10 Things Your PhD Advisor Never Told You About Growing Your Professional Network

1. Understand what networking is (and what it’s not)

Do you cringe when you hear the word “networking”?

Sure, networking can feel “icky,” but it doesn’t have to. While it’s true that networking is transactional, transactions aren’t necessarily bad.

Networking is about building meaningful relationships. It’s about asking questions, engaging in dialogue, staying in touch, and spending time together. This is why you should build a relationship before asking a favor (e.g. requesting a letter of recommendation).

Networking should be a mutual exchange, with some give and take. If you are at the beginning of your career, or trying to transition to a new, post-ac career, people will recognize that you may not have a lot of social capital to pay them back in the immediate future. However, remember that no matter where you are career-wise, you have something to offer.

Networking creates opportunities. You never know when someone you know might invite you to collaborate, might recruit you, might provide crucial knowledge and advice.

Networking doesn’t mean that you won’t have to stand on your merit. It might get your foot in the door for an interview, but you will still have to work your way in.

Your network will change constantly over your career and it will never stop being important as you grow professionally.

2. Don’t wait to build your network

Networking is absolutely essential not only to successfully completing your degree, but also to your career development, wherever you end up working, whether in academia or in industry.

It can be tempting to postpone networking because PhD programs can become all-consuming. However, you need to invest time and energy in building relationships outside of your classroom or lab. The earlier you start, the better, so that when you will need to ask for advice or help, your network will already be in place.

3. Find out who is in your current network

Your network consists of those people with whom you have a relationship, those people to whom you can reach out if you need help.

When you are in graduate school, you meet many new classmates, faculty members, staff members (e.g. subject librarians, instructional designers, global engagement director), and you form relationships. Some of your classmates could become future colleagues if you end up staying in academia. Your professors, and particularly your thesis supervisor, might become mentors as you seek advice for your career path. Certain professors might become references during your job search. Staff members might collaborate on projects with you as you apply for grants or recruit graduate students.

If you are currently employed as a faculty member or post-doctoral researcher, your professional relationships change. You will have colleagues who are working at your rank or above, fellow researchers and instructors with whom you can exchange ideas, and (hopefully) mentors who can help you navigate your way to tenure or permanent employment at the start of your career.

Wherever you find yourself now, make a diagram of your current academic network. Who do you know well? Who would you like to know better?

Think about how you met the people in your professional network. With whom do you have the most meaningful relationship? How and where did you meet? (Was it at a conference? At a campus event? In the context of a collaborative research project? At a coffee shop near campus?) What helped your relationship grow? (Did you meet regularly in a writing group? Were you part of the graduate student union? Did you co-teach a class?)

4. Strengthen your current academic network

How big is your network? Your network should include diverse people with different experiences, perspectives, and status.

Looking at your network, see if there are areas that you could develop more. Perhaps you really need a mentor and don’t have one. Perhaps you have been so busy with research, you have neglected spending time with your peers. Maybe you are at a point in your career in which you would like to give back and would like to find mentees that you could help out.

Your network should constantly be growing, and not shrinking.

5. Maintain your academic network

How could you strengthen your current network to foster these relationships? Into which relationships would you like to invest more time and energy?

It is normal to have “dormant ties.” Dormant ties are relationships with people with whom you do not interact regularly. These could be friends from graduate school, or people from your undergrad program that you have not spoken to in years.

Social media makes it easier to maintain “dormant ties” with people with whom you do not interact regularly. You can check in quickly and stay up-to-date with their current activities.

You should never drop someone from your network unless the relationship really turned sour.

6. Grow your academic network strategically

Do you have professional models or champions in your discipline whom you really admire and would like to meet? Are there alumni you have read about in your university magazine that you would love to have a conversation with? Reach out to them!

Most people are flattered to find out that someone took the time to read their publications and to write a thank you note. Tell them how influential they have been to your own work and what it is that you admire about them.

If this person works on your campus, invite them to a Zoom chat. Find out how they found success in their career, how they published in a certain peer-reviewed journal, or how they won that special teaching award. When you meet, you’ll be able to share your own career aspirations, seek advice, and receive inside information on the inner workings of your field and institution. Knowledge is power, and the more information you have, the more likely you will know where to seek help and find success in your academic career path.

7. Use social media to stay in touch with your academic network

Academics might not necessarily be the most tech-savvy professionals, but some faculty and researchers have a LinkedIn profile set up. If you have a LinkedIn profile (and we highly recommend it, especially if you are considering a career outside of academia!), you can connect with people in your academic network by sending a customized note.

Another social media platform that has gained traction especially in academic circles is Twitter. Set up a professional Twitter account, separate from your personal account if you have one.

On Twitter, find academics working in your field, universities where you would like to work, professional associations, and academic news communities to follow. Use hashtags to collate tweets on a specific subject to find other academics interested in similar topics. For instance, you can expand your network by looking up the following hashtags:

  • #PhDchat
  • #PhdAdvice
  • #phdlife
  • #AcWri
  • #AcademicTwitter
  • #highered
  • #ScholarSunday

If you are new to social media, don’t worry! You don’t have to jump in right away. Take time to figure out which social media platform works best for your networking goals and for your personality and brand.

Start small: set up your account, and start liking, retweeting or sharing, and commenting on posts you like as much or as little as you get used to the platform. You are in control of how much time you would like to spend on your professional social media accounts.

8. Make the most of academic conferences

If you are at the end of your PhD or if you are an early career academic, you should be attending conferences in your field to meet other scholars and researchers. However, with Covid-19 forcing many conferences to cancel or reschedule, in-person conferences might seem an impossibility for right now. Fortunately, some scholarly organizations and associations have opted to make their conferences virtual in the meantime so that academics can present research and connect with colleagues in their field.

Check out what the conferences in your field are offering in terms of virtual social meet-ups on Zoom or a similar video-hosting platform. Large conferences in particular will have sub-field groups for participants with similar research interests. Find out which ones are most applicable to you and see how you can attend any of their online events.

Have your elevator pitch ready, so that you can articulate what you do.

Invite people in your research field to attend your session or poster, if presentations will be conducted synchronously.

Attend sessions that are in your field and make note of the presenters’ contact information in the conference program. If there is no program, make note of their institution and you’ll be able to find their email on the department website. If you don’t have a chance to ask a question during the session, or to speak with them over a discussion board, you can reach out after the conference to establish a connection.

9. Get to know visiting faculty

Look for opportunities to meet visiting faculty who come to your campus or participate in an online panel with your university. Don’t be afraid to email them to tell them how much you enjoyed their talk.

Try asking them if they would be willing to hop on a brief Zoom call with you to talk further about their research or academic career. Stating clear expectations and time constraints around your talk might help them better know where to pencil you into their schedule.

10. Share accomplishments with your network

A good excuse to reach out to your network on a regular basis is to send news about accomplishments. Have you published an article in an important journal? Will you be presenting at a virtual international conference? Has your first book been published? Then, don’t be shy to share the news with your network in an email or on social media.

Of course, take some time to congratulate people in your network on their accomplishments too!

Grow your network online by following @beyondprof on social media and meet other PhDs in the Beyond the Professoriate Community on LinkedIn.

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