professional network in place.
Another reason is related to grad school. Applications for grad school require (strong) letters of recommendations, which again require you to have an existing professional network, ideally including faculty and industry references.
One last reason is making sure that you expand your horizon, in other to find what you aspire to do with your life. This morning, I joked that maybe a few of the students will figure out by the end of their coursework that they hate CS and would rather go raise some goats in the middle of nowhere. Nothing wrong with that, and truth be told: I didn’t even invent this example, I do have a friend with a PhD in CS who has been living on a farm and making goat cheese for the past 10 years! What matters in this story is that he surely didn’t figure out this alternate life plan all by himself, he instead met other people who showed him what other careers could look like.
While in school, students can grow their professional networks in at least 3 different directions.
Students can create strong connections with their fellow students, which is probably the easiest direction of all three.
While other students will probably not be appropriate references for letters of recommendations, they will definitely be helpful during one’s career. As explained above, having connections in other companies/universities can make the job searching a lot easier down the line.
To meet students, get engaged in various activities:
- First, you can meet your classmates and study together.
- Second, you can join clubs or events related to your discipline, participate in hackathons, etc.
- Finally, you can go to social events that are not necessarily to your discipline, to meet people with other perspectives.
Students can also try their best to connect with faculty during their time in school.
Faculty can be tremendously helpful at different steps of one’s career:
- At the beginning, to act as a reference for jobs, to reach out to their own professional network and help someone find a job (I’ve done that multiple times for students I knew very well when I had the opportunity).
- When going to grad school, strong letters of recommendation from faculty will be what makes the difference.
- More generally, faculty can be good mentors to have throughout one’s career.
Meeting faculty is often less difficult than it seems. First, you can try to connect with instructors when taking a class with them, by asking questions, going to office hours, etc. Second, many instructors do research or lead various projects, and they typically recruit students to work on these. So try and apply to these positions when they are available, or ask directly your instructors if they are looking for students.
Students should try to have multiple internship experiences before they graduate.
The most obvious reason is that internships are great ways to put into practice what students have learned in class and they add very valuable lines on one’s resume. But through internships, students are also likely to meet industry mentors, who can endorse more of less the same role as faculty mentors (e.g., act as references for jobs, help find jobs, write letters of recommendation, etc.)
Internships can be hard to get by, so patience is required. I’ve heard horror stories of students sending hundreds of applications, but eventually it seems to work out most of the time. You can usually apply directly with companies, but make sure you are familiar with what your campus offers as well: e.g., career fairs, websites with internship postings, etc.
In my experience, your GPA is useful for just a couple of things: getting your first job or your first internship (because your resume is empty of any meaningful experiences, and the GPA is the only tangible information recruiters can rely on), and going to grad school. Otherwise, once you’ve had a couple meaningful work experiences, your GPA quickly falls into oblivion.
On the other hand, your professional network can be helpful throughout your entire career, from before your very first job to after your last one!
So my advice is this: start cultivating your professional network as soon as you can and give it the priority that it deserves, even if it means focusing a bit less on your coursework and grades.