Academic Networking for PhD Students: 5 Ways to Do It Better

Okay grad students, be honest here:

Does just hearing the word “networking” make you want to vomit in your mouth a little?

Understandable! To many academics and PhD students, networking doesn’t exactly come naturally. It’s certainly not the reason we went to grad school!

But (there’s always a “but”) networking for PhD students is an absolutely essential skill, both in academia and beyond.

Academic networking opens opportunities for publishing, collaboration, building your CV, and even exploring post-ac career opportunities.

It sounds like a cliché, but you truly never know what might happen.

Remember when you were first heading off to college, and your mother tried to cram that gigantic rice cooker or antique dining table in the back of the car?

“You never know!” she said with total seriousness.

Well, in total seriousness, you never know when all that academic networking you did years ago will come in handy!

Face it, you need friends in this business. The academic world can be a cold and dark place. Don’t go it alone.

This article offers 5 academic networking tips to help you learn the fine art of networking for PhD students. We’ll discuss social media, academic conferences, how to engage with professional associations, and more.

1. Networking for PhD Students: Academic Twitter

Huh? “Academic Twitter”?

Well, actually it’s just regular Twitter. But you’d be surprised by how many academics and PhDs are on it. In fact, there’s an #AcademicTwitter hashtag with some pretty great stuff on it. Check if out if you feel inclined.

As we’ve discussed previously, social media skills are crucial for PhD students both in and beyond the academy.

Academic Twitter is a great venue for practicing public engagement and public outreach. These are key elements of networking for PhD students.

Tweet about interesting events or news stories relevant to your research. Follow fellow academics and engage with them often (without becoming annoying, of course). 

Be aware that your Twitter handle is part of your professional online brand. Choose a neat, professional-looking headshot and keep your tweets focused on relevant topics.

If you want to tweet about other things, it might be better to keep those to a separate Twitter handle. Just a suggestion!

2. Networking for PhD Students: Academic Conferences

The second of our academic networking tips is to schmooze at academic conferences.

How important is this, you ask? The following is a 100% true story:

  • Once upon a time, a hapless young PhD student attends his first major academic conference.
  • While volunteering at the University of Chicago Press display table, he catches a name tag out of the corner of his eye.
  • He knows that name! It’s a researcher who wrote the very book that inspired him to pursue his current research topic!
  • He leaps up and, fumbling over his words like a fanboy meeting a rock star, says “Hi Professor! We haven’t met but I just wanted to say I read your new book and I thought it was really great!”
  • The researcher replies: “Really?! That’s great to hear! What kinds of things are you currently working on?”
  • A few months later, the student finishes a draft of a paper he had been working on for several months.
  • He finally musters up the courage to email it to the researcher and ask for his advice and feedback.
  • Three weeks later, he gets a reply: “Hello! I just wanted to say how much I liked your paper. In fact, I was wondering if we could publish it in this new journal I’m editing!”

The moral of the story is: networking at academic conferences matters. A lot. Meeting the right person can open up key opportunities and turbocharge your early academic career.

It’s hard, we know. Forcing yourself to converse with senior scholars you’ve never actually met before feels super awkward.

A few of them may ignore you, blow you off, or plainly not want to talk to you. We’ve all been there.

But rest assured, the more you practice your academic networking, the easier it becomes. Conferences are the place to do that.

3. Networking for PhD Students: Volunteer for Professional Associations

Most academic disciplines have a U.S.-based flagship professional association.

Historians have the American Historical Association, mathematicians have the Mathematical Association of America, etc.

One great way to get started with academic networking and build a professional network is to volunteer for one of these associations!

You might join the graduate student committee of the Medieval Academy of America. You might join the Forum on Graduate Student Affairs at the American Physics Society

Additionally, most academic fields contain a constellation of smaller formal or informal groups serving different subfields or based in different geographical areas. Ask your advisor or colleagues which conferences/societies they participate in.

Whatever conference/association you frequent, look up their opportunities for graduate students.

Serving as a graduate-student liaison, outreach coordinator, etc. is a great way to network with students and professors from different universities.

And, unlike conferences where you might chat with someone for ten minutes after a panel and promptly never see them again, volunteering allows you to work with people over the long term and get to know them.

4. Networking for PhD Students: Take Different Classes

Especially during your first couple semesters of graduate school, take a wide variety of different classes from departments outside your own.

Obviously, these classes should have some plausible connection to your primary research interest. But don’t be afraid to go well beyond your comfort zone.

Getting to know different professors from multiple departments is one of the best academic networking tips we can offer.

After all, expanding your horizons and exploring different intellectual avenues is the very essence of a liberal arts education. And, later on, these professors may write letters of reference, serve on your dissertation committee, or help publish your next article.

This kind of academic networking will be invaluable if you want to apply for interdisciplinary funding opportunities.

Interdisciplinary is all the rage in academic circles these days. If at all possible, identify an interdisciplinary angle on your research and find a professor from a different department willing to support you.

It’ll pay off in the long run, we promise.

5. Networking for PhD Students: Utilize On-Campus Resources

The last of our academic networking tips is to get involved with an interdisciplinary research center on campus.

Most R1 research universities have myriad “centers” or “institutes” or other such things. Examples might be:

  • Center for Asian Studies
  • Environmental Institute
  • Center for Transportation Studies
  • Institute for Engineering in Medicine
  • Center for the American South
  • Center for Writing

These are just generic examples. Check out your on-campus resources. Just google “[your university & college] + research centers” and see what comes up!

Getting involved with on-campus centers is super easy. Attend their weekly talks. Go to workshops. Join their email list.

These days, many of these events may be held via Zoom. This has downsides and upsides.

On one hand, it’s definitely harder to schmooze at remote meetings. On the other hand, you can literally just roll out of bed, put on a shirt, open your laptop, and attend a Friday morning colloquium!

Point is, there’s really no excuse not to participate in local, on-campus events. A research center is a fantastic resource that graduate students at different universities may not have access to. If you have the opportunity, don’t waste it.

Conclusion

Networking for PhD students isn’t hard or overly complicated. Mostly, it requires persistence, dedication, and a bit of luck.

Keep talking to people, keep volunteering and attending events, and eventually all that work will begin to bear fruit.

Again, it sounds cheesy, but you really, truly never know what might happen! Networking, in all its randomness and serendipity, is how you advance your career, both in academia and beyond.

We sincerely hope you find these academic networking tips helpful. For more networking advice, check out these social media tips for your post-academic job hunt.

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