Networking is a word that can strike fear in the heart of even the mightiest wanna-be academic ex-pat. It's something you know you're supposed to do, but aren't sure how to do it. You've heard it's not the sleazy activity that the word connotes anymore, but you still haven't got the faintest clue where to start. Not only that, you might feel especially behind the 8-ball if you're one of those academics who claims not to know anyone outside of academia. How can you network your way into a non-academic position if the only people you know are other academics?
I've got five straightforward steps you can use to start plugging in to non-academic jobs (including that whole "hidden job market" hoo-ha) today. Think of them in a pyramid formation -- steps that you take moving from the bottom of the pyramid to the top.
1. Tune in to your existing contacts. The best place to start with networking is not by signing up for an impersonal networking event or by starting a cold calling campaign. It's by reaching out to the people you already know. These people form the base of your networking pyramid.
Here's an exercise that will appeal to the truly Type-A among you (and will begin to appease those who insist they don't know anyone who works outside an academic institution): take out a piece of paper, an Excel spreadsheet or a contact management tool like Plaxo. Make a list of every person you know. Yes, every person you know is a contact. I'm talking family, friends, former profs, former co-workers, your massage therapist, online friends, Facebook buddies, staff at the gym, people you play sports or Scrabble with, the concierge of your building, your department's administrator, that cutie-pie librarian, the director of the cat shelter where you used to volunteer, the health food store clerk you chat with every Saturday morning, and so forth (there -- you still think you don't know anyone outside of academe?). And don't forget: your academic contacts (grad students, this includes your supervisor) also have non-academic contacts, so don't leave them out (if you're emotionally ready for that).
Reach out to those people (in person or electronically) and let them know you're job hunting. Yeah, that might feel really weird, depending on how deeply entrenched you are in your academic career. But people these days will understand that most scholars need to be making backup plans.
Plant the seed in the brains of folks who know you that you're looking for a job, and ask them if they would keep you in mind if they hear of anything. Be prepared with some kind of answer when they ask, "What kind of work are you looking for?" And then, once you've had that conversation, look for ways you can give all of those people a helping hand.
2. Take to your online networks. Moving up your networking pyramid, you go from the people you know in person to the people you know online. Let your contacts on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn know that you're job-hunting. But heed the advice that most social media folks are espousing these days about not looking desperate. Instead of updating your status to, "Am desperate for a job in MegaDesirable Town. Any leads?" try to write updates that demonstrate your initiative in the job-search process. "Just had a great conversation with @thejobsguy about a potential consulting job in Austin," or "I love how idealist.org makes job searching so easy," will convey the right message. While you're at it, use those same online tools to start connecting with people who are in the line of work you want to get into.
3. Next, move from the people you know in person and online to people you haven't met before. This means reaching out to any names you collect from your existing contacts, or responding to introductions to third parties that your existing contacts have extended to you. This usually means entering the land of the information interview. There is lots of material online (and, of course, in books like So What Are You Going to Do With That?) about how to set up and what to say in an information interview. Don't forget: an information interview should be brief (20 - 30 minutes) and it should be a chance for you to shut up and listen, not talk about yourself (unless you're invited to). Ask for names of other contacts you can reach out to, but don't expect anyone to be doling out job offers. And for the love of Eagleton, don't forget to send a thank you note afterward (both to the person who referred you and to your new contact).
4. Next up: make yourself useful. This means reaching out to strangers in a capacity where you can actually do good and show off your skills at the same time. In the online world, this means contributing to listservs, showing your expertise on a blog and providing good links on Twitter. In the real world, this means volunteering, getting on a board of a worthy organization, offering to take notes at a convention where people in your desired sector will be, and look for opportunities to solve problems.
5. At the top of the networking pyramid is good old cold calling/e-mailing. Have an organization in mind where you'd love to work? Know of a sector or role where you'd jump at the chance to use your skills? Get on the horn and explain your situation. Like with the info interview, be brief, be gracious and don't expect anything other than a chance to chat and learn. You'll be pleasantly surprised at how frequently people are generously willing to talk to you about their own career paths into the job they're doing. If there's a good connection there, keep in touch. Ask for more contact names. Return the favor.
Networking often doesn't yield immediate results. It can take a long time of you moving your way up and down the networking pyramid for you to land in front of the person who's going to hire you. You are going to want to develop your elevator pitch, and come up with a friendly, brief answer to, "You mean you don't want to be a university professor anymore?" (and its variants). It's true that including fellow academics in your non-academic job search can mean suffering through some potentially awkward moments. But don't be a Hector Projector ("He thinks I'm a failure that I'm quitting teaching!") and keep your purpose (viz. switching careers) foremost in mind. And remember, networking is just one more component in your new research project -- the one that will land you in your next career.