Networking -- forming professional relationships with other groups and institutions -- is vital to mapping out your career. A wide and diverse network can open doors you never knew existed, and survey after survey shows that significant percentages of new hires are made through employee referrals.
You can make new contacts by attending industry functions, joining professional organizations relevant to your field, and creating a profile on a social network like LinkedIn or Facebook. At face-to-face events, introduce yourself and strike up conversations with as many people as you can. If you're shy, think of a few icebreakers and rehearse a few talking points to ease into the conversation, and try to connect on a subject outside of work. Foster these relationships by periodically checking in with your contacts -- send an e-mail on birthdays, forward an interesting article or meet for lunch. When your contacts approach you with favors or requests for information, help them as much as you can. In general, do not ask favors of someone you've just met. But when it comes time to plot your next career move, ask your contacts about new job opportunities in their company, contact information for a hiring manager, a reference or other information that will give you a leg up during your job hunt.