A guide to professional networking when in-person isn't possible

By Associate Professor Shanton Chang

Associate Professor Shanton Chang is Melbourne School of Engineering’s Associate Dean (International). This article was originally published on LinkedIn to encourage international students, particularly those recently arrived in Australia, to develop crucial skills in building career connections while studying.

The last event that I ran at the University of Melbourne before the University transitioned to a virtual campus due to the current pandemic was a workshop on "International Students and the Australian IT Industry". We have had some discussion on that event and key take aways on my previous LinkedIn post . However, I thought it would be useful for my students to think a bit more about practices to tide them over during this highly limiting period.

Close up of laptop and woman's hands holding a mobile phone

At any workshop or seminar on international student employability, students are told that key disadvantages they might face are their more limited local networks, local experience and knowledge of the local culture where they might be seeking work. Therefore, students are told to go out there and network, talk to employers when they are on campus, find new social groups and to volunteer even beyond the University boundaries. See a problem yet?

In the current period of 'social distancing' where movement is limited, such advice could understandably cause confusion. Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that international students should ignore this (still very good) advice. However, students need to start thinking beyond traditional ways of networking. Here are some ways you can do that while stuck in your study/bedroom.

Virtual Networking

You can and should engage in this. Virtual networking refers to using a digital platform with videoconferencing functions to help you network with others (for example Whereby, Skype or Zoom). Many Meetups (especially the more tech-savvy ones) are moving to virtual networking. Most of the big firms that are recruiting graduates are also holding virtual career fairs. Make sure you take advantage of these opportunities and see what they have to offer.

Most of the big firms that are recruiting graduates are also holding virtual career fairs

During this difficult time, be aware that all organisations and people are under stress and responses might be a bit slow - so don't expect an immediate reply. Make sure you read information that has been provided by these employers. Continue to be kind and knowing that under normal circumstances, many companies are busy at this time already with graduate recruitment - so, don't add to the workload if you can.

Some organisations and companies might even be starting to organise virtual internships where students can get virtual experience online. You could do some research and talk to your course coordinators about these.

Update your LinkedIn Profile

Now more than ever, you need a solid LinkedIn Profile. Make sure you read tips and suggestions on how to improve your profile. LinkedIn also has some resources aimed specifically at university students on how to structure a profile. Avoid empty profiles  - it's better to have no profile than a 'half-baked', disorganised profile that has scant information.

Continue to volunteer

Volunteering is a good way to enhance your skill set but also to network with more people. But is it possible to do this from your room? Of course it is - it’s the 21st Century! Check out how you can volunteer online with sites and platforms like Vollie, GoVolunteer and State Library NSW . These are just some of the opportunities with more options for digital volunteering are popping up everywhere. Look out for these opportunities (you can find a lot with just a simple Google search.

At the University level, make sure you sign up for the Leaders in Communities Award which also recognises virtual volunteering.

Research, research, research

While stuck at home, put your computer to good use and do some research on companies and industries. I know it's tempting to just leave Netflix on in the background or whatever current game you're obsessed with (oh, I know - I have my struggles too!) However, this is the best opportunity to start to deepen your understanding of the industry you want to get in to. For my Computing and Information Systems students, look at the IT trends, read about Australian IT and innovations and check out articles from the Australian Computer Society.Then look at the amazing SMEs that we have that are looking for IT graduates. Have you ever tried Googling "business and IT consultants in Melbourne"? That's just one example. The world is more than the big names.

Young woman at desk using laptop with lens flare in foreground

And while I am at this, let's talk about that constant question about Permanent Residency (PR) and citizenship. If you dig a bit deeper, you will realise that there is a difference between companies that require PR and citizenship status and those that require you to have work rights. These are two different requirements. It is generally your responsibility as a candidate to understand the difference and to provide evidence to the company of which rights you have. Do your homework and delve deep into the company's websites about what they require and how you can meet those requirements. Don't waste your time with the ones you have no access to, but from my experience, there are plenty of small/medium enterprises (SMEs) that just require you to have work rights.

While stuck at home, put your computer to good use and do some research on companies and industries

While on the topic of doing research into companies, here's another piece of advice. I have been on a number of interview panels. One of the key questions we ask candidates is "Do you have any questions?" Here's a tip; 'no' is not a good answer. It implies that you have little interest or know very little about the company you are interviewing for. It also means you have not done your research. If you have done your research, you should have a tonne of questions about their various projects, their culture and their work; information which you gleaned from their website but that you are thirsting for more details on! You can’t ask these questions unless you have done your research. Please don’t ask "do you take international students?" It shows you either have not read their website; if that information's not on their website indicate your work rights clearly on your CV so that it's not unclear at the interview.

Attending virtual meetings and interviews

What's behind you? When you are a part of a virtual session, it's not just about what you wear, it's also what's in the background. Think about this, is it your messy bed? Your Mickey and Minnie Mouse dolls? Your half-eaten lunch? Your gaming station? All these things will say something about you. Now, I’m not saying to make sure you have a blank wall (how boring). What I am saying is think about your image and think about what's behind you as it reflects who you are. Of course a number of these platforms allow you to replace or 'blur' the background. However, the point is that showing some of who you are is not a bad thing - you just need to consider what you are showing.

Shanton Chang in home office with objects including Mickey and Minnie Mouse figurines behind him
Associate Professor Chang demonstrates an example of objects which shouldn't be behind you on a professional video call.

Practice Your Virtual Interview Skills

This is one of the best things you can do. You can log on to the University’s Careers Online site, and go to the EmployMe resource section. There you will find a whole section on preparing for interviews. The Interview Simulator even allows you to practice being interviewed. You should record yourself answering questions and watch it carefully. I can guarantee you will learn lots about yourself. It is likely that you might be called in for virtual interviews, so it's definitely worth your time doing this. Remember, don't just do the interview - watch yourself too and then reflect on what you need to do more of or less of during an interview.

Finally, when this blows over and you have all these amazing virtual tools already, don't let that stop you from going out there and reconnecting with the world. That will be just as important once we have solved the pandemic issue.

That’s it for now. I hope you’ve found the tips and advice useful as you work on your LinkedIn profiles and enhance your employability skills. The pandemic continues but the clock doesn't stop ticking. I hope these are points that will help you think about your own development, even as you are studying your subjects online. Don't forget to pay attention to these crucial skills and strike a balance.

Have questions, thoughts or ideas on staying professionally connected from home you’d like to share? Head to Associate Professor Shanton Chang’s original LinkedIn article and join the conversation!