Networking tips for graduate students

Attending Experimental Biology in San Diego? Check out these tips for effective conference networking!
By Carolyn Beans

Networking tips for graduate students

Carolyn Beans, contributor At my first academic conference I didn’t introduce myself to anyone. As a first year graduate student I directed every bit of bravery toward my talk, which left nothing extra for approaching the scientists I admired. At the next conference I fully intended to introduce myself to every evolutionary biologist in sight.

At my first academic conference I didn’t introduce myself to anyone. As a first year graduate student I directed every bit of bravery toward my talk, which left nothing extra for approaching the scientists I admired.
At the next conference I fully intended to introduce myself to every evolutionary biologist in sight. But at every coffee break and social mixer most professors were locked in conversation with each other. To talk with these scientists, I needed to break in on the conversation—a seemingly impossible task.
I found, however, that with a few tricks and a lot of preparation, introductions at conferences become much less intimidating. Here are some lessons I’ve learned over the years, which I wish someone had told me before I headed out to my first big meetings.
1) Jump in on the conversation—Even though you may feel awkward, silly, or rude, you must join in on conversations. The first time I approached a scientist at a social mixer, I waited for what felt like 20 minutes for her to turn from her colleague and acknowledge me. I actually considered backing away slowly and then making a run for it. In reality, the wait was probably about 20 seconds. Ten minutes later she invited me to give my first guest lecture.
2) Have an opening ready—Immediately launching into your elevator talk seems unnatural. Instead, open with a question or observation about a scientist’s work. Then he or she will inevitably ask what you study. Cue elevator talk.
3) Get over insecurities about your work—Maybe you hate your elevator talk because your research isn’t going well. No one is more empathetic about failed experiments and underwhelming results than professors who have endured decades of them.
4) Practice ahead—Practice introducing yourself and transitioning into your elevator talk with your fellow graduate students before heading to the conference.
5) Use connections—If you can’t bring yourself to break into a conversation, ask a professor you do know to make the introductions.
6) Email ahead—Check out the program as the conference approaches to see who is presenting. If there is a professor you are especially eager to talk with, then email him or her to ask about setting up a time to meet. You can also use social media to connect with many delegates. Emailing ahead eliminates that uncomfortable introduction period. Also, for large conferences, scheduling a meeting ensures that you actually find the person you’re looking for.
7) Book a room nearby—Networking can be tiring for even the most extroverted conference attendee. Last summer I stayed in dorms located a solid twenty-minute walk from the conference venue. When networking fatigue set in, there was nowhere to escape unless I wanted to miss out on a good portion of the afternoon. When a classmate and I confessed our exhaustion to our professor, she suggested that next time (if we could afford the expense), we should book a hotel room close by. This gives you a place to break away for a quick 10-minute recharge without missing much of the action. There you can take a few deep breaths and enjoy some silence. Or, if you’re like me, you’ll want to listen to some music to pump you up for more. My personal favorite songs for conference confidence boosting are ‘Lady Don’t Tek No’ by Lyrics Born and ‘As Cool As I Am’ by Dar Williams.
So at your next conference, prepare ahead, book a recharge room, blast some tunes, and then go meet your future postdoc adviser.

How to be an academic without working 60 hours a week


A Twitter argument about how many hours academics should work prompted Lucy Foulkes to seek out advice for early career researchers

Taken from
Last week a tweet about academics’ working hours went viral:

I tell my graduate students and post-docs that if they’re working 60 hours per week, they’re working less than the full professors, and less than their peers. 

It clearly hit a nerve on academic Twitter. Many argued that they didn’t work these hours, and critically, they would never want to push this idea on junior colleagues. This hit home with me. During my PhD and postdoc, for a number of reasons, I almost exclusively “just” worked office hours. Now at the start of a lectureship, I feel a massive expectation from the wider academic system that my working hours will have to change. Reading all the responses on Twitter was genuinely eye-opening: I just had no idea that so many successful academics clock in at 40-45 hours a week. If I didn’t know this, maybe other early career researchers (ECRs) didn’t either. So I contacted lots of people who responded to the tweet to answer a simple question: How can you be a productive academic without working long hours? Here I’ve collated the responses to create more helpful – and more realistic – advice for ECRs.

