Oct 31, 2022

Professional networking while pursuing your undergraduate and graduate degrees (insights from an anti-social academic on socializing)

Photo by Fatih on Unsplash
Overview: Networking requires more than just attending a conference and collecting a pile of business cards. To network, you need to make meaningful connections with others in your professional community so that you can exchange ideas and information. This is something that students should be doing within their own departments, across their institutions, and at professional events like conferences. Dr. Delphine Dean has helped many students overcome that awkward feeling of approaching people they don’t know and forming robust networks that helped those students enter their dream fields and positions. While a single blog post could not capture all her suggestions, the following post highlights the critical concepts to get you started.

Post Contributor(s): Drs. Marian Kennedy and Delphine Dean.


We get it.

It can be very difficult to introduce yourself to strangers in your discipline even if you are an extrovert in other areas of your life. Dr. Dean made me laugh when she explained her initial resistance to networking as an engineering undergraduate- “it seemed like something businesspeople would do, not us.” While it might not cross your threshold for “scary,” most can agree that the networking process feels awkward when you start to practice it. We are here to confirm that it will get better. Networking is a skill that, when practiced, will become second nature.

Graduate students sometimes ask us why they should attend conferences. They correctly note that seminars and conferences take time, and that they could learn all the science being discussed at the meetings by reading the conference papers, and that their thesis and dissertation work is very time intensive. The reason is that networking with other members of your professional field is vital. Your network will help you find research collaborators and career mentors, get jobs, and get nominated for awards and other recognitions.

A network is not a collection of people that you have met. It is a collection of people willing to help you in your career and potentially to be helped by you. To get your relationships to that level, you will need to cultivate relationships with others in your field. This process will take time and you need to start way before you will need to call on those people—that is way ahead of large changes like graduating with your PhD.

As a student, you can network in three main areas: at your institution, at professional conferences, and online.

On your campus, you can add to your network by connecting with faculty, students, and staff working on similar research. During your time as a student, you should do your best to get involved in whatever ways you can, even if that means stepping out of your comfort zone. One way you can build out your network is by joining a club that is related to your program. This will help you build out close personal relationships with others in your industry and can provide you with plenty of new career opportunities. You should also keep an eye out for industry-related events on campus, as these can be excellent networking opportunities. This is not just limited to your discipline because research topics tend to transverse those silos. In addition, you can meet external researchers who come to campus to give seminars and collaborate.

You can also network when you attend professional conferences. At these events, attendees can socialize during the technical sessions, opening/closing receptions, special topics/theme events, breaks or coffees hours, etc. You will also run into other attendees at the airport, on public transport, etc., when going to and coming from the conference.

To mingle well at a conference, you will need to prepare ahead of time. We suggest that you both get business cards made and practice introducing yourself.

Make a business card!

You need a physical card to pass off to people you meet. It makes it much easier to connect rather than spelling your name as it is typed into the contacts app on a phone. The card will also help the other person remember you. This card should contain your first and last name, professional contact information (institutional email and cell phone number) and other information from your email signature line. As a student this could include a link to your LinkedIn profile, your institutional affiliation and discipline, the degree program you are in (BS, MS, or PhD programs) and expected graduation date.

Dr. Dean had a lot of good advice to share on these. She really emphasized that your business card does not need to be fancy (no need for high weight card stock or foiled lettering). In fact, choose a script that is easy to be read rather than one that loops. When ordering, she also suggested that you get a manageable amount. You do not need 1,000 cards and will probably be okay with 100.

For most of us, one business card is enough. However, if you have multiple hats (are a student with a side hustle), you can have a different card for each activity or situations. You can have them for business and personal areas.

Make a LinkedIn account

While business cards are helpful in connecting you initially to others, a LinkedIn account is a good way to stay in touch as colleagues switch positions, etc. If you want to use social media, we suggest that you use LinkedIn for your professional contacts. It is the world’s largest professional network. According to NACE’s Class of 2015 Student Survey, it is also the most useful. Your LinkedIn account doesn’t have to be elaborate on everything, especially early in your career; just make sure it has your name, education, and any previous work experience. After you meet a new person, you should send them a request to be connected within the LinkedIn system. It’s useful to make that connection request personal, to remind the contact where they met you, instead of sending the default request.

