How to Network as a PT Student
Networking is key to a fruitful and far-reaching career.
If you’ve spent any amount of time looking up professional development advice or job-hunting tips, you’ve probably encountered some iteration of that advice. It lives on countless webpages and is passed around more freely than a bucket of popcorn at a movie theater. But unlike digging into a bucket of popcorn, the idea of networking can be intimidating—if not downright nerve-wracking.
Here’s the good news: Networking is much easier than you think it is. All you need to do is apply these seven tips to networking as a physical therapy student.
1. Realign your perception of networking.
When you think of networking in the abstract, what do you picture? Do you see reserved business professionals in starchy suits swapping business cards over glasses of scotch and perfectly manicured portfolios? Because if you do, you need to realign your perception of networking.
Networking isn’t about peacocking or showing off to people—it’s about building mutually satisfying relationships with others. Networks are comprised of acquaintances and oftentimes friends; if you feel comfortable tapping someone for help in your professional life, then they’re part of your network. If your talented writer friend wouldn’t hesitate to look over your résumé and cover letter, consider them networked. If you have a great relationship with a professor or a clinical instructor and you know they’d be willing to put in a good word for you at a residency, they’re in your network.
Yeah; it’s that simple. As you spend more time in the workforce and out in the world, your network will naturally grow bigger. You’ll meet more people and make more acquaintances and friends, and you’ll begin to accumulate the resources to pursue more opportunities. Networking doesn’t have to take place in stuffy business meetings (though it can if you really want it to); it can also happen when you meet up with a couple coworkers for coffee.
Networking is a two-way street.
If you take one lesson away from this article, it’s that the best and most effective networking is simply relationship-building. Effective networking is not wandering up to someone, giving them a business card, and calling them four months later when you need a favor. It’s getting to know a person and letting them get to know you in return. It’s offering to help someone without expectation. It may feel counter-intuitive, but you’ll build a stronger network when you’re willing to give more than you expect to take.
2. Know your goals.
Before you begin making new connections, it’s important to know the general shape of your short- and long-term goals. You don’t need to have a month-by-month five-year plan written out before you make yourself known in the PT industry, but it’ll be easier to identify and make potential connections if you know where you’re looking to go.
For instance, if you want to break into sports therapy, it’ll be more tactically effective to network with sports therapists (or their coworkers) than it will be to chat with PTs who work in SNFs or emergency departments. It’s good to have a well-rounded network, yes, but if you’re working toward a goal, try to connect with people who are better positioned to help you accomplish that goal.
3. Use the connections you have to meet new people.
Even as a student, you’ve likely already accumulated a small professional network of your own (see tip number one). It’s time to tap it. One of the most effective ways to connect with new people is not through cold introductions, but rather through referrals.
Think of it this way: If your friend or a respected classmate told you that they wanted to introduce you to a great coworker named Lee, you would probably walk into that interaction excited to meet Lee and willing to help them out. But if Lee were to walk up to you on the street as a total stranger, introduce themselves, and ask for your help in their professional life, you might not respond as enthusiastically to Lee’s request.
So rack your brain and think of the connections that you already have in your back pocket. If you have a great relationship with a professor or a clinical instructor, explain your goals to them and ask if they could put you in touch with someone they know. If you’ve become close friends with a PT student in an older cohort, stay in contact with them. They might be able to connect you to other people in the industry once they begin working in a clinic. Keep your mind open and talk to everyone, from retired PT neighbors to students in adjacent medical professions.
4. Attend events and meetups.
Though socializing after a long day of clinicals might not sound terribly appealing (especially to introverts), it’s still important to attend the social events that are available to you. This is where you’ll meet other people (often your age) who are also actively looking to make professional connections. While connecting with someone who’s also early in their career may not immediately pay dividends, they may be the perfect connection to have a few years down the line. Here’s a (non-exhaustive) list of event suggestions to get you started:
- APTA Combined Section Meetings
- University physical therapy clubs
- APTA State Student Conclaves
- Study groups (especially NPTE study groups)
- Talks and presentations at your school
- Mentorship programs
5. Say “yes” as frequently as possible.
Opportunities don’t mean much of anything if they are not acted upon. It is incredibly important, therefore, to open yourself up to experiences and opportunities that you wouldn’t normally seek out. In other words, adopt a “yes” mindset. This article from The Non-Clinical PT (which is excellent, by the way) recommends saying “yes” to all sorts of opportunities—even ones that are unusual or that fall outside your comfort zone. Specifically, the author recommends saying “yes” to:
- Teaching and mentorship opportunities,
- Advocacy opportunities,
- Exploring niche work environments,
- New experiences and/or challenges, and
- Attending networking events.
In that article, the author is mostly referring to career development, but the advice applies to networking, too. If you’re presented with an opportunity to meet or work with people who you wouldn’t normally interact with, seriously consider saying “yes.” Your willingness to try something new could open a door that’s pivotal to your career.
Just keep in mind that this advice is to say “yes” when possible. If embracing an opportunity will ultimately jeopardize your mental or physical health, do not say “yes.” Know your limits, and avoid overtaxing yourself by taking on too many responsibilities.
6. Maintain your current professional relationships.
If you were to ghost your best friend for a year and then suddenly text them asking for a favor, how would they respond? Probably not well, right? You haven’t maintained the relationship, and now it looks like you’re only interested in reconnecting because you want something from them. It’s not a great look for you—and it’s not a great look in a professional environment either.
Like friendships, professional relationships need maintenance. If you’ve successfully connected with someone, it’s important to periodically touch base in order to keep your relationship fresh and healthy. You don’t need to message them on a schedule, but it’ll behoove you to reach out on occasion without asking for favors. That way you’ll stay top of mind, and your connections will be more likely to think of you first when they have an opportunity to share.
If you connected with someone by talking about sports, for instance, you could shoot them a message any time their favorite team crosses your radar. If you connected with someone by talking about equitable access to PT care, send them a recent news article about a big advancement in healthcare advocacy. If you met someone at APTA’s Combined Section Meeting, send them an agenda for next year’s conference and ask if they’re planning to attend.
Is this the professional equivalent of sending memes to your friends? Yes. But will it strengthen your network and increase your likelihood of cultivating a connection that could seriously benefit your career? Absolutely.
7. Be authentically you; don’t put up a facade.
At the risk of sounding like a 90s after school special, when you network with others, be yourself. You’ll have an easier time building a stable network if you aren’t retooling your personality to appeal to every person you meet. Stay professional, of course, but know that it’s rarely worthwhile to compromise your core values to get ahead in your career.
This does mean, though, that not every person you meet will become a great professional connection. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you won’t gel with a person—even if you think they seem great. Instead of trying to force that professional relationship, refocus your efforts on staying in touch with the people you enjoy talking with.
Networking may feel intimidating and unapproachable, but the reality is that it’s as simple as having a friendly conversation with a stranger. If you’re nervous, just remember that you’re not the only person trying to make connections in the PT industry. You may be surprised how many people welcome a new conversation.