How uni can help you expand your professional network

Uni is fertile ground for new networks and collaborations. We talk to an expert about how to make the most of your new network.

You’re at uni to upskill and expand your professional horizons - but the connections you make along the way can be just as valuable as your course material.

“Uni is probably as good an opportunity as you’ll get to meet people,” says Brad Potter, an Associate Professor in accounting from the Faculty of Business and Economics and a Director of the Centre for Accounting and Industry Partnerships.

“You’re all from different backgrounds, and you’re all put into the same area and you’ve got a common goal for being there,” he says. “You never know what opportunities are going to arise.”

Potter’s career in accounting spans over two decades, in both the private sector and academia. Potter knows better than most how to build a network and make connections and collaborations. They can come from your classmates, or from less likely places. Case in point: Potter’s groundbreaking work with Professor Ian Woodrow, from the Science Faculty’s School of BioSciences, a unique collaboration mixing plant biology with accountancy techniques.

We sat down with Potter and asked for a few pointers on how to make the most of the opportunities.

Brad Potter, Associate Professor in accounting from the Faculty of Business and Economics and a Director of the Centre for Accounting and Industry Partnerships
Brad Potter, Associate Professor in accounting from the Faculty of Business and Economics and a Director of the Centre for Accounting and Industry Partnerships.

Be genuine

For Potter, it all starts with making genuine connections.

“Authenticity is the key,” says Potter. “If you’re genuinely interested in people, that creates a foundation for you to expand your network for mutual benefit later on. I don’t personally react all that well when people come at me clearly just for the purpose of expanding their network.”

“Understanding where people are coming from can really set the scene for building a network that might extend in ways beyond what you currently understand,” says Potter.

Socialise

Potter recalls his undergrad days as a social experience where he made friends for life. That’s not an option for everybody, particularly busy professionals and online students. But if you can make it to campus, Potter says class isn’t everything.

“It’s more likely to occur at events, like Student Association events,” he says. “Students routinely get invited to them. Make the most of it.”

Build your online community

Online students have great opportunities to interact with their peers, with the added benefit of a student body from all over Australia and beyond.

Potter has done a lot of teaching online, and says relationships built in the digital realm can be just as fruitful as face-to-face interactions.

“Naturally there are some hurdles,” says Potter. “But a lot of teachers will try to make as natural an environment as possible. You still see the students that are open t o making connections.”

Potter says that the key difference is that students need to be a bit more proactive. “We can create the opportunities, but they have to take control,” he says. “Online students are very busy, with families and work, but they’re often older and wiser. It’s a juggling act, but you can make it work.”

Use LinkedIn wisely

LinkedIn is the global benchmark in online social media networking, and can do wonders for expanding your network and identifying opportunities. But Potter stresses that you should use it wisely.

“You take one graduate class and you’ve got 45 LinkedIn requests, and that’s completely fine.” says Potter. He’s skeptical of people adding him on LinkedIn without a good mutual reason.

“Personally, I go cold a little bit when I get all of these people who have gone through LinkedIn and added me, who I’ve never met, and I’m never going to meet,” he says. “If there’s no indication of a mutual reason for connecting, that to me, is not the way to expand your network. That to me, is like cold calling.”

Like any social media platform, LinkedIn is all about your personal brand. Build it carefully.

Get mentored

Potter is a firm believer in mentoring.

“I still have mentors now,” says Potter. “I have people who’s advice I seek out and respect. I would encourage everybody to consider mentoring. If it’s a genuine exchange of ideas, it’s really useful. If you surround yourself with people who you respect, and ideally who are smarter than you, you end up being the smartest guy in the room.”

Get to know your teachers

Teachers at the University of Melbourne are renowned experts with strong industry connections. Needless to say, they’re a great connection to have.

“Where students are interested, engaged and naturally curious, staff will respond,” says Potter. “They really will. It’s not uncommon for people to graduate and then stick around the department.”

Potter says a good relationship with your teachers could lead to part-time teaching, and continued professional collaboration.

Remember, it’s about people

Potter’s biggest take-home advice is to remember that making connections isn’t just about building your career - it has to start with people.

“So make sure you surround yourself with smart people, and learn and appreciate who’s around you,” says Potter.

“You never know where friendships are going to take you.”

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