Another grad student recently asked me about how to network with potential collaborators or committee members. These were people she had met either through course work, contacts, or conferences, and who she wanted to keep in contact with. At least two were people she was considering for her committee.

I don’t think that networking as a student is all that much different from networking as a working professional. Everyone has crunch times, everyone likes to talk about themselves/their work, and no one wants you to waste their time unless you have something to offer.  Let me address each of these points in a bit more detail.

Everyone has crunch times

One thing to remember is that academic time isn’t like normal time.

  • Everyone gets slammed around finals, be it due to grading, or finishing things up
  • Producing our “work product” (research and ultimately journal articles) takes months

It is not uncommon for conversations to get set aside mid-stream and picked up months later. Just because you didn’t get a chance to contact the person due to finals doesn’t mean they will think anything of an email 3 months later. They were just as busy.

This means two things to you.  First, that you have a common bond in all that end-of-semester/end-of-project stress, and it makes a great opener.  Second, they are used to this kind of stop-and-go intermittent conversation.  You still need to be polite, apologize for the delay, etc., but as long as you aren’t doing that with EVERY message it is unlikely to  be seen as a big deal.  Apologize and move on.

Everyone likes to talk about themselves and their work

If you have ideas for specific collaborative projects, these ideas are usually the best way to approach the person. “I was thinking about doing an experiment on concept x and know that is one of your areas of expertise. Could we get together to talk though my idea so that I can get your feedback?” Once there, if they seem amenable, the idea seems solid, and you both seem to have time, you can broach the subject of either collaborating or of them mentoring you on the project.  However by asking their advice you are implicitly appealing to their ego, and more likely to get a positive response.  Notice also that you aren’t asking up front for a huge commitment; just a conversation and sounding board.

If you don’t have specific ideas, then talk to them about their latest research. Make sure you have something interesting to say other than just gushing; a question for clarification about what they said, a question about something (carefully phrased) that you think might have been overlooked, or just what led them to think about the problem in this way. Meeting over coffee for this kind of discussion is great and keeps you in their mind.

If their field is tangential to yours and you see something related to their field in one of your journals, you can forward them the reference with a “Don’t know if you saw this, but it touches on your field at a, b, and c points.” Keeping up with the literature is hard for everyone, so as long as you aren’t spamming them or sending them obvious stuff it can be a great way to keep you in their thoughts when there isn’t a specific project and to show them your interest.

Have something to offer them

You need to bring something to the table, be it project ideas, introductions to people that might be able to help them, new research references, or just, within reason, positive but thorough attention to their latest work.  Once you show them what you can offer they will remember you in a more positive light.

Part of the PhD process is becoming that person’s peer, and to do so you have to carry your own weight on projects. Students who fawn and say “I really want to work with you” but don’t have a specific idea are perceived as “not ready yet”. Students who are independent but seeking guidance get lots of it and develop long-term relationships that are more equitable and advantagious for everyone.  This is particularly important in the case of people who might end up on your committee, as independence and your own ideas are key signals of a student who is ready to be a peer.

Put yourself out there

In the end though you just have to put yourself out there. If you don’t start the conversation, it won’t happen.  Most academics enjoy talking about their work and don’t mind working with eager, competant students.  Be one of those and the rest will come together.