Four Principles to Building a Professional Network

By Nick Smolenski
Graduate Student in Musicology

principles for networkingReflective, engaging, sincere. These were just some of the interpersonal adjectives used in a recent conversation about conversation when graduate students from varying disciplines gathered in the Humanities Unbounded Microworlds Lab to have a dialogue about building professional networks.

Exploring the social realms of conferences, digital project collaborations, and email brought about stories of meaningful connections and deliberate exchanges that effectively shaped careers in the humanities. The biggest takeaway from the workshop: Genuine communication and a sense of self are the building blocks to construct one’s own network.

This insight can seem daunting and wreathed in existentialism, begging for answers to questions like “Who am I, anyway? How can I stuff genuine communication into a 45-second elevator speech? When will I ever be able to suppress that nagging feeling of awkwardness when approaching new people?”

The event, which was convened by history professor Thomas Robisheaux, provided insight to such questions. The panelists—Sheila Dillon (Chair of Art, Art History & Visual Studies), Ashton Merck (fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in History) and Maria LaMonaca Wisdom (Director of Graduate Student Advising and Engagement for the Humanities)—continually referenced a number of themes that can be distilled into four principles. Here are some key points from the discussions around each of those principles.

Explore what’s possible

Every person’s network will look different than their colleagues’ when they step into a position, be it a graduate program or relocating for a job. Understanding how contacts weave in and out of different circles of engagement quickly reveals how such circles can be reshaped and resized to fit one’s particular networking goals.

  • Think critically about your circles of contacts and how they overlap. This can help you identify where to deliberately branch out. For instance, Ashton recalled how she focused attention on local networks within the Triangle during her first years in graduate school. Meeting a few new people at a colloquium in Chapel Hill can be as effective as sending threefold number of emails.
  • Create new circles by leveraging your existing contacts, be it an advisor, a mentor, or a friend from another institution.
  • Instead of walking up directly to a prominent scholar at a conference—which can be intimidating—first network with someone connected with that person. That can quell anxieties of introductions.

Engage with self and others in a meaningful way

There seems to be a time and place for different styles of engagement, and many times it can appear you have mere seconds to make a lasting impression. While concise elevator speeches of varying lengths are useful, developing relationships beyond transactional introductions will help you cultivate long-standing contacts.

  • Listen and ask questions instead of just trying to impress someone. The former is often more impactful.
  • Consider contacting every person met at a conference via email. Regardless of how many people respond, it’s an effective technique that organically balances quantitative and qualitative engagement within a network.
  • Know yourself. When meeting new people, everyone embraces nervous energy differently. Some people are simply more gregarious than others. It’s true that stepping out of a comfort zone can be productive, but it’s also important to embody your own strengths and experiences and to know your limits. Genuine engagement begins with engaging the self.

Share what you can offer

The sharing of projects, resources, successes, and contacts within a person’s network is a particular method of engagement that encourages growth and fruitful outcomes.

  • Consider sharing drafts of a future article or chapter. This perhaps runs contra to impulse reactions of reserving information until publication, but it can strengthen both the relationship and the work itself. Sheila recalled sending a monograph to those who she thought might review her book once released. Regardless of whether or not the monograph was sent to the same reviewers, she received advice from professionals in her field and incentivized their interest in reading the final product.
  • Sheila also noted that the Art, Art History & Visual Studies program shares successful applications from alumni who have attained jobs, academic or otherwise. This not only invites graduate students to consider their own letters of teaching philosophy and diversity early in their careers, but also exposes contemporary techniques deemed effective in curating an application.


This final principle is perhaps the most conceptual of the four, and the most pervasive. Reflecting upon relationships cultivated in the past can help to reveal what works for oneself.

  • Pay attention to your intuition and impulse reactions; they can be as telling as a conversation. Treating organic conversations like dreams—writing down what felt comfortable and what felt strained, much like recalling a dream experienced minutes prior—can expose areas for growth.
  • Don’t discount serendipity and luck. While unmeasurable and unquantifiable, they are indeed active elements as part of the human condition.


The four principles of engagement, exploration, sharing, and reflection are not an exhaustive prescription for building a professional network. The strategies you employ will be inflected by your interests and goals and will continually evolve throughout your career. However, if you adhere to these principles with an open and curious mind, a desire for genuine communication, and a sincere sense of self, building a professional network can be as enjoyable as it is rewarding.