As an international student planning to work in Canada after you graduate, building your professional network will provide the support you need during your job search and as you progress through your career.
Depending on your personality, networking can either sound exciting or overwhelming. Regardless of how you feel about it, networking is essential in Canada’s professional environment, and the insight and access you get through networking will be a key factor in determining your career success.
In this article:
What is networking and how does it work?
When you network professionally, you deliberately seek out connections who can support you through your job search and as you build your career in Canada. These are people you’ll turn to for advice and insights into your field. As an international student, you may be unfamiliar with how things work in the Canadian work environment, both culturally and from a hiring perspective, and your network can help you prepare for what to expect.
In an ideal scenario, a networking connection can be an advocate who vouches for you when a job opportunity arises. Plus, since they are already a part of the industry, they can even help you tap into Canada’s hidden job market and introduce you to other people.
It’s important to remember networking should be a partnership. You’re not just connecting with someone to take advantage of the job opportunities or guidance they may provide. It’s vital you bring something to the table to make the partnership mutually beneficial. If you haven’t entered the job market yet, you may not be in a situation to provide the same access and support that they provide you, but it does mean your skills and talents won’t be an asset to them as well.
Avoid looking at networking as a transactional activity. Connecting with professionals is about more than just sending out LinkedIn connection requests and getting them accepted. The idea is to forge long-term, meaningful relationships with other professionals. So, once you’ve met someone or connected with them on LinkedIn, make an effort to take the conversation forward.
When should international students start networking in Canada?
If you’ve started your studies in Canada but haven’t been networking, then you’re already behind. As an international student in Canada, you’re at a slight disadvantage compared to your domestic classmates, who’ve lived here throughout their lives. Not only do they have an existing network of schoolmates, alumni, and teachers, but they also have their parents’ connections to fall back on when it’s time to look for their first job.
Networking can give you a huge advantage in your career, and most Canadians network throughout their work lives, even when they aren’t looking for opportunities. Beginning your networking journey while you’re still in college or university connects you with people who can guide you through different parts of your career. For instance, international students entering the Canadian job market are often unfamiliar with the work culture, the hiring processes, and even the right resume format to use. With a network to guide you, you’ll likely make fewer mistakes in your job search and be introduced to opportunities you otherwise wouldn’t get on your own.
Once you start building your network, keep going. Nurture the connections you’re making now and continue to look for opportunities to expand your network as you advance in your career. Networking isn’t something that stops when you reach a certain position; it’s ongoing work that will elevate you in ways you can’t predict. Your network will always be valuable in any situation related to your career, whether you’re between jobs, trying to switch industries or move up from your current position, or even looking to build new skills.
Benefits of networking as an international student in Canada
In the Canadian professional environment, who you know is a factor in how far you go. So, ensuring you make connections while you’re still in school will help you as you advance through your career. As you strategize ways to build your network, consider these benefits:
1. Exposure to knowledge and ideas
As you connect with new people, you expose yourself to new ideas. Your network will have had experiences you haven’t, and they can share that information and knowledge with you to impact the way you think and approach different situations. As an international student, you may also be unfamiliar with how things work in Canada’s job market or in a particular industry. Speaking with seasoned professionals helps you get a better understanding of how your academic learning could translate into practical applications.
2. Getting feedback from professionals
If you’re about to graduate and start looking for a job soon, it’s time to create your resume and elevator pitch. As an international student, it may be your first time crafting a Canadian-style resume, so any feedback you can get from seasoned professionals will be helpful. Similarly, networking meetings are a great place to practice your elevator pitch and ask for tips on improving it. You can also seek feedback on other things, such as your blog and work portfolio, to improve your chances of landing a job.
3. Unlocking hidden job opportunities
A vast majority of available opportunities in Canada are “hidden” and never publicly posted. The only way to tap into this hidden job market is through your network. Your connections can expose you to opportunities you couldn’t get to on your own, or that you didn’t even know existed. The best part is that your network can make sure that the door is already open when you get there, through a job referral or by putting a good word in about you to the hiring manager.
