Maybe you’ve heard the adage, “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know.” With so many professional connections developed through networking, that advice remains relevant. Meeting other professionals in your field plays a big role in launching your career after grad school, so there’s every reason to start networking early. If done well, those contacts will have lifelong effects on your career.
Networking isn’t magic, but it does require time, effort, and a solid set of best practices. That might seem intimidating, and you might be unsure about how to get started.
Our guide to grad school networking lays out the essential skills you need to build connections with confidence. It delves into networking opportunities available to graduate students, details where to look for new contacts, and offers expert advice from a networking professional. Read on to start building connections and expanding your circle today.
Why Networking is Critical
Networking as a graduate student has several distinct advantages. From getting the inside scoop on new job opportunities to supporting your progress through your grad school program, establishing connections early and maintaining them over time helps position you for success. Having a solid network in place eases the transition involved in taking on new roles and making career changes. Here are a few benefits you can enjoy as a well-networked graduate student.
Many job openings are never posted online. In fact, according to an article on Payscale.com, some experts estimate that 85% of new hires are filled through networking efforts behind the scenes. This means your professional contacts could hold the key to helping you land the job of your dreams. That said, you can’t take advantage of that benefit if you don’t have network connections to rely on when the time comes. Even if you’re applying to an advertised job, insider knowledge can help you get your foot in the door.
A graduate program can be demanding and often results in stress, anxiety and feelings of isolation. Your network connections help mitigate those factors by providing a social support system and giving you a sense of camaraderie and connection. Studies show that grad students with solid networks and quality social support often report healthier habits, better academic performance, and more positive experiences overall.
Updates on Industry News
Word travels fast in professional networks, and regular contact with your connections keeps you informed on the latest developments in your field. Whether it’s groundbreaking research results, recent publications and data, or information on new business developments, your network acts as a hub curated with your professional aims and career interests in mind. Use your contacts as a resource, and be sure to reciprocate by sharing key information you come across.
Grad Student’s Networking Essentials
Networking is a skill that takes time and practice to develop. Unsure where you should start? Use the best practices below to establish valuable connections and expand your professional circles even before you complete your studies. Many of these tips will help with your job hunt once you finish your studies as well.
Everyone needs an elevator speech. It should be no more than a minute long—about the length of an elevator ride—and pique your listener’s interest. That listener could be a potential connection in your network, so make it count!
Effective elevator speeches contain essential bits of information about you, your work or career aims, and your professional needs (i.e., the pitch, ask, or key question you want to be answered). As you craft your elevator speech, consider your answers to these three questions.
Who am I?
Create a short list of how you might describe yourself to a potential colleague or coworker. Keep it as professional as possible, and remember that you’re talking to a future colleague, not your best friend. Avoid personal asides and instead focus on your background, area of specialization, or research focus.
What do I do or want to do?
Here you can build things out a bit more and offer your audience a more complete picture of your professional self. If you’re already working in your field, mention how your current role drives your career focus. If you’re still in school, address how you’ll apply the skills you’ve acquired after graduation.
What’s the pitch or ask?
This could be as simple as a request to stay connected or exchanging contact information. In other situations, your request could be more specific—a pitch to join a collaborative endeavor, an ask for professional advice, and so on. End your elevator speech with a clear and concise question that opens space for further conversation with your new contact.
Remember to keep your elevator speech as brief as possible. You don’t want your potential connection to get bogged down with details; save those for later. If successful, your new contact may ask follow-up questions, allowing you to delve into more detail.
Introducing yourself and talking with people you don’t know takes courage. Where do you begin? That’s where ice-breakers come in.
Ice-breakers typically include questions or prompts designed to jumpstart the conversation. These can help break down social barriers, making it easier for you to talk to a potential contact. Consider these potential ice-breaker questions the next time you’re faced with a networking opportunity in grad school.
Questions to Ask Other Grad Students
- Tell me, what is your story?
- What factors influenced your decision-making when you were applying to grad schools?
