When Michael Magat, 28, decided to pursue an online MBA last year, he was concerned it would be hard to network with his virtual classmates.
He wanted all the perks of an online degree, such as the chance to keep working while he studied. But when it came to building relationships, he was looking for a set of contacts as vast as those provided by an on-campus program.
Magat's fears were allayed almost immediately after enrolling in an online program at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business in 2012. His LinkedIn connections exploded. And through team projects, he started building relationships with his classmates.
"It's amazing how easy it is to connect with people and keep in contact," he says.
Networking with classmates is an important part of any MBA program, be it online or on-campus, experts say. Student connections can generate future job leads or provide insight that could lead to success in one's current company. But when it comes to networking, distance learners need to take a different approach than their on-campus counterparts.
"In a residential program, you live and breathe on campus with the same students," says Philip T. Powell, faculty chair of the online MBA program at Indiana University. "You can almost take for granted that you're going to have X amount of connections. In an online program, you have to make the effort."
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Experts suggest the following tips for networking in an online MBA program.
1. Take advantage of any face-to-face meetings: If your program has an on-campus component, be sure to introduce yourself to your classmates and get to know them, experts say. Once you put a face to a name, you're more likely to remember that classmate throughout the course of your studies and establish a long-standing relationship.
"The most effective networks are the ones you can leverage face-to-face," says Roxanne Reddick, director of the graduate career center at the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University. "This can be challenging in an online curriculum, but it's not impossible."
If your campus doesn't have a residency requirement, consider joining academic competitions, attending school-sponsored social events or participating in a study abroad opportunity.
"If you travel with someone for 10 days and experience all of this new culture you certainly do tend to bond with them," says Velle Kolde, director of the Executive MBA Program at Washington State University.
Another great way to make a face-to-face connection is to meet up with classmates in the same area.
"Take the online offline," says Jason Vitug, a 33-year-old who graduated from the online MBA program at Norwich University. "Meet for coffee or lunch – that helps with the networking."
2. Be a good team player: Most online MBA programs feature team projects in which students work closely with their classmates through email, conference calls, discussion boards and other electronic forums. When working in group projects, experts say it's important to put your best foot forward. In other words, produce the kind of work that will make a lasting positive impression. And be friendly.
"Just don't get too caught up in the course work and try to get to know one another," says Magat at Indiana University.
Finally, experts say, don't be afraid to pick up the phone. "Voice-to-voice is always better than email-to-email," Arizona State's Reddick says.
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3. Set up an accurate, professional LinkedIn account: It may go without saying, but having an effective LinkedIn presence is vital to forging connections during your program, students and experts say.
"Electronic communication is the way we do things now," says Kolde of Washington State University. "When you look at things like LinkedIn, it's a critical component of your engagement strategy for your social contacts and for your business contacts."
Once students set up a LinkedIn account, experts recommend they connect with classmates and keep their profiles up to date and professional. They also urge students to participate in discussions and join any official groups monitored by the university.