4. Career growth and professional development
As a student, you’re at the very beginning of your career. You’ll be following in the footsteps of a network that has already done what you’re hoping to do and can potentially remove some obstacles along your journey. The advice you receive from your network will be invaluable to your professional development. Learning about their career path, the mistakes they made along the way, and the things that worked for them, can make your own professional journey smoother.
A mentor is someone who can act as a role model and support you by sharing the knowledge, guidance, and advice you need to begin or progress in your career.
Not everyone in your network will be a mentor and they don’t have to be. An ideal mentor would be someone within your network who’s keen and eager to see you succeed. They won’t just guide you but will also be willing to devote the time to help you achieve your goals.
6. Forming forever relationships
The thing about building your network is that you’re actually forming lifelong partnerships and possibly even friendships. The longer you stay connected to someone, the closer your connection becomes. What starts off as a relationship based on professional value can transform into a true bond, and it is not unheard of for professional connections to become invested in your career success.
How to start networking as an international student
Before you begin networking, you need to find the right people to reach out to and that means knowing where to look.
Even as an international student, your first move should be to reach out to people you already know. You may have family members or friends in Canada, or alumni from your previous school with whom you haven’t been in touch. Make a list of your existing connections here, and find out where they work and what they do. And don’t count out your current classmates. Some of them may have made professional connections through part-time jobs, internships, or co-ops. Plus, it’s always good to stay in touch with your classmates, as they’ll likely find jobs similar to yours.
Once you’ve gone through your family and friends, consider online platforms, such as LinkedIn, Twitter, Ten Thousand Coffees, and Lunchclub. These are excellent places to connect with professionals you look up to in your field, hiring managers in your industry, or potential mentors.
Networking doesn’t always have to be virtual. It’s also a good idea to frequent in-person gatherings, including school or alumni events, professional networking meetups, and sports or social clubs. If you’re working part-time while studying in Canada, informal team events at your workplace can be an excellent place to build connections. In fact, even community events or parties hosted by your extended family can be opportunities to meet new people.
How to navigate networking events and career fairs
Professional networking events can be intimidating, especially if you’re unfamiliar with how they work. That said, if you go into these events with clear goals and a strategy, you’ll find yourself calmer and more focused. Preparation can ease some of your anxiety and ensure that you come out of these events with the outcome you need to help advance your career.
If you’re still a few years away from graduating, you might be tempted to skip career fairs altogether and stick with networking events. However, exploring job fairs early on during your studies will give you more opportunities and time to make a positive impression on hiring managers and recruiters in your industry.
Here are some tips to help you navigate networking events:
- Do your research: It’s easier to plan your approach when you know who’ll be attending the event. Job fair organizers typically share a list of employers who’ll be present. For other networking events, you can connect with the organizers to get a confirmed attendee list. You can then prioritize the people you’d want to speak with during the event.
- Dress to impress: This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to wear a pantsuit or suit and tie, especially if it isn’t a job fair. It means dress for the occasion––make sure you’re comfortable, but also professional. After all, the first impression you make is based on your appearance.
- Bring business cards: If you’re networking regularly, it’s a good practice to get business cards made. (Yes, even if you don’t have a job yet!) In today’s digital-first environment, a physical business card stands out even more. However, if you’re at an informal networking event with a younger group, exchanging Instagram handles or LinkedIn profiles might be a better way to reconnect after the event.
- Set goals for what you want to achieve: Even if your goal is to leave the event with one connection, write it down and make it happen. If there’s someone specific you want to connect with, find the right opportunity and approach them with questions you’ve already prepared.
- Make the conversation interesting: Whoever you speak with, you want to leave a positive impression. Don’t underestimate your ability to contribute to the conversation intelligently. You have the dual advantage of an international perspective and a recent, more up-to-date education.
