How do online MBA students network?

BY Sydney LakeMay 18, 2021, 3:00 AM
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Of all the reasons to participate in an MBA program, networking opportunities often top the list for prospective students. In fact, 89% of hiring managers say referrals are important when filling an open position—and 70% of people in 2020 were hired at a company where they had a connection, according to research conducted by LinkedIn in 2020.

You can network in a variety of ways—from large, organized events to coffee meetups. But as virtual learning becomes more prevalent, how do online MBA students network without in-person events, both spontaneous and planned?

Amy Foster asked herself these questions while looking into options for earning her MBA: “How can you possibly network in an online MBA program? How does this work?”

The answers to those questions are more straightforward than they may seem, notes Jennifer Zacharias, a student with Indiana University–Bloomington’s online MBA program, Kelley Direct. “It’s all the same activities you’d expect to be having, they’ve just all shifted online,” Zacharias says. 

And Foster, who graduated from University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill (Kenan-Flagler) in 2016, says she came to a similar conclusion while in school. Now, as director of UNC’s online MBA program, Foster encourages online MBA students to seek out networking opportunities in virtual small-group class discussions, in-person networking events held in Chapel Hill (and online during the COVID-19 pandemic), as well as through Facebook and LinkedIn pages.

“People tend to assume that students sign up for online programs because they don’t want to be together or because they’re just looking to check a box,” she says. “That is not at all the case.”

Chances for in-person connection

Zacharias began her online MBA program in February 2020, just before the pandemic hit. The IU undergrad alum chose the online program to advance her career while remaining in the workforce.

Under “normal” circumstances, the program was already fully online, but there were opportunities for in-person networking events throughout the year. Both “Kelley on Campus” and the school’s optional, in-person orientation gives online students a chance to visit Bloomington for networking events with fellow students from around the globe.

“I have never felt disadvantaged by being in an online program,” Zacharias says. “If anything, I’ve actually felt even more advantaged because for a lot of students who are doing those in-person programs, you’re limited to network with the people that you’re in class with.”

Similarly, UNC offers a weekend-long, in-person orientation where online students have the chance to meet before the start of the program.

“We actually see those bonds start there,” says Foster, adding that by Friday afternoon of orientation weekend the new students are like old friends. “You can see the connections happening,” she adds.

UNC’s online students also have the option to attend MBA classes in varied formats, such as the school’s in-person weekend classes if students are able to make the trip to Chapel Hill.

There’s no hiding in a virtual classroom

While online students may be dialing in for class in place of commuting, there’s no way of avoiding class participation. Group work and class discussions spark networking opportunities, online MBA students and program leaders agree. 

“It all starts in the classroom,” Foster says.

While some online MBA programs include asynchronous, lecture-style classes, students also have a chance to make connections and network during live class discussions and group projects, Foster says. 

“Because those classes are so small, you really get to know your classmates there,” Foster says. “There’s no hiding in these classes.”

Social networking

Other popular tools for making connections with fellow online MBA students are Facebook and LinkedIn groups. Students and alumni will often set up pages open to their classmates or create smaller groups based on interests and profession. 

Alumni will post job openings, while current students seek connections with alumni based on career interests. This is where online, one-on-one connections are made. 

“I actually have really loved and appreciated that the online networking hasn’t limited me, and that I have this really robust network now,” Zacharias says. 

Incoming students for Kelley Direct’s Fall 2021 cohort have already set up a networking page on LinkedIn, says Quentin L. Speight, Kelley Direct MBA’s assistant director for student experience. 

Networking isn’t a spectator sport

The same rule of in-person networking applies to online networking: It’s a two-way street, Speight says. People skills are still important, and students must be willing to put in the time and effort to make connections. 

“If networking is something that you want to do, know that you have the opportunity to do it,” he says. “And then act on it.”

Zacharias also found networking opportunities by joining Kelley Direct’s Student Leadership Association board, where she has worked to create more chances for connection among online students. These events have included Zoom sessions with breakout rooms, where students may find themselves in hours-long conversations with fellow students or alumni, along with events likened to speed dating, coined “rapid networking.”

“It’s like anything else,” Zacharias says. “You get what you give.”