- What is your academic background? What did you study before grad school?
- What is your specialization or area of concentration? How do you see it preparing you for your dream job?
- What has your work history been so far? How does it support your current professional goals?
Questions to Ask Faculty and Industry Professionals
- What jobs or professional experiences were most helpful in preparing you for your current role?
- Other than academic training, what can I do to best prepare for work in our field or industry?
- What trends or developments do you foresee in the coming years, and what should I do to prepare?
- What strategies do you recommend for new job seekers?
- What is one skill that’s essential to your current position but wasn’t covered in your academic training?
When industry professionals make new connections, they often exchange business cards. This helps secure the relationship and makes it easier to follow up. Networking cards serve the same purpose for graduate students seeking to build their professional networks.
These cards typically include your name, contact information, school, area of study, and any other information you feel is appropriate. For example, if you’ve already established an online presence that reflects your professional aims, you might want to include those details on your card.
These examples from the University of Toronto offer some different options for formatting your networking card and adding your personal flair. Once you’re ready to begin, use Adobe’s free template to create a memorable card for your new connections. Depending on your field, you might also want to develop a digital or electronic version.
An Open and Curious Attitude
In addition to formal training, graduate school allows you to begin developing your professional attitude. Successful working professionals and graduate students in training make the best impression when they take the initiative, welcome feedback, show gratitude and keep an open mind.
A positive, professional attitude can make all the difference and will serve you well throughout your studies and professional life after graduation. Strive to enter any networking opportunity—from individual meetings to larger gatherings—with an open mind and genuine desire to build relationships. Demonstrating a sincere interest in the person, you’re meeting and practicing active listening will go a long way toward building robust and valuable professional networks.
A Plan of Attack
Whenever possible, avoid going into situations completely blind. Set goals for yourself before each meeting, call or conference. Those goals could vary quite a bit depending on the event.
If it’s an initial 1:1 meeting, you might only need basic contact information or general industry insight. But suppose you’re conducting a targeted informational interview. In that case, your goals could include a more detailed sense of the person’s role in their field and typical day-to-day responsibilities. At larger conferences, you’ll likely need to set goals both for the entire event and for specific interactions.
Pen and Paper
Write down any notes or impressions that come to mind as you meet people. You won’t remember everything, and, while digital note-taking has merits, taking out your phone during a meeting could be distracting. It’s always best to have a pen and notepad handy. If your new connection gives you a networking or business card, consider jotting notes on the back to refresh your memory later.
Do’s and Don’ts
Use this handy list of networking do’s and don’ts as you work to make and maintain professional connections in grad school and beyond.
Enter each networking situation with concrete goals in mind. Your goals don’t need to be complex; they’re simply designed to keep you focused during the interaction.
Keep an Open Mind
While your goals will drive your networking endeavors, keep an open mind as you seek new connections or reconnect with old ones. The conversation or meeting could take a different trajectory than you anticipated, and you don’t want to miss out on unexpected opportunities.
Cast the Net Wide
Not every initial contact results in a proper professional connection. Keeping this in mind, it’s best to start by building a professional network that’s broad. Once you’ve done that and know more about where your graduate studies are taking you, narrow your focus.
Always Follow Up
Follow-up contact is key to establishing long-term professional connections. This is especially the case when making initial contact. If you don’t follow up, then the connection could dwindle. Keep your follow-up contact brief—a short note, email, or phone call will go a long way and will help solidify the connection.
Relationships and professional contacts are what you make of them. If one of your connections does something for you—extends a professional favor or attends an event—strive to pay them back as best you can. Networking is a two-way street; your connections may not last if you don’t take the initiative and show support.
Don’t Dismiss Opportunities
Attending events and making good on your networking commitments can be taxing at times, but every opportunity you pass up could be a potential connection lost. Try your best to meet these demands, especially if you’ve booked an appointment for a coffee date or committed to attending an event.
