Time and time again I find that networking truly is the key to a successful career. It's amazing what kind of opportunities arise because of who you know.
During my undergrad years, I never thought that getting a job would have so much to do with your network. Whether you know someone who works at a place you want to be hired, or just introduce yourself at a job fair, your chances of working there are so much higher. For example, my husband has always been hired through his network. In fact, when he got laid off, his contacts on LinkedIn noticed, and asked him to work with them right away. He's still there now.
It seems that some undergrads in our computer science program aren't aware of the many networking opportunities available to them, and perhaps the value of taking advantage of them. A recent discussion on the undergrad society's forums had students arguing about whether a college diploma was worth as much as a university degree in industry. Some of us suggested - with some resistance - that your network can get you hired, and after a while it's your experience that counts. Someone put forward that third and fourth years haven't been around long enough to have many contacts, and don't have time to network.
The good news for undergrads is that there really are plenty of networking opportunities that don't have to steal all your time! Obviously doing co-op or other summer jobs helps, but so does attending job fairs, where you can trade business cards or leave your resume, and follow up online. Our science faculty recently put on a networking evening, MITACS does all kinds of workshops and events, and CU-WISE is planning a networking/career night for March. There are fun, one-evening events that are goldmines for networking. For example, the Girl Geek Dinner I went to in Ottawa got me several new contacts. Not all followed up, but keeping in touch with even just one makes it worth it. There are lots of techy talks happening in our area, with topics ranging from game development to start-ups to social media. And if you happen to have a bit more time to spare, you can go to conferences geared towards undergrads (like CUTC, EpCon, and CUSEC for those living in the Ottawa/Toronto/Montreal area).
Grad students can benefit from all of the above, plus new academic opportunities like conferences and workshops.
In the past, I have noticed that after collecting contacts from all these networking opportunities, I didn't know what to do with them. It seemed strange to email people without a real purpose, but that was the only way to get them to remember you in case you needed them later. This is why I love the pervasiveness of social networking.
Now when I get a contact, I try to connect with them on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. This way I don't have to explicitly communicate with them - we can passively exchange updates. The true value of this may not be obvious at first, but eventually you start to see requests from important people that you can help with.
Suddenly you are involved in really interesting projects or applying for amazing jobs. Your contacts talk about you in their updates, and you get more contacts. This snowballs, and suddenly you get added as a blogger on the Communications of ACM blogroll, and are mentioned as one of the top five technical women to follow on Twitter. You start winning scholarships, and have been asked more than once to apply for an internship at a cool place like Google. You are asked to write for various publications and become well known as an active community volunteer for improving life for women in computing.
All these things happened to me, and could happen to you, too! And all you have to do is network.