Tailgating as Networking

Katharyn L. Stober describes how and why you should use tailgating and football lingo in your job search.

October 10, 2016
iStock/Terry Katz

Those of you reading this at other football schools will understand: for a few short months out of the year, we must plan our lives -- personal and professional -- around the fanaticism.

Want to host a Saturday afternoon baby shower? Better make sure that’s an away weekend. Want to venture out of the house to run errands? Better make sure the game has already started. That’s the only calm eye of the hurricane that is the home game weekend. And good luck trying to find decent campus parking on the Friday before a home game.

Most undergraduates buy in wholeheartedly. In fact, like it or not, there is a direct link between a school’s winning football record and increased undergraduate admissions applications. But many grad students -- especially international students and those coming from small liberal arts colleges -- seem to willfully ignore the hype. They chose the university for the research, not the sports record. They might wear a school shirt now and again (especially if your institution, like mine, Texas A&M University, gives them away for free during welcome week), but mostly they want to keep their heads down, grades and publications up, and survive each fall semester in one piece.

And yet throughout the year, two of the most common concerns my grad students express to me are how to find networking contacts and how to make small talk during interviews.

Can you see where I’m going with this?

What many grad students do not see is the vast untapped resource of potential connections right under their noses. You don’t have to learn our secret hand signals or fight songs. You don’t have to buy season tickets or even understand how football works. Maybe you think we’re all brainwashed -- not arguing with you there. But, even so, you can find ways to make this fanaticism work in your favor.

Here are a few simple things you can start doing now to strategically blend football season with job search season.

Walk the walk. What if I told you that some of the most influential networking contacts in your field will be in your town this Saturday and that you have the opportunity to go talk to them for free -- and without donning a suit, printing tons of résumés or waiting in line after long line of competitors like you would at a career fair? This magical networking oasis is called tailgating.

Many students may say they prefer to stay at home and network online, yet many become too intimidated to effectively communicate with VIP alumni through LinkedIn or the university’s alumni directory. Students ask me: How can I send an email to a complete stranger, who just happens to be the CEO of the company I want to join? What would I say? What should I not say? What if they don’t reply? What if they do reply, but call me desperate and ridiculous and tell me to go away?

It can be easy to psych yourself out when faced with someone’s professional headshot and a list of the amazing highlights of their career. And yet we’ve all passed by those same people many Saturday afternoons: they’re setting up tents, grilling hot dogs, playing horseshoes. Not so intimidating now, are they? Because here it’s not Ms. Li, VP of your top-choice company -- it’s just Mary, Class of ’82.

So instead of spending your Saturday at home, frantically uploading your résumé to 100 different HR portals, or drafting and deleting different versions of the same networking email again and again, dust off that free shirt you got during welcome week and meander through the tailgating area on campus.

Stop and talk to people. Ask how their day is going. Ask what class year they are and if they’re enjoying their trip back to the campus. In the course of the conversation, they will ask you what you do at the university and what you’re studying. Most people you meet won’t be in your field of study, but some may. And you might be surprised how many who aren’t in your line of work know of a cousin’s roommate’s sister who is. Try it.

And if you’re having trouble getting started, just think of this as fieldwork, data collection or research. When you break it down, that’s really all networking is: data collection. Except here, you’re collecting data on possible professional paths in your major, or the culture and career opportunities at this alumni’s company.

Talk the talk. If you are interviewing with an alumnus from your university (or an alumnus from a rival school in the same sports conference), they will ask you about whatever the sport of the season is. Period. It’s not a matter of if this will happen but when. You don’t need to arrive at the interview meeting wearing the school colors or flashing a class ring to invite this conversation. They can see it right there on your résumé.

You may imagine that this says, “Ask me about my research at a large R1 institution,” but for many recruiters and networking contacts it says, “Ask me about last Saturday’s game.” Be prepared for football-related questions at networking events on the campus, during small talk at interview lunches and any time your school affiliation appears on your name tag at a professional conference. Nothing kills an interview quicker than being asked about the game and answering, “Game? What game?” or “I was at the library all day Saturday,” or “I don’t own a TV.”

It continually irks many grad students to realize that by the interview stage, every candidate has a great GPA and awesome technical skills. But first and foremost, the interview is a personality test. So in addition to reviewing the job posting carefully and thoroughly researching the company, as part of your interview preparation you should quickly scan the front page of the sports section in the newspaper. At a minimum, you should at least know who your team played and whether they won or lost.

Misdirection is also a strategy I’ve personally used to stay afloat in conversations where I have no clue what’s going on. For example, someone asks, “So, what did you think of that game last weekend?” To that you say, “Yes. Lots of people in my lab have been talking about that game. Did you watch it? How do you think we’ll do next week?” That will lure the other person into doing most of the talking. All you have to do is smile and nod, and depending on what they say, throw in a “Wasn’t that great?” or “Yeah, that stank.” They’ll leave there thinking they just had a great conversation with you.

Join the club. I mean this figuratively: learn the lingo and traditions of your new campus, take a campus tour, make some business cards for yourself with your university affiliation on them. But I also mean that you should literally join a club: join another organization on the campus that isn’t the grad society in your major, volunteer with a community organization in the local area, register on your institution’s alumni sites. They all are excellent opportunities to expand your network and connect with already well-connected undergraduate classmates and alumni.

Many of my students will spend months preparing for the big career fairs in their major, which happen only two times each year. They spend hours researching all the participating companies (I hope) and weeks editing their résumés and rehearsing their elevator pitches. Because, after all, they only have these two opportunities during their final year to be able to connect with hundreds of company contacts.

Unless, of course, you count every home football tailgate, away-game watch party, baseball cookout, basketball happy hour or lacrosse … high tea? (I’ve heard colleges up north play sports, too.) When you expand your idea of networking to include not only formal interactions at career fairs and conferences but also the casual meetings you have every day, suddenly the small talk is less daunting and opportunities to network appear more readily available. Career fair season and football season just so happen to occur at exactly the same time. Rather than bemoaning the inconvenience, look for ways to harness this excessive spirit to assist your job search.


Katharyn L. Stober is the associate director for Graduate Student Services at the Texas A&M University Career Center and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.


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