Don’t Let Connections Go Cold
Always remember that initial contact is only the first step. The real work happens when you follow up or reach out to touch base and reconnect. Failing to do this could mean that your contacts wither away, ultimately shrinking the network you’ve put time and effort into building. Maintain regular communication with your connections, and be sure to follow up if you haven’t heard from them in a while.
Don’t Receive More Than You Give
People can tell if you aren’t putting forth the effort to maintain a relationship, professional contacts included. Anytime you receive something from a connection, consider how you can show gratitude for their efforts or lend a helping hand. The golden rule is a great rule of thumb here: Treat the people in your networks the same way you want to be treated.
Don’t Let Your Records Get Disorganized
Nothing is worse than being unable to track down key information at important moments. Whether it’s locating a phone number or email address or finding your notes from a previous meeting, organized record keeping helps you work efficiently and productively. Find a note-taking and contact system that works for you, and stick to it. That way, you’ll be able to easily find what you’re looking for the next time you want to connect with someone.
Don’t Waste Your Time (or Others’)
You won’t be able to do everything, and if you try, you’ll likely be unable to give opportunities the time and attention they deserve. This goes back to setting concrete goals. If you’re clear on what you want, your time and others’ time won’t be wasted. Avoid committing to networking events that don’t serve those goals; instead, immerse yourself in activities that further your professional aims.
Networking Hotspots: Where to Go as a Grad Student
Networking can technically happen anywhere, but some places are more conducive to establishing professional connections than others. The key here is meeting the right people. Where should you look? If you’re a grad student looking to connect with new peers and professionals in your field, here are a few hotspots to consider.
Attending academic conferences, talks, or other events in your field is a great way to meet peers or rekindle existing professional connections. Conferences are often a hotbed for professional networking activity. They also help keep you up to date with the latest developments in your field.
Regularly attending regional or national conferences puts you in a good position to build networks that support career advancement. Set clear goals in advance, and be sure that you manage your time. These events typically last a few days, so you’ll want to be strategic about the activities you select.
The Library and Other Study Spots
Where do grad students gather to study and work on assignments at your school? Places such as the university library and other study spots can be great for meeting fellow grad students and forming networking connections.
Consider giving this a shot if you’re an in-person student but don’t typically go to these locations. If you already frequent them, adopt a networking mindset the next time you’re there. The informal, low-stakes environment can break down social barriers, making it easier for you to meet people in your discipline or a related field.
After grad school, industry professionals rely on associations, guilds, and other organizations for their networking endeavors. Familiarizing yourself with the range of organizations available while still in grad school will put you in a better position to be well-connected after you graduate.
There are quite a few professional associations out there, so you’ll need to narrow your search. Start with your discipline or specialization and go from there. Your adviser and department should be able to help; they might even have a list of organizations that closely relate to your school or program.
Campus or School-Based Resources
Most colleges and universities offer quite a few campus-based resources designed for graduate students who need networking opportunities. Options include departmental groups, research institutes and career centers, student guilds, and other initiatives. Here’s an example of the possibilities some schools offer.
In some cases, your program may require participation in these resources. But even if that’s not the case, voluntary involvement puts your name out there and could lead to lasting networking connections. Check with your program and consider reaching out to your advisers and mentors to see what’s available and how to get involved.
Be open to informal events, volunteer opportunities, unofficial gatherings, and extracurricular activities. While these are often ad hoc and unscheduled, they can provide a great opportunity to seek additional network connections, especially among fellow grad students.
Examples range from official events affiliated with your school to last-minute coffee or drink hangouts after class. Your goals don’t need to be big; simply making new contact and exchanging information could pay off in the long run.
Connecting Online: The Power of Social Media
Online activity plays a big role not only in everyday life but also in networking. Social media offers graduate students opportunities to expand their networks and social circles beyond the confines of space and geography. It’s also a great way to stay up to date on cutting-edge developments in your area of expertise. Smartly capitalizing on this opportunity allows you to connect with people at different institutions or in similar fields across the world.
