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How To Network In Graduate School

agu-posters1-e1394021889599Written by Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.

I wasted the first three years of my graduate school career networking the old fashioned way. I would go to internal seminars with the same people over and over again, arriving just in time and leaving right after it was over. Once or twice a year I would go to a conference and stand in front of some last minute poster I made like a used car salesman begging people to care.

I only went to the conferences that I could get funding for and I never left with anything more than a headache. Then, like everyone, by the time I reached my last year of grad school I complained about not having any business connections or career options outside of doing a postdoc.

How To Network

Networking is a kind of second job (without pay) that takes up at least half of your time. It’s not something that just happens. Too many graduate students think that towing the line, getting published, and having an almighty Ph.D. is going to lead to a bunch of great opportunities. But this just isn’t true. If you want to get ahead, you have to start building your network. You should spend at least half of your time connecting with as many other people in the field as possible and following up with them consistently.

The new rules of networking in graduate school involve both online and offline techniques targeted at key opinion leaders as well as your peers. These rules focus on building connections, not just in academia, but also in business and entrepreneurship. But don’t get overwhelmed. And don’t try to do everything at once. Instead, gradually branch out and slowly increase your risk tolerance until you’re comfortable contacting anyone, online, in person, or otherwise. Here are the new rules:

The New Rules Of Networking

1. Quit worrying about letters from your adviser and committee.

These letters mean absolutely zero outside of academia and even if you’re goal is to be a professor one day there are always other people who will write you a letter, especially if you follow the rules on this list.

2. Throw your CV in the trash.

Resumes, CVs, whatever, they are all worth a lot less than you think. Quit spending hours and hours updating these things. Ignore them until the last possible moment, like after you already have the job you want. Your biggest opportunities are going to come from face-to-face connections, not well-crafted CVs.

3. Go to NEW seminars.

Stop networking with the same 10 people in your department. Go to some different seminars. Quit being lazy and walk over to another part of your campus. And don’t arrive the standard 5-10 minutes late and bolt for the door during Q&A. It’s annoying and makes you look sloppy and unimportant. Show up a little early and stick around after to talk to the people around you. 5 minutes is all it takes to make a couple of new connections.

4. Prep for seminars you go to.

Come to each seminar with one question that is useful to the audience but will give the presenter a chance to look good and show off his or her knowledge, not a question that you hope makes you look smart.

5. Talk to presenters after each seminar.

Don’t ask them a question or ask them for a favor and don’t be that guy or girl who talks to them forever and makes everyone else form a line and wait. Instead, pay them a compliment and get their card or email address and leave.

6. Go to industry seminars.

The people giving these presentations are your gateway to a career in industry. Suck it up and learn about their product, getting their contact information is worth it.

7. Reach out to your favorite authors.

You know those peer-reviewed journal articles you spend your life reading in graduate school? It takes a group of very dedicated people a very long time to create each of those articles. And guess what, these people are underappreciated. You know this. So, show them some appreciation. Find their email addresses and tell them what you liked about their article or ask them an insightful question.

8. Go to conferences on your own.

Find a way to go to as many conferences as possible. Max out your credit card, sleep in your car, find a couch on Airbnb, do whatever it takes because getting face-to-face with decision-makers is your best career investment.

9. Create a business card even if you’re a student.

Any card will do. Just put your name on it and “Ph.D. candidate or similar.” Put a short elevator pitch or business objective on the front of it and a bulleted list of your skills on the back.

10. Collect business cards and write notes on the back.

Don’t walk out of the conference with 50 cards and not be able to remember anything about the people on those cards. Right after you meet someone, get their card, and write down what you talked about or something personal about them on the back. You can do this while you’re still in front of them. They’ll feel special.

11. Spend as much time as possible at the exhibitor show.

Go to every exhibitor booth you can. But don’t go during exhibitor or poster hours, because that’s when these people are busy selling. Instead, go 30 minutes before when everyone is there killing time before the rush. Don’t tell them you’re a student and don’t ask for anything. Just make small talk and tell them how much you like their company, how much you like them, and so on. Get a business card from everyone you talk to.

12. Create an online presence.

After you meet people, if you made a good impression and if you follow up, they’re going to search for information on you. They’re going to Google you. The worst thing that can happen is they don’t find anything about you. If they search your name and nothing shows up, you’re not important and you’re a risk. Take away the risk. Control the conversation. Offer something. The easiest way to do this is to build up your online presence, or platform. This is easy. Just create some professional social media accounts, start a blog, join some relevant LinkedIn groups, or, at the very least, comment on blog articles related to your field.

13. Follow up until you feel stupid and then follow up some more.

Networking is all about following up. Making a connection means nothing. You have to connect, then give, give, give, and give some more before one day, when the timing is just right, you ask. That’s how it’s done. Either you make time for the giving or you’ll never receive and you’ll sit in some postdoc position for 20 years wondering what happened to your life and career.

Whether it’s a salesman you met at an exhibitor show or a first or last author from a Nature paper you reached out to, keep the connection going, even if they don’t get back to you. And focus on giving. Email them a nice note every two weeks. Act like you’re their assistant. Send them articles they might be interested in or anything that could help their career or help them build up their reputation or network.

You’ll only get what you want after you help other people get what they want. Follow up until you make an emotional connection. Then, and only then, ask for something in return – like a reference or a job.

To learn more about transitioning into a non-academic career, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, join the Cheeky Scientist Association.

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Isaiah Hankel


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