How your degree shapes your network

How your degree shapes your network

You do not necessarily have to be well-connected to meet the right people


Graduation: what matters more for growing your network is how qualified you appear to be

Graduation: what matters more for growing your network is how qualified you appear to be


You’ve probably heard the expression “It’s not what you know, but who you know, that matters.” Why then go the extra mile if success is just determined by connections?

It’s true that networks influence the resources, support and advocacy that you get during the course of your career, but networks can form in many different ways. In studying how young professionals form networks, I found that you don’t necessarily have to be well-connected to meet the right people and get ahead at work. Rather, in certain contexts, what matters more for growing your network is how qualified you appear to be.

In two studies, I surveyed 251 MBA students and law school students before and after they completed an internship. I first asked whether they had any pre-existing contacts at the firm, and then whether they established more connections over the course of about 12 weeks.

Specifically, I wanted to know if they got to know any employees who gave them insight into the organisation and its goals, strategies and important people. I asked how often they were in touch with these contacts, how long they had known them and how close they were. And I gathered information about the companies and about the students’ academic accomplishments.

I found that some people were able to form many new contacts, while others only made one or two new connections. What separated them was how people signalled their ability – and this differed among business and law firms.

In the study of MBAs, I found that students who started the internship with a pre-existing contact were able to form more new connections than those who did not know anyone prior to starting, even after controlling for individual differences in networking ability. These initial contacts were more predictive of network growth than other indicators of students’ skills, such as academic grades.

This wasn’t the case in the study of law school students. For this cohort, having a pre-existing contact did not have a direct effect on the number of contacts they formed during their internship. I found that it only helped the most qualified students, those ranked in the top 20 per cent of their law school class.

So why the difference between law and business settings? It seems to come down to the varying importance placed on formal credentials and academic training. In law firms, the training you receive in school is more tightly aligned with the skills you are expected to demonstrate on the job.

Internships On the other hand, when it comes to business settings, research has shown people don’t seem to put the same amount of stock in grades. In fact, some researchers, like my colleague Jeff Pfeffer at Stanford, have suggested there is no tight coupling between what is taught in business schools and the skills and knowledge that are required for business practice.

Moreover, there is a difference in matriculation for law and business students. In business schools, recruiters start interviewing students for internships during their first semester, before grades are available. In contrast, law school students are recruited for internships during their second year.

The bottom line is that you need a balanced approach to developing your network, and the approach depends on your context. When ability can’t be clearly signalled, having a contact who can vouch for you and serve as a pathway to others can help you establish important connections.

However, in contexts where it’s easier to tell who is skilled, signalling your accomplishments more clearly might help you expand your network. –Copyright Harvard Business Review 2016

Adina Sterling is an assistant professor of organisational behaviour at Stanford University.


Previously published in The Irish Times.


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