From the earliest days of optometry school, when my biggest priority was trying to schedule a nap in my day, many people have spoken to me about the importance of networking. As a fourth-year optometry student, I’ve come to realize exactly how right they were. Networking as a student can help you learn about what you want from your profession and can open doors to new relationships and opportunities.
I remember feeling motivated to go out and network after listening to the great presenters who came to my school. However, I didn’t really know how to network. Where do you begin? What do you talk about? These simple questions can be very daunting and can discourage people from trying. After going through many ups and downs in own my attempts at networking as a student, here are my top five tips for building your own networking skills.
1. Learn about yourself
Networking is defined as "a supportive system of sharing information and services among individuals and groups having a common interest." Those last two words are key! figure out what you're interested in and find common ground with the people you choose to speak to. During my first major conference, I talked to anyone and everyone, but I didn't gain much from it.
I didn’t have a passion or a goal in mind, and I wound up spinning in circles. Once you find something you are genuinely interested in though, you’ll have a great conversation starter and a way of finding like-minded people to network with!
Finding that professional interest can be challenging as a student when you still have so much to learn, but breaking things down into smaller categories can really help. Consider researching different practices, learning about optometry in areas you might want to after graduation, or stop to consider the non-clinical aspects of the industry to find your niche.
Sometimes after some research, you’ll find something you genuinely enjoy, or you may learn that a specific place or line of work is not for you. When I first started optometry school, I thought disease management was all I wanted to do. After learning and growing as a student, I’ve come to love discussing marketing and contact lenses. Throughout the process, the best part of networking as a student is that you can continue to learn about yourself!
2. Be prepared
It’s important to have multiple ways for people to get in contact with you. Just because you love to communicate via text messaging, doesn’t mean that the person who you just had a great 15-minute conversation does. If someone is looking to contact you, having several ways for them to reach you increases your accessibility and puts you in a position to continue that conversation after the first interaction. It never hurts to mention your preferred method of communication; I always like to say email and Instagram are the best ways to reach me.
When you're making these connections, prepare questions too! Check out this interview with tips from practicing ODs on things they wish they knew before graduation to start brainstorming.
One of the best items to have early in your journey through optometry school is business cards. I can’t count how many times (especially this past year) I have run into a situation where I had to give someone my contact information on a blank piece of paper because I was not equipped with my business cards.
Business cards allow you to place all of your lines of communication in one place. Regardless of whether you’re at a conference or a local practice, the person you’re talking to can be handed a professional card with options to reach you. Networking can happen anywhere — business cards can help you be prepared for this, and yes, people do still use them.
3. Start talking
You have found the topic you are interested in, you have your business cards in your pocket, and you’re in a room full of people. What now?
Ask about them
My favorite way of starting a conversation with someone for the first time is asking them about their story. For example, “Hi Dr. Smith, we’re learning about specialty contact lenses in class right now. I was just wondering what made you want to fit Ortho-K lenses in your practice?” You have plenty of subjects that you’re excited about — things you could talk about for hours — and so do your possible new contacts! Engage them.
Ask follow up questions
This becomes easier with experience and will happen naturally as you continue to network. Your starting question can branch into new questions based on their responses, or they might ask you about yourself. When the conversation begins to flow, this is when you know you’re really hitting your stride. Nonetheless, I always love to have a follow-up question ready. My favorite one to ask is, “How would you recommended I get involved in x as an optometry student?”
Continue the conversation later
You just had a great 15-minute conversation about practice websites and bonded over your love of basketball. You feel like you can learn from this individual and want to keep a connection. The best way to do so is just to ask! I always like to ask them if it’s okay for me to reach out and for their preferred form of contact.
“Thank you for your time, Dr. Smith. That information was really helpful. If I ever have any more questions, is it okay for me to reach out to you? Which method do you prefer?” This marks a great place for you to exchange business cards.
4. Foster your relationships
Regardless of how you meet someone, if you're looking to create a lasting relationship, you have to dedicate energy to it. Most people in optometry love to share their knowledge with students, so don’t be too shy to reach out periodically.
I like to send a follow-up email a few days of meeting someone and thank them for their time. This helps them differentiate you from the many others they might have talked with that day and opens the door to a growing relationship.
Building your network now can help to make your transition out of school that much easier. Check out our Complete Guide to your Transition from Student to Optometrist to prepare for the next leg of your journey!
As students, we have many opportunities to meet new people at events, but we can also use these same events to grow our existing relationships. When you’re going to a conference/event, ask if they will be attending or if they have any recommendations for things to check out while you are there. I once reached out to a mentor asking if they would be attending a meeting, and a full year later, she reached out to me and asked if I would be going to an event that she was attending!
Once you feel you have a closer relationship with a new mentor, be sure to update them periodically on your progress in school. The completion of a semester/quarter is always a great time to share some of your experiences.
5. Be thankful
Networking provides you with new opportunities and can allow you to grow as a healthcare professional. Professionals that you meet can play large roles in shaping your future and could open doors that you never knew existed. Take the time to remind them of how thankful you are for their support. A holiday postcard, some chocolates, or a simple thank you can go a long way.
Networking can be challenging as an optometry student, but I hope these few tips can help you build your networking skills as you continue to grow throughout optometry school and beyond. Networking is a skill you’ll continue using in the working world for a long time to come, so there’s no better time to start than now. If you have any questions or even your own tips I would love to hear them in the comments below. And feel free to reach out to me! My preferred methods of contact are email or the ‘gram!