How to grow your career without a network

Photograph by Bonnin Studio

BY ANGELA PHAM

The classic trope is that most people get hired through someone they know. One recent survey says 85% of its 3,000 employed gained their job through networking. And we all know, or can at least imagine, the benefits of alum networks or well-connected friends, but it’s not the only way.

Sure, we can all relate to the hollow feeling after filling out an online job application and wondering if that automated “thank you” e-mail is a sign of life. Clicking your way through a job opportunity instead of someone shaking your hand—it feels invisible, like a blip on HR’s radar.

In smaller towns and low-income communities, though, network building is especially limited. If your career ambitions tend to exceed those around you, the social circles you keep may not be so professionally helpful. LinkedIn has opened many doors, but it’s still no more effective than a cold call for those who don’t have shiny, well-known companies on their resumes, or sufficient 2nd-degree connections to prove they’re not spam.

It helps to have a network of professionals to tap into, but if you are a differentiated candidate who can navigate a corporate ladder without the connections that others are provided, you can stand out. Here are a few tips:
 

Start with the search

The ideal scenario is not when you find the job, but when the job finds you. Your LinkedIn profile can be optimized for showing up in search results, much as websites use SEO to position themselves higher in Google results. Do a search for keywords and phrases that reflect the big trends in your industry, then see how you can better incorporate them into your profile. For example, a lot of roles value knowledge of social media platforms, so adding any expertise you have to your biography can position you well.

Similarly, if you have an interest in an particular company or industry, be sure to sign up for their newsletter and follow them on social media. Companies often seek candidates who care about their brand in the first place, and keeping abreast of what the company is publishing on can add to your interview fodder later.

If you’re burnt out from the online job hunt, set up alerts instead: Go to indeed.com or Linkedin.com to set up personalized job alerts to notify you when new roles that suit your skills are posted, like if you want to work in or around NYC at a mid-size publishing company as a marketing associate—you can get super specific.

 

Apply with care

Learn how to write a good cover letter and always write one, even if the job application says it’s “optional.” A good cover letter doesn’t just reiterate your on-the-job qualities, but rather tells a story of you and how you’ll make a difference in a new role. Many candidates overlook this step, so you shouldn’t.

As tedious and broken as many job-application portals are to sign up for and fill out, they’re necessary for HR to process all applications the same way. So fill out the form, but don’t stop there. A quick investigation on LinkedIn or Google can reveal who’s running HR, or who the  recruiter is for a given role. Scouting their email and shooting them a note to confirm your candidacy and reiterate your interest doesn’t only assure that you stand out, but also can make you more confident that your application didn’t just slip into an application black hole.

And think quality over quantity—it takes a while to apply for a job. You should tailor your resume and cover letter each time; you should do base research to understand the values of the company and reflect these in your application materials. So don’t set a goal of applying for a certain number of jobs per a day, but rather focus on submitting your best work to the roles you most care about.

 

Build a DIY Network

Still feel hollow after weeks of silently job hunting via screen? You can start to build your own network. Sign up for relevant event alerts on Eventbrite and Meetup.com, and go alone. This will force you to talk to people, instead of holing up with a friend. Make a goal to get the business card of at least a few people, and do not skip out early. Stick around to engage with the people who are also there because they’re passionate about a topic. I once found an internship opportunity because I was standing in a bathroom line at an event and ended up chatting with the woman behind me, who happened to be the top boss at a company.

Finally, do not forget to engage with the world beyond these events. Strangers around you have networks, connections, and jobs of their own. You never know who could help you. In that spirit, when you’re adamantly job hunting, try to avoid wearing headphones or using your phone frequently in public. The water cooler remains an iconic office symbol for a reason—it is in gathering places where the best connections are made and the most off-handed ideas originate after so much small talk. The world around you is a giant water cooler in that sense, where, if you keep your eyes and ears open, you can overhear new opportunities or turn a random conversation about the weather into a mention of your current professional pursuits. The squeaky wheel gets the oil, and the squeaking should be ongoing.

 

In Short

Although many might feel online job searching is a waste of time, or feel frustrated that it’s not getting them results, you shouldn’t write it off. I still haven’t worked at a job that I found through somebody else; it’s all been through online applications. The fact is that a strong candidate who positions themselves uniquely online does not need a referral, a connection, or strings pulled to get them into the consideration pool. Companies that limit themselves to referrals often end up with a lack of diversity in their organization, and many are trying to recruit differently to compensate for this. In that way, the timing couldn’t be better for you to put yourself out there as an outlier whom they’d be lucky to discover.


Angela Pham is a writer, editor, and content strategist who specializes in thought leadership creation and strategy. She's also a tenants' rights activist in NYC. Follow her on Twitter at @angelapham.