Like most networking opportunities, social media is a useful networking tool only if you’re prepared and intentional. Start building an online presence while you’re still in your program, so you have a solid platform to help launch your career once you graduate. Seek other professionals in your field, consider how they present themselves online, and optimize your profile accordingly. Consider joining the following social networks as you work to expand your connections.
A go-to platform for many, Twitter offers a space for graduate students and professionals to connect and share their work. Likewise, many graduate schools and departments also use the tool to publicize events and share developing information.
Twitter offers users a platform to make short, mostly text-based posts of 280 characters or less. Personal and professional profiles are easy to set up. The platform has a powerful search function that allows you to conduct targeted searches based on hashtags, trending topics or keywords. Curate a list of followers that reflect your interests.
Known as the “front page of the internet,” Reddit is a discussion-based platform organized around different topics. These communities (or “subreddits,” as they’re called) range from general interest topics to very specific subjects and fields. Subscribers to these communities gather to support one another, ask or answer questions, and participate in the free-flowing discussion.
Subreddits like r/AskAcademia, r/GradSchool, and r/Academia offer a space for students to gather, network, and discuss the rhythms and demands of life in graduate school. The platform also hosts individual, grad-school-related subreddits in quite a few prominent fields and disciplines, such as business, nursing, and social work.
LinkedIn is a social media tool designed specifically for job seekers and working professionals. The platform’s profile function is a digital version of your resume or CV. It allows you to highlight key accomplishments and signal that you’re open to new work opportunities.
Most users turn to the site to create or maintain their professional networks through LinkedIn’s messaging and content-sharing features. Users can also create or join various groups on the platform, including grad school alumni groups. Schools provide best practice guidelines and other resources for graduate students interested in using the site.
How to Maintain Your Network
Establishing a solid professional network is only the beginning. Now that you’ve made your connections, you’ll need to grow and nurture them. This ensures that they last throughout your career and give you a return on your investment of time. Here are five ways to maintain quality relationships in your professional network.
Be Consistent in Outreach
Consistency is key. Like any living organism, your networks need consistent attention and maintenance to thrive. Don’t simply make the initial connection and then never reach out again. Remember that your connections and networks are yours—you’ll need to take the initiative if you want them to grow and help you advance your career.
Touch base with your contacts every few months. Reach out via phone or email and make a coffee date or something similar. If you want to make things even more personal, send a handwritten note.
Give More Than You Receive
When it comes to professional networking, it’s often better to be the giver in the relationship. Look for ways to go the extra mile and assist your connections when you can. Giving more than you receive in the short term can incentivize your connections and make them more likely to help when the time comes.
Some of your contacts might ask for direct assistance from time to time, but even if they don’t, you can always seek opportunities. Consider volunteering for one of their events, providing advice or expertise when needed, or offering a helping hand when crises emerge.
Audit Your Connections
While it may be tempting to play the numbers game, quality over quantity will help you be more efficient and productive in your networking. Avoid racking up connections just for the sake of it instead, consider how they can help you and what role you want them to play in your professional life.
Regular housekeeping helps reduce the clutter. Audit your contacts from time to time and evaluate their relevance in light of your current goals. Your goals and career aim likely won’t stay fixed, and neither should your professional network. You might need to trim things down now to allow room to expand later.
Attend Conferences and Other Professional Events
Many grad school alumni and industry professionals benefit from network connections across the country and around the world. When this is the case, annual conferences, regional meetups, and other affiliated events act as a way to reconnect in person, ultimately enabling you to better maintain your networks over time.
Once you have a solid network, attend as many of these opportunities as possible. Reach out to your contacts before the event to see if they’ll be in attendance and suggest times to meet and reconnect.
Show Gratitude and Support
Everyone loves gratitude and support, whether a simple comment on a social media post, a text or email, a handwritten note, or a brief phone call. Pay attention to what’s going on with your connections, and be sure to acknowledge how they’ve helped you in your professional life by following up promptly.
Reciprocate by showing support when the opportunity arises and using your resources on their behalf. Doing so helps strengthen your relationship, solidifying the connection and opening the door for future opportunities.
