Professional networking for graduate career development in the digital age: Which industry relationships? Which platforms? Which capabilities?

Ruth Bridgstock
Griffith University

LinkedIn profile Blog

Denise Jackson
Edith Cowan University

Kate Lloyd
Macquarie University

It has long been recognised that professional relationships are of importance to graduate career development, through mentoring and sponsorship, access to career resources and career opportunities. While social capital is often associated with the unfair advantage that class and background can confer, it has been shown that through effective networking behaviour, people from all kinds of backgrounds can benefit from professional connectedness (Wolff & Moser, 2009). Effective networking is underpinned by a range of capabilities that need to be learned, at least in part, through practice (de Janasz & Forret, 2008). Higher education institutions have played important roles in fostering students’ capabilities and networks through career mentoring schemes, industry networking events, and work integrated learning, among others.
In the 21st century, networking has moved online, at least to some extent. Digital networks can expand the reach of graduates’ career development activities (Nikitkov & Sainty, 2014). Digital networking requires a somewhat different but overlapping set of capabilities to analogue networking (Bridgstock, 2019). While many graduates are well versed in the use of digital networks in their personal lives, they may not be as confident using social media for career development (Benson, Morgan, & Filippaios, 2014; Bridgstock, 2019).
The research discussed in this presentation draws upon surveys of more than 600 graduates from Business and Creative Industries fields across three Australian universities up to four years after course completion, along with 31 in-depth interviews mapping graduates’ post-university career trajectories up to five years post-graduation. It unpacks the roles that online and face-to-face professional networking play in graduates’ career development. It asks which types of professional connections are important to successful transitions into careers post-university, and what a productive balance between face-to-face and online networking activities might be. It investigates what the most important professional network capabilities are for new graduates, and what educators and industry partners can do to provide opportunities for development of these capabilities.
The research findings affirm the importance of professional networking and social network capabilities to positive graduate outcomes. The survey results demonstrate that graduates up to five years after course completion believe that they don’t have enough professional contacts. At 1-2 years after course completion, graduates report that both close professional ties and wider networks need development. By 4-5 years after course completion, the quality and quantity of close professional ties is better, presumably in part because of more experience in professional workplaces over time. This perception of inadequate professional networks raises concerns given their importance for accessing the hidden job market. Social network literacy, networking and acquiring new connections, and using networks for career development are identified in the analysis as key capability sets for development, including being able to articulate how social networks are important to career, developing new contacts, either online or face to face, and drawing upon professional contacts to help with career development. This finding reinforces the need for higher education providers to engage students in career development learning that targets professional connectedness. Specifically, this engagement should include how students can effectively develop and maintain networks, how they should be used for career development purposes, and – in particular – provide students with access to relevant networks from early in their university years. The latter may be achieved, for example, through on- and off-campus networking events in conjunction with employers, industry bodies and professional associations. There is particular under-confidence among graduates about social media and online networking, emphasising the importance of formally introducing students to valuable platforms, such as LinkedIn, and how to use them effectively.
The interview findings demonstrate strong discipline-specificity in professional networking behaviour across online platforms and through face-to-face means. The graduate narratives indicate that effective professional networking requires highly specific nuanced strategies and capabilities that are learned over time through industry experience. Over time, graduates also come to learn when to use digital vs face-to-face networking methods according to the strengths and affordances of each. Importantly, the interviews also suggested that most of the graduates had come to learn that networking is fundamentally about establishing and strengthening authentic and reciprocal connections, rather than “schmoozing” and achieving instrumental outcomes. In the words of one graduate: “Effective networking for me involves taking an interest in the people around me and connecting them to things that might be interesting or relevant to them, and people are more willing to do that for me in return.”