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The way of professional networking has been portrayed as 'helping others', for example by supporting them professionally and making them look good, and hoping that someday in the future the goodwill will be returned. I see this as consciously letting myself be used, especially by those higher up in the hierarchy.

But by doing so I sacrifice my energy and time that I could have invested in pursuing my own dreams, e.g. building up my expertise in my field of work (I'm a engineer/scientist in industry).

To me it seems less risky to invest my time there rather than in networking as there is no guarantee that the goodwill would ever be returned. I have seen bosses use juniors to achieve their own ends without supporting the juniors' career growth in turn.

I want to find a way to network without the risk of deviating from my own professional advancement. I'm not willing to go outside of my area of expertise for networking and I'm afraid that networking could bring me more harm than good if I don't do it right.

I do believe in the power of networking. But I'm a bit confused: are there ways to get the best of both worlds? How can I network and at the same time advance my professional capability?

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    Maybe I'm wrong, but I always thought professional networking is about knowing others, and make yourself known to others in the industry. Yes, information sharing is one aspect, but I can't really wrap my head around how "working for someone" is directly linked with networking. Dec 27, 2022 at 9:37
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    Also, marketing and networking are nonlinear processes. They do not have a direct link between action and results. However, those who do more marketing and networking actions tend to get more results. Sometimes the results take years to appear.
    – David R
    Dec 27, 2022 at 15:07
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    Another way of "helping others" is to educate them. It is not necessary to do unpaid work for others. Helping other understand what you do is sufficient.
    – David R
    Dec 27, 2022 at 15:08
  • @DavidR, thanks, I appreciate your insight! :)
    – Student
    Dec 29, 2022 at 2:56

4 Answers 4

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One way to network is to seek out others in your field/position. These can be local connections or broad connections. The network can even be inside your company, or within your project.

The idea is to establish connections that can move your career forward. By being a known entity you can be recommended for new positions, and opportunities. You can also use the connections to recommend others for opportunities that appear.

You can even be a part of multiple networks, because you aren't just a engineer. You may work inside another industry, you work for an employer, or a customer that might have their own networks. You can even network based on where you live.

How you network depends on your skills, comfort level, and how much time you have available. You can network passively, or actively. You can be an observer, a participant, or an organizer.

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    For instance, getting lunch with former colleagues once a month is networking. You're making sure they remember you exist, so if they're looking for a good candidate in the future, they'll think of you. These lunches can be entirely social calls, but they're excellent networking tools. Dec 27, 2022 at 17:50
  • @RobinClower, that's an interesting point of view too.
    – Student
    Jan 3, 2023 at 5:46
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Yes, most networking involves you helping other people. But the thing is, that help (which is genuine and they appreciate) is not a cost to you, but a value and a help to you as well.

How can that be? Well, I blogged almost 20 years ago, What you want to get could be what I need to give. You want to give a talk at a user group somewhere? A user group leader wants someone to help them by agreeing to give a talk. You want to write an article? An editor is looking for articles (or guest blogs or whatever.) You want a quick summary of quantum computing or the latest Javascript framework or whatever? Someone is dying for anyone to listen to them explain it. Really.

So yes, you're helping others. But not like "can you lend me $500" or "can you come over and feed my cat" kind of help. It's mutually beneficial. It helps you both and it builds relationships for the future as well. Some day, what you may want will be a promotion, or a new job, and someone else will have the problem of trying to choose who to promote, or finding someone to hire, and you once again will be there to solve their problem!

Don't think about storing up goodwill by doing favours that will someday be returned. Think about how current you is of value to people now, and how you will gain from offering that value around.

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you spent some time at networking events, an evening here and there. Depending on what you want to achieve, you can do this once a month or once a year. Or if you don't want that, you can simply keep tabs with former coworkers you would be willing to work with again. Beforehand, you think about what you can offer, and what you are willing to offer.

Some examples: As an engineer, when somebody is hiring an engineer in your field they might ask you. Or they might ask you if you know somebody you could refer. A simple "Sure, I let my buddy Mike know you are looking and get back to you" can be sufficient. Then you ask Mike, and let them know. If Mike isn't interested, you still did something, right? If they trust you enough, you might be asked vetting some profiles before they are hired.

Or somebody has a great startup idea, and wants your opinion. Do you spend 30 min just listening and then giving them some rought thumbs up or down as to the feasability? And maybe some pointers on what to research? Or do do you read their whole business plan and give detailed comment?

That's why you think about your limits beforehand. And it might be different for different people who ask.

Also, you do the reverse: Learn what others can offer. Looking for a new job? Nice being able to ask around and get the inside view before you apply. Having some business idea? It's nice knowing people who can give you pointers.

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  • Thank you @Benjamin. That's insightful too.
    – Student
    Jan 3, 2023 at 5:45
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You seem to define "networking" extremely wide: most common definitions, like Sourav Ghosh points out, do not include serious amounts of unpaid work. The most basic example of networking is friends: you probably help them here and there, once in a blue moon you would help them with moving, but if you are unable to fulfill your own needs because you are solving their problems for over 10 hours every week, the relationship is clearly abusive.

The same, if not more, goes for professional networking: you probably would not mind spending five minutes explaining a concept you have a lot of expertise in, but as soon as it starts piling up, you quickly run out of capacity. It is expected that people do not work for free and say "no" to requests that are beyond what they are willing to do. The balancing act is precarious, of course. Networking events such as conferences offer a good starting point: the time you spend there is easy to control, and you may get follow-ups from them.

Now, to the core of the issue. If your field is so narrow that you feel like stepping too far outside of it damages your chosen career, and yet few people seem to be interested in it, do reconsider what that career is. If almost no one wants that specific kind of expertise, that is not much of a career - that is a passion. There is nothing wrong in not wanting to do some stuff just because you can and are the best person for the job, but your career advancement is defined by the things you have done. There is little point in networking with design people if you specifically want to get better at CFD, just limit the time you spend on that. Seek out people who can do something you are interested in integrating in your projects. Think about how you can be useful to them, too. If you struggle to find an overlap, you are probably not understanding what makes your work valuable in the first place, and it is a bigger problem than networking.

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