Working outside office hours doesn’t mean working 60 hours a week

Many people agreed that they worked in the evening or at weekends, some occasionally, some regularly. However, what was clear was that, typically, people work at these times because they are not at their desk during office hours, and so overall they spent a similar amount of time working.

I had to be a bit flexible when my kids were little … but I tried really hard not to change the number of hours I worked in a typical day.
Jenni Rodd, reader in experimental psychology, UCL

Others said they started later in the day because they preferred to work in the evening or at night. Critically, people often seem to be working long hours because they work (and send emails) outside of office hours, but this doesn’t mean they are working round the clock.

Periods of working longer hours are temporary

Most people said they occasionally worked longer hours. For some, this varied week to week, such as Philipp Berens (group leader in ophthalmic research, University of Tübingen):

If something really important has to be finished, I occasionally work a few hours on the weekend or evenings (less than once a week).

For others, it varied at different life or career stages, such as working longer hours before having children or in the build-up before getting a promotion. Everyone has periods where they work long hours, but this didn’t happen every day throughout their career. And it is perhaps this notion – the idea of relentlessly working long hours – that is such a toxic message to send out. Few students would be intimidated by a career that involves temporary periods of hard graft; implying that this happens all the time is what is so unhelpful and inaccurate.

Maximise your efficiency

Since I have never worked long hours, I’m always interested to learn how people work effectively within limited time frames. Many people I contacted mentioned strategies for dealing with email, often checking it less frequently: “If I really need to concentrate I just close my email tab on my internet browser for a few hours,”said Nichola Raihani, professor of evolution and behaviour at UCL, “I probably check and reply to emails about 4/5 times per day.” Others scheduled time for intensive tasks:

I use my online calendar to schedule out my time, I make sure I blank out time for thinking and writing (often the first things that can disappear from your planning) and I protect that time fiercely. I try to load all my meetings into a few days a week so that I have better windows for analysis and writing.
Victoria Simms, lecturer in psychology, Ulster University
I put a timer on Google that beeps after 40 minutes (or a timer on your phone). I then only allow myself to focus on that one single task for the entire 40 minutes….I do not let myself open other windows than the one I’m working on, even if it’s to check a reference- I make a note to do it at another time in the current document.
Charlotte Brand, postdoc in human behaviour and evolution, University of Exeter

Many people said that having a family at home made them more focused at work, such as Kathryn Asbury, senior lecturer in psychology in education, University of York:

If I have promised to be home for bedtime stories at seven, then that really focuses the mind when there are tasks that need to be finished (and there always are).

The specific strategy varied across individuals, but what seemed essential to working fewer hours was learning how to maximise productivity in the time you had.

Personal working schedules shouldn’t be pushed on others

Some academics choose and are able to work long hours, often because they enjoy it. But for many, external circumstances dictate the hours they can work, and sending the message that this precludes an academic career is damaging. One senior lecturer in humanities said this:

A long-hours culture excludes everyone with caring responsibilities, illnesses, and disabilities, which could be any one of us at any time during our lives.

Everyone agreed that, whatever your own circumstances, the expectation to work long hours should not pushed upon students or other colleagues. “I think I am very explicit to them that I never expect [students and postdocs] to put in time outside the normal hours, unless they want to themselves,” said Joost Dessing, lecturer in psychology, Queen’s University Belfast. “If they get the enjoyment out of work as I did, they may want to come in extra hours, but this is never my expectation.”

A better message for ECRs

All academics work hard, but not all of them work long hours, and it’s a mistake to conflate the two. There’s a hundred reasons why someone can’t or doesn’t want to work 60 hours a week, and this shouldn’t rule out a productive academic career. So this is the message to people starting out: you are going to work hard, no doubt, and sometimes that will mean working long hours – but not always. I’ll end with one of my favourite comments:

Having a happy, relatively secure time in academia whilst working the kind of hours that allow for a healthy work-life balance is clearly possible, because there are lots of us that do just that.
Elli Leadbetter, reader in biological sciences, Royal Holloway