Networking is like friendship: it takes time. Networking is an effort to develop and cultivate relationships with other humans who you wish to trust you and whom you can trust. Some statistics suggest that more than three quarters of open positions go to candidates who had established a connection to the organization before applying.
These are professional relationships and not friendships, and the purpose of networking is also to learn how to establish for yourself a certain kind of professional persona you can present at work. This persona may have little to do with the kind of person you are on your own time. Many really shy people practice having a professional persona, and learn how to give a short speech about themselves, in order to present themselves competently on the job market. It is important to remember that this is a skill like many others you have developed. It is possible to have, and especially important to work on, if you feel like you are one of your own greatest obstacles to connecting to others who can help you get the kind of work you would like to have.
Conventions of professional behavior and interaction that make up networking are not all spelled out. Still they are all crucial and cover anything from the language you use to strike up a conversation with a potential employer or colleague, to the kinds of shoes you wear to your professional meetings. Spending time around the kind of people you want to work with will show you much about how to become one of them. For example, different professions have very different expectations of professional attire. While men and women in the financial industries are almost universally expected to wear fairly uniform formal clothing (suits, jackets, ties for men, hose for women, no athletic shoes), teachers tend not to be as formal. Many office jobs now require “business casual attire,” which usually means that men can forgo their ties and button-down shirts, and women can wear casual pants and skirts. The language people use in professional settings is usually more restrained than what many of us might speak to our friends: there is usually little tolerance for certain kinds of jokes, conversation about private matters, or profanity.
Networking is easier for those who spontaneously end up connected to those who can help them get a job they like. This does not happen for everyone, usually because our backgrounds and our academic careers don’t expose us to the sorts of people who could become our network connections. If you are a first-generation college student, your personal, family, and private connections are usually not part of the world in which you aspire to work after college. This should be no obstacle to networking, however. There are many ways to establish a new professional network from scratch and to practice the skills that will keep you a part of it. One way to get to know new and relevant people, and to find out what a job or an organization is like, is to conduct informational interviews, that is, to go an ask specific questions to a person who is familiar with the field you wish to enter.