- Thank them for their time: You always want to say thank you. No one is obligated to share their time with you. If they do, consider it a privilege and thank them for it.
- Write a follow-up email: After the event, you want to make sure you remain top of mind. The person you met may have connected with several people at the event. Send a follow-up email within a day of connecting to reiterate that you valued their time and any guidance they gave. Ideally, include one or two points from your conversation to jog their memory in case they’ve confused you with someone else.
A coffee chat is a one-to-one meeting that you set up with someone who can potentially add value to your network. Coffee chats may be in-person or virtual and can be an excellent way to take your conversation forward after making that initial connection.
When reaching out to ask someone for a coffee chat, take a minute to think about your existing (or non-existent) relationship with them and plan your approach accordingly. If you know or have connected with them before, refer to the last conversation you had or the interaction that led to you two connecting.
When reaching out to cold contacts (someone you don’t know or haven’t spoken to before), you should introduce yourself and mention why you’re interested in talking to them in a clear and concise email. Even better, try to get a mutual connection to make a warm introduction.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind while drafting a coffee chat request:
- Personalize your request: Do not, under any circumstances, copy-paste the same request and send it to multiple people. Instead, personalize your note—refer to them by name, and, if you know it, include their designation or role.
- Wherever possible, find common interests: Do your research before reaching out to someone new. For alumni of your school, you could emphasize your connection to your institution. If you know they played on a sports team, mention it. Or if you’re part of a club they led a few years ago, highlight that shared interest.
- Be clear about your ask: Your request should clarify why you want to speak to them (and not someone else in their organization) and what you hope to learn from the conversation, whether it’s about their job or the company.
- Be respectful of their time: The professionals you want to connect with likely have jobs, so make sure you’re upfront about how much of their time you require (30 minutes is usually enough). Ideally, offer them a few time slots to pick from and be flexible if you need to work around their availability.
How to prepare for a coffee chat as an international student
Now that you’ve reached out and set a date for a networking coffee chat, it’s time to prepare. In many ways, a coffee chat is like an informal interview and your goal should be to make a lasting, professional impression. Although your first coffee chat with someone likely won’t lead to a job opportunity, you want them to keep you in mind for any future openings in their organization. Here’s how to prepare to make sure that happens:
1. Research the individual you’re meeting
It’s imperative you go into this coffee chat knowing facts about who you’re speaking with. You should know about their career path, any accomplishments, and some interesting tidbits that can help steer the conversation. Take the time to go through any publicly available information about them, whether it’s their LinkedIn profile or any research papers or opinion pieces they’ve authored. It’s also a good idea to learn about their organization and role.
2. Prepare a list of questions beforehand
Think about what you want to take away from this coffee chat. Do you want to learn about what their role involves or the skills they leverage in their job? Are you interested in their insights about the industry’s future or trends that might impact your career choices? Or perhaps, if you’re preparing to interview with their organization, you have questions about the company’s culture. Make a list of specific, well-researched questions ahead of time, so you can manage your time and extract all the insights you’re looking for.
3. Rehearse your elevator pitch
An elevator pitch is a short summary of what you bring to the table, your accomplishments, and your career goals. During a coffee chat, starting out with an elevator pitch gives the other person background and clarity on who you are, which can help them better understand how they can help you. Your elevator pitch should be customized based on who you’re meeting and what you’re hoping to learn. If you haven’t perfected your elevator pitch yet, don’t worry! Coffee chats can be the perfect opportunity to get constructive feedback on it from someone who has been in a hiring position.
4. Be on time
Whatever you do, make sure that you’re on time. You’ve requested this person to share their valuable time with you and one way to show that you respect them is by respecting their time. If it’s a virtual coffee chat, join the meeting room a few minutes early and test your equipment. If it’s an in-person meeting, reaching a few minutes before the agreed-upon time will give you a chance to find a relatively quiet space and settle down.
5. Send a thank you note
There’s no better way of showing your appreciation for someone’s time and support than a prompt, thoughtful thank you note. Let them know you appreciate them sharing their knowledge with you and include parts of the conversation that stuck with you.