Additional Networking Resources
- How Can You Use Social Media to Your Advantage in Grad School? (The Society for Personality and Social Psychology): This article lists best practices for grad students looking to leverage social media for networking. It includes productivity tips and advice on how to seek out new contacts.
- How to Build Your Network as a First-Generation Student (Harvard Business Review): Written by a networking professional who focuses on helping first-generation and underrepresented students, this piece looks at ways to expand your circle of connection in grad school. It also offers guides for making initial contact and how to follow up in thoughtful ways.
- How to Network and Add Value to Yourself and Others (The Grad Student Way): This series of blog posts examines the advantages of implementing good networking practices as a graduate student and lists strategies for establishing valuable connections over time. Additional resources include tips on how to make networking cold calls.
- How to Network as a Student and a Graduate (SHRM): This piece discusses what an effective networking mindset looks like for grad students in a range of disciplines and provides advice on approaching potential connections with clear long-term goals in mind.
- Networking 101 for Graduate Students (Cambridge University Press): This scholarly article examines the benefits of grad school networking and offers concrete practices for establishing contacts online and in person.
- Networking During Graduate School (University of Rhode Island): A definitive guide for grad students interested in conducting informational interviews with industry professionals, this resource includes a bank of potential questions and tips for setting up interviews.
- Networking Strategies for Graduate Students (University of Denver): From a college office of career and professional development, this blog post discusses strategies for grad student networking and links to resources for finding new contacts.
- The Importance of Establishing Connections (NYU): This article focuses on how to forge and nurture authentic network connections that will provide a solid return on investment once you graduate and enter the workforce.
- The Many Phases of Networking (Inside Higher Ed): The reflections in this piece consider networking as a process with several phases and offer advice on approaching your connections each step of the way.
- The Online Student’s Guide to Networking (Southern Nazarene University): A valuable resource for remote students and those seeking to establish connections virtually, this guide supplies best practices for online networking with peers, faculty, and industry professionals.
Expert Advice from a Networking Professional
Colleen Stevenson (she/her) is a PhD student who has worked and taught at the college level for many years. She is also a post-secondary transition coach and founder of Choose Your University, where she helps students plan their post-secondary pathways and become career-ready.
Q. What advice can you offer master's students who may be intimidated by networking or unsure about how to do it successfully?
A: Like many people, I find the term “networking” makes me think of uncomfortable conversations where someone is trying to sell you something. Think about it as “building professional relationships” instead because you are creating a network of colleagues.
Start by getting to know your fellow students because they are an important part of your network. And then remember that your professors are just people, too. Most of them don’t realize they might be intimidating. Get to know them and their research. This network will provide you with lots of opportunities to collaborate.
Q. What is the advantage of creating professional networks as a graduate student?
A: Having a network of colleagues will give you more options for collaboration in your research and work. These are the people who are going to work with you, hire you, let you know about opportunities, and refer you for jobs. So many people get hired because they knew the right people—someone knew they were looking for work or looking to collaborate, so they reached out.
Q. What one networking skill is essential for students to develop while in grad school?
A: Being able to introduce yourself concisely and confidently is a really important skill. Doing this will help people remember you and your research area, so they’ll think of you when opportunities arise.
Q. How can graduate students maintain and nurture their professional networks once they've made initial connections?
A: LinkedIn, Twitter and other social media are really useful tools for keeping in touch, posting updates on your own work and research, and seeing what your connections are up to. But to keep it personal, check in with folks individually, too. This is easiest on social media or at conferences by letting them know you read and enjoyed a recent publication or reaching out to see if they know anyone looking to collaborate on a particular topic.
Q. What's the best way for grad students to network at larger events like conferences or workshops?
A: Be brave and challenge yourself. If you find networking particularly intimidating, set a goal of speaking to a certain number of people each day. Start by speaking with other students and work up to speaking with professors, presenters, and other attendees. Chat with your neighbors in conference sessions—you never know who you’ll meet!