Why PhDs Need to Network Now

Networking is a critical part of your career—whether you pursue a faculty job or a career beyond the professoriate. But it’s something many of us put off doing, especially as grad students. This is a huge mistake, one that can set us behind in our job search post-PhD and one that can leave us feeling alienated and isolated when we need a support network the most.

Here’s how long it took me to finally understand the importance of networking, what I did to re-frame my misconceptions about networking, and how networking helped me land my first post-PhD job. I’m sharing this story in hopes it will also help others see networking in a different light.

I Used to Think Networking Wasn’t For Me

In grad school, I thought networking was uncomfortable, weird, and kind of self-serving. It felt like I was “using” people to progress my career rather than letting my work speak for itself. But these feelings were based on many misconceptions I had about networking.

Truth is—I actually benefited from networking even as a grad student that hated it and thought she wasn’t doing it. I didn’t realize at the time that networking is just relationship-building—getting to know people I liked, following up with them, and also supporting them when I could. As an international student in Canada who had moved dozens of times in her life between the U.S. and Thailand, networking was actually something I did often in order to maintain a sense of community and support. I would eventually realize that’s essentially what networking is: finding ways to build and maintain a community.

When I Realized Even Academics Network

Towards the end of my PhD, a mid-career scholar suggested that I had a good network and was smart to be with the “in” crowd. I remember being a little shocked at the realization that he saw me as a “networker.” I didn’t want people to see me as someone who was talking to or working with scholars based on their reputation—I didn’t want to be that kind of person.

Yet I had to admit as a third year PhD student at the time, I was lucky to know several senior, well-respected scholars in my field. At conferences they came to my talks, took me to lunch, and supported my research in ways I’m still grateful for. I got lucky. My supervisor, the scholars who befriended me, the publications I was able to get and researchers I was able to work with as a result of these relationships were a huge boost to my academic career. Yet I was too naive to acknowledge at the time that this was the very real result of building up a network.

I “fell” into a network of academics who helped me throughout grad school. And as much as they supported me, I like to think that I helped others in my network as well—offering different perspectives as an international student, helping support projects when I could, organizing conferences, and contributing to our field. Maybe I couldn’t yet provide the level of support senior scholars did for me, but I started to see that they were helping me in ways that they themselves had been helped as emerging scholars.

When I started to Re-Think Networking

I knew 6 months before I defended my dissertation that a tenure-track job would not happen easily for me. Despite my academic network. Despite my publications. I pulled myself together and started to think even more about the importance of networking.

And let me tell you, there was point at which I really thought I had NO network outside of academia. I was an international student in Canada; I hadn’t grown up in North America and didn’t have any family in the country; I only had friends from undergrad and grad school; I had worked several part-time jobs but nothing stable enough to look like a career. In my eyes I had no network.

I was so wrong. I DID have a network. And I worked hard to continue to build one up when I realized I was going to be looking at a lot of post-ac jobs. Here’s what I did to leverage the network I already had:

I told everyone I knew I was considering non-academic career options.

    • I realize this may not be feasible for everyone, but as a humanities grad student I knew discussions about my prospects on the academic job market had to be realistic. I talked about this openly with my advisors, committee, and professors.
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    • One thing I did well throughout grad school was take courses in diverse fields of study. I also took on many contract roles and research assistantships. These were purely to help me stay afloat financially as a grad student, but these part-time jobs also meant I interacted with many people outside my department who I kept in contact with throughout grad school. In fact, my first post-PhD job was the result of a connection I had with professor whose course I had taken and had later worked for as an RA.

I said YES.

    • I know this sounds crazy and that much advice in grad school is about learning to say “no” and guarding your time. Like all advice, that’s true to some extent and in certain situations. Personally, I said “yes” to a lot more projects than people wanted me to—I said yes to more part-time jobs when I was already swamped in publishing and teaching. I said yes to organizing conferences and being on committees for projects totally unrelated to my dissertation topic. I said yes to talking to people in other departments, working for professors in 5 different disciplines, organizing reading groups, attending a random meeting with someone a professor thought I should meet.
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    • But that’s how I landed my first post-PhD job. When a professor suggested I meet with a local start-up founder who wanted to talk about storytelling and data analytics, I said “yes” (despite the fact that I had no background in data analytics). I put aside any misconceptions about it not being a “fit” for my academic career, did some research and thought about my skills in relation to data storytelling, thought about what I had to offer in the conversation, and then went to the meeting with curiosity and an open mind. Three months later I had a full-time job at his start-up.

I kept building my network.

    • After working at the start-up, I moved into a grant-writing position at a large, national non-profit in the US (yet another reminder your first post-PhD job won’t be your last!). By this time I knew how important networks were, and even though I enjoyed my job I didn’t stop networking. I helped recruit new board members to our non-profit by getting to know people at community events; I formed relationships with our volunteers and often attended events they recommended to me; I helped direct a colleague to a good Canadian accounting firm my partner knew; I even helped do some translation from Thai to English for an acquaintance once! In turn, I’ve built some great relationships with people in all walks of life–people I know I could reach out to for support or advice when needed.
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    • While I can’t provide a linear path of how all these events “led” to a new job or helped benefit me in some tangible way, they are all part of “networking” in the sense that I did them to support others and to build a community of people I hoped would continue to support me and others in the ways that they could. And people are grateful. Don’t underestimate reciprocity and what you have to offer others.

So why do grad students and PhDs need to network now? Because it’s never too early to build a community of kind, supportive people who will help you in whatever job you end up in. And building trust and genuine relationships takes time. Community building takes time. So start now and don’t discriminate—get to know people in all sorts of careers! Don’t be afraid to say “yes” to unique opportunities! And finally, don’t forget to thank people for their kindness and pay it forward when you can!

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Malisa Kurtz has a PhD in Interdisciplinary Humanities from Brock University. She currently works as part of the Beyond the Professoriate team.

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