Your thank you note should be brief and ideally sent within 24 hours of your meeting. Reiterate any next steps you discussed during your conversation, whether it was about them sharing some reading material, you helping them with a project, or a follow-up meeting in a few weeks’ time.
How to maintain your network as an international student
Making an initial connection is easy but maintaining that network requires commitment and effort. Here are some tips to help you nurture your professional network, so you can rely on it throughout your career:
Reach out to your network often
When you first engage with someone new in your network, the frequency at which you connect will be much higher than when you’re maintaining that relationship. You might meet every week, every other week, or once a month in the beginning. As the relationship matures, staying in touch at least once a quarter (every three months) should be enough. You can give a summary of what you’ve done over the past few months and ask what they’ve been up to.
Keeping all your professional relationships alive requires active effort, but remember, every touchpoint doesn’t have to be a meeting. You can also stay connected over email or communicate over LinkedIn or social media.
Offer to help your connections
Always remember that networking is a two-way street. People are more likely to remember you when you offer help instead of asking for it. Plus, if your objective is to leverage your network to find a suitable job in Canada after you graduate, helping your connections is an opportunity to showcase your skills and subtly position yourself as a potential candidate for jobs.
Remember, if someone opens a door for you that helps your career, you should eventually be in a position to ask them how you can be of service. They might say no, but showing that you care and that you are willing to help will go a long way.
Be aware of their “real life”
One way to show you care is to be aware of what’s happening in that person’s non-professional life. If they get married and post it on social media, reach out and say congratulations. If they start a new position or start a new company, send them a quick note and ask how or why they did it. The goal is to be authentic and stay tuned into their real life as well as their professional one.
However, keep in mind that, in Canada, people value their personal space. Make sure you respect these boundaries and don’t come across as stalkerish. Avoid asking personal questions and steer clear of topics like religion, relationships, and finances.
Virtual communication is here to stay, with many professionals now working remotely or in a hybrid setting. In most cases, networking virtually is more convenient and less time-consuming. As a student, you might be able to fit more coffee chats into your calendar if you don’t need to travel to a venue. Similarly, professionals are more likely to accept meeting requests if it doesn’t involve a lot of extra effort.
When networking virtually, technology plays a huge role. It’s important to keep these tips in mind every time you communicate with someone virtually in a professional setting:
- Find a quiet and comfortable place.
- Check that your wifi, camera, and microphone are working properly.
- If you have roommates, let them know you’ll be on an important call.
- Dress comfortably but professionally.
- Be mindful of your facial expressions.
The purpose of networking is to build long-term connections that you can count on later in your career. As with any other relationship, you want to position yourself in the best possible light, without being fake. Here are some habits or practices you should stay away from while networking:
- Don’t ask for a job upfront. First, spend time building trust and demonstrating why you’re a good candidate. You should only request a referral once you’re nurtured your relationship enough.
- Don’t take a casual approach. Be professional at all times and keep in mind that this individual might play a role in your job search later.
- Don’t go in unprepared or without a clear idea of what you want to get out of your interaction.
- Don’t let them do all the talking, but listen intently when they speak. It’s okay to take notes, but asking if you can do so is polite.
- Don’t fidget or avoid eye contact. Be mindful of your body language.
- Don’t ask questions you can google. That’s a waste of everybody’s time and it may give your connection the impression that you aren’t serious about learning from them.
- Don’t play down your accomplishments. Show what you bring to the table in terms of skills, qualifications, and expertise.
- But also, don’t brag. Find a middle ground.
- Don’t bad-mouth others. Such behaviour reflects badly on you and makes it difficult for people to trust you.
- Don’t force it. It’s natural for some connections to fizzle out or not bring much value. Let your gut tell you if things are going well or not. If your first few conversations seem forced or if the individual seems reluctant to share information, it may be time to focus your energy on other connections.