Prepare to introduce yourself to others in person

An introduction should not be your life story or a very in-depth technical description of things. So, practice this introduction before getting to the conference so that your personal brand is clear. A personal brand is how you want others to see yourself—the expertise, experience, and personality. People will pull this information from your media presence online, your communication style, your appearance, and how you treat with others. We really liked the hints in “6 steps for perfecting personal branding” by CAREERSwithSTEM on how to set your brand. They first suggest that you look at the profiles of other STEM professionals online and then Google yourself.

When you introduce yourself to others, be sure to look them in the eyes and shake hands. You need to introduce who you are (Name, pronouns, “title/job”), what are you currently doing, and what you would eventually like to do. This whole introduction should take less than two minutes (think 4-6 sentences). For example:

Hi! My name is Jane Smith and I am a graduate student at the Clemson Department of Chemistry. I study the wear performance of films and hope to work at a national laboratory on bearings.

Ask your friends to practice shaking hands and doing introductions. It gets easier the more you do it!

Find your technical people

As a student, your goal will normally be to present your work, gain feedback from others pursuing studies in similar areas, and collect relevant knowledge for your studies such as emergent characterization methods. So, focus on the sessions that align with your research interests and identify those that are essential for you to attend. A conference will typically run a full week with events scheduled from the early morning to late evening. For most attendees, it is not possible to engage consistently for that length of time. We loved PhD candidate Pedro Márquez-Zacarías’s comment on this in “Lessons for Aspiring STEM Grad Students” in Scientific American: “It is okay (even recommended!) to not attend all sessions. It is better to be selective: which talks are relevant to your work? Who would you benefit [from] talking to?”-

Get comfortable, remember your business cards, and make the most of your conference 

As you pack for a conference, pack clothes and shoes that are comfortable so you can focus on the science and the people. Go ahead and put your business cards in your jacket pocket or wallet and then head to one of the conference technical sessions or social events. These events normally include beverages or light snacks being served. Be sure to get yourself a beverage. It puts other people at ease, and they will not be continuously offering to let you go get your drink.

If someone gives you their business card, write a few things about them on the back so that you can remember who that person is at the end of the conference (it will all start to blur together).

After you have talked to a few people, make sure to move around. That way you will meet more people. After introductions, be sure to keep the conversation flowing. This can be done by asking follow up questions or moving the discussion to a new topic. Most people enjoy discussing food and science, so start there. Keep the discussions centered on professional aspects unless the other person signals a willingness to delve into personal topics such as kids, finances, etc.

Especially if there are sit down dinner/events, try to join tables with people you don’t know. It’s not very helpful for your networking if you just sit at table that’s full of people from your own program/university.

There are just a few things that you should take care not to do when networking at a conference. (1) Do not say negative things about other people, departments, institutions, etc. You never know who is behind you or if they will hear the context of the conversation. Save those conversations for other venues. (2) Pace yourself with all food and drinks. Enough said. (3) Discuss inclusive topics that will not illicit emotional responses. For example, normally it is best to shy away from politics, religion, marital status, intentions of having children, etc.

Follow up and then follow up again

When you get home from a conference, remember to follow up with those you met. Send a personal email to that person with a reminder about who you are. Be sure that the email also identifies how you connected (the event that you met at, etc.). Then, make an effort to touch base at least on a yearly basis. In these interactions, focus on way you can help them. Share information such as job openings, research papers, etc. As it says in “6 steps for perfecting personal branding,” recommendations might go beyond work to include personal recommendations for things you know you have in common. Building a network is all about being mutually supportive. It can even be fun. 

About our guest contributor: Dr. Delphine Dean is the Ron and Jane Lindsay Family Professor in the Clemson Department of Bioengineering. She earned her S.B., M.Eng., and Ph.D. degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT. Dr. Dean works on translational projects aimed at designing medical devices, sensors, and diagnostics for low-resource settings. She is also the director of the Research and Education in Disease Diagnostics and Intervention (REDDI) Lab, Clemson University’s first high complexity Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA)–certified facility. The goal of the REDDI labs is to provide regular, rapid clinical testing for Clemson faculty, staff, and students and to expand and facilitate testing availability for the entire upstate South Carolina community. Since the start of the pandemic, Dr. Dean’s lab has done over 1 million COVID tests. Fun fact, Dr. Dean also is a ballet dancer, and she performs in the Nutcracker each year.

Acknowledgements: This blog post was edited by Kate Epstein of EpsteinWords. She specializes in editing and coaching for academics, and she can be reached at kate at epsteinwords.com.