You are the center of your web of connection. The people you are connected to form your professional network. Your connections reach out in all directions.

The members of your network are the people you know who share your professional interests. These are two-way connections. You give to members of your network and they give to you. At the same time, you are a node in their network.

You build connections in three directions:

  • You network UP to those who are more powerful and important than you are.
  • You network ACROSS with your peers.
  • You network DOWN to those who are coming after you.

I explain why everyone needs a professional network for academic success in Why You Should Network. I describe the steps of networking in The Four I’s of Networking.

Here let’s talk about networking in three directions.

Networking Up

There are lots of people who are more knowledgeable and experienced than you are. These are usually the people you think of when you decide you need to “network.” Think broadly about who you can connect with. These people include:

  • Leading scholars in your field. These are the people whose names you know from articles and books and conference talks. Connecting with Dr. Famous can be exciting.
  • Faculty at other universities in your field
  • Faculty at your university, in your department or other departments
  • More senior grad students and postdocs in your program
  • Alumni of your program who are now working at different universities, research labs, and companies

Reach out and meet others

Connecting with those who are “up” from you can provide:

  • Access to resources and opportunities that you won’t have otherwise. They might invite you to participate in a conference or suggest you for a departmental seminar series. A research collaboration might result. More senior faculty might have a lab in which you can be a postdoc.
  • Feedback can spur your work along and nudge it in promising directions.
  • Introductions to others.
  • Encouragement for you and your work. When they take your ideas seriously, it provides a boost of confidence. It confirms that you are on the right track.

Networking Across

Building strong horizontal connections with peers is crucially important. Without them, you probably won’t succeed in grad school. Don’t try to go it alone. A strong web of peers will help you thrive.

  • Support and encouragement. They share experiences with you. You pick each other up when you are down. Peers laugh at the ridiculous moments. You celebrate together.
  • Study partners. Small study groups can help with tough courses. I would never have completed statistics without a study group. Dissertation writing groups are useful in later stages of grad school.
  • Information about resources. It can be tempting to keep knowledge to yourself: a new funding source, or a cool conference, or a job opportunity. Be generous. Develop a reputation as someone who shares information and fosters connections. Positive energy is usually rewarded in kind.
  • Advice and new ways of doing things. Everyone has their own approach, strengths, and history. Gathering lots of advice and input will give you a broader array of strategies and ideas for approaching your research and graduate studies.

Who are your peers and near-peers?

Nametags 3-small

Conferences are explicitly for developing your professional network

  • The students who are in your entering cohort in your program.
  • The members of your lab, and the other advisees of your faculty advisor.
  • Other grad students at your University. Which students are in your intellectual communities (a shared interest in plastics, or China, or pandemics)? Who shares an identity or hobby (Chinese grad students, cross country skiing)? Who are your neighbors, if you live on campus?
  • Peers at other universities. Deliberately seek out peers from other programs at conferences. Assemble groups of a half dozen folks to share a meal.

As the years go by, your peers will spread out across the country and the world, and will be working in a variety of universities and organizations. You will introduce others to them, and they will provide links to many more people. They will continue to be important members of your network.

Networking Down

Don’t neglect actively connecting with those coming behind you. To these people, you are an “up” networking node. This is your chance to pay it forward. You can emulate the kindness and generosity that was shown to you. How can you make grad school and academia less lonely and more communal?

Reach out to undergrads working in your lab. Find the new grad students who are just entering the program.

As you gain experience, there will be more people who see you as someone with whom they want to connect. It is quite a surprise the first time a student approaches you at a conference and says, “I have read your work. I am so excited to meet you.” It happens more and more over the years. How do you want an “up” person to respond to you? Copy the best. Smile, look them in the eye, shake hands, thank them for approaching you. Encourage them to ask you questions. Answer them honestly. Work to maintain the connection over time.


I emphasize the two-way connections of networking. This is to remind you that it is not just about getting, but also about giving. But this doesn’t mean that the giving and getting balance out perfectly in each relationship. Too often I hear, “I have nothing to offer that person. Why would they want to connect with me?” This belief stops people from reaching out, especially to those who are “up.”

Those who are more experienced and powerful than you still get something from you.

  • Younger scholars are on the cutting edge, and are a source of new ideas and approaches.
  • When they help you, they are paying back those who helped them.
  • It is inherently pleasurable to help other people. This is a profession of educators, and we care about nurturing others.
  • Being approached by those who come after you is one sign of your own success.

Read the Four I’s of Networking, and remember that you won’t always get a warm response when you reach out – in any direction. If you are rebuffed, lick your wounds, figure out what (if anything) you could have done differently, and try again with someone else.

If you are still unsure about working on your professional connections, read in Why You Should Network, which dispels 7 myths.

Featured image used under Creative Commons license from flickr user s9-4pr.

Published January 27, 2016.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.