Make me less of an academic island!
May 16, 2012 6:49 AM   Subscribe

I'm a PhD student, and I'd like to do more academic networking over email. How does this work, and what should the emails sound like?

As an introvert, I hate the idea of networking; but I'm also coming to realize that this is something people do, and that in fact my research/job prospects could be a lot better if I did more work building professional connections. Unfortunately, most of these would have to be email connections, and it feels so inherently weird to me to randomly contact some barely-known person that my draft emails end up collapsing under the sheer weight of all the apologetic boilerplate ("I'm so sorry to write out of the blue like this... you're doubtless very busy, but... I got your email from the website; haven't been stalking you, honest...").

Since obviously my own very limited social instincts don't suffice here, I was wondering whether anybody might be willing to clue me in on (a) what these emails are really supposed to sound like when normal people write them, and (b) when it is or isn't OK to send messages of this sort.

In particular, I'd love some hints for approaching the following situations:

-- Senior scholar I don't know, some 3rd party says, "Oh, you should email X."
-- Someone I spoke with briefly at a conference or talk, never formally exchanged info.
-- Someone whose awesome book or article I have read and admire, but who doesn't know me from Adam and has no common connections whatsoever.

Additional research directions (Books? forums?) would also be most welcome. Thanks so much!
(Yes, I know I should be able to ask my advisor about this. That's a whole other AskMe. :( )
posted by anonymous to Education (14 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, it is really weird if you start off your e-mail with lots of apologies. Academics expect to be contacted. That's why they have web sites and faculty profiles and are easy to contact (what's unusual are the ones who don't have any of this).

Senior scholar I don't know, some 3rd party says, "Oh, you should email X."

What exactly do you hope to get out of emailing the senior scholar?

Someone I spoke with briefly at a conference or talk, never formally exchanged info.

Send the person an e-mail saying that you enjoyed speaking with them about whatever you talked about, and hope to see them next time.

Someone whose awesome book or article I have read and admire, but who doesn't know me from Adam and has no common connections whatsoever.

Send the person an e-mail saying you enjoyed their article. This would likely be appreciated, but don't expect a response.

* * *

What exactly are you hoping to get out of this? E-mail is not really going to provide a substitute for networking via other means. The example from the above that is likely to help create a lasting connection is contacting the person you spoke to at the conference, but of course, you initially spoke to them in person.
posted by grouse at 7:03 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Well, my first question is what are you wanting to do the networking for, specifically? There needs to be a point to your email. Are you looking to work with this person on a joint research project? Get a copy of a publication? Just talk about their work?

Once you know what the goal of the connection is, you can do variations on the following:

Dear Dr. X,

I am a PhD student at ___ University, studying [foo], and my colleague Y suggested that I contact you regarding your work on [bar], as it is closely related to what I'm studying. I'd like to know if it would be possible to set up a [meeting/phone call/Skype] to discuss your work/to discuss a possible joint research project. [maybe add something else here that indicates that you are familiar with this person's work]

Just swap out the first line as appropriate to why you are contacting the person.

[on preview, I agree with everything grouse said]
posted by DiscourseMarker at 7:07 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

One reason that email contacts are less effective is that, on average, academics are terrible about responding to email, and the more senior the academic, the more advanced the problem. I have to make regular contact with faculty in order to make certain decisions, and there are faculty members who literally have never replied — even once. This phenomenon has been a running gag on PhD Comics for the last ten years.

This doesn't mean that it's impossible to get a hold of anyone by email. Depending on their level of interest, the topic and length of your email, and previous familiarity with your name, most faculty will reply to your email eventually. But it may take quite a while, and they might respond in a distracted, off-hand fashion that doesn't actually help you very much.

Obviously, feel free to write, but temper your expectations. Keep your emails short and to the point. Avoid preambles. Focus on a particular issue or paper. Have an answerable question that is relevant to the person's area of interest.
posted by Nomyte at 7:07 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Email isn't great for this; cold emails especially tend to get ignored. Email if you have a specific question about a paper or if you're looking for a job. Aimless "networking" emails aren't that useful. Networking works best in person (at conferences or when someone is visiting) or via collaborations or friend-of-a-friend interactions.
posted by mr_roboto at 7:07 AM on May 16, 2012

One reason that email contacts are less effective is that, on average, academics are terrible about responding to email, and the more senior the academic, the more advanced the problem. I have to make regular contact with faculty in order to make certain decisions, and there are faculty members who literally have never replied — even once. This phenomenon has been a running gag on PhD Comics for the last ten years.

They get hundreds per day, usually have minimal administrative assistance, and have to triage. Some perform triage by deciding that all emails are unimportant... If I got an email from you saying you liked my paper, I'd promptly hit "archive" and forget about it.
posted by mr_roboto at 7:09 AM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

There are a host of academic networking sites, as well. Try researchgate or, to start with. Don't forget that some of your peers will be leaders in your field one day.

I checked with my grad students, and they are very fond of twitter, believe it or not. Their advice is to follow the top minds in your field and find their twitter accounts. You don't have to tweet much, yourself, but it's a good way to find out who's out there, what they're reading, and even get an idea of where your field is heading.

(Good timing; I've just built a web page of networking tips for my university's grad students.)
posted by wenat at 7:10 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

1. Don't apologize.
2. If you can wrangle an introduction, do so. Person X recommends you contact Person Y? Ask X to send an introductory email, or to hook you up with someone who knows Person Y.
3. Send emails soon after meeting someone - like, that evening. If you wait longer than that, they will not remember you. In the email, mention the topic of the conversation you had, and ask a leading question.
4. Ask specific questions. Why are you contacting these people? What are you hoping to get out of it? What can they get out of it? Remember that: ideally, you contacting them would serve both you and them.
5. It's fine to contact people; it can certainly do no harm. Most people are happy to help; if they're not, then they're not especially the kind of people you want to network with anyway.
6. Do your homework. Don't ask something that the person has answered elsewhere.

I think it's going to come back to email is not the best way to do this. You need to get over the idea that networking and being an introvert are incompatible. I'm an introvert and I've gotten every job I have due to personal connections. Re-frame networking as making genuine connections with interesting people doing interesting things.
posted by punchtothehead at 7:14 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

One reason that email contacts are less effective is that, on average, academics are terrible about responding to email, and the more senior the academic, the more advanced the problem.

Similarly, if the people you are trying to contact are *not* senior faculty, you may have an easier time of it. It might be easier to reach out to other grad students at different universities, or junior faculty who are looking to build their research profiles (this is field-dependent, of course) and might want to collaborate with somebody outside their department/school.

It's probably a bias because people in my field of study tend to be heavy social media users (including many senior faculty), but if I meet somebody at a conference I usually look afterwards to see if I can add them on Facebook or Twitter. It's a really easy way to stay on somebody's radar without having to come up with a pretense for conversation.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 7:18 AM on May 16, 2012

I am a senior academic who's bad at answering e-mail.

If I got an e-mail from an unknown-to-me grad student saying "I read your paper/book X and really liked it," I would certainly be happy to hear it, I would immediately answer it by saying "Thanks!" and that would be the end of it. I'm not sure it's particularly effective networking.

If someone in your department told you "you should e-mail prof. Y" there must have been a reason -- something that you need to know that's related to Prof. Y's work. A good e-mail to send is one which shows Prof. Y that you have read and thought about her work, and that you have a specific question about it. (If you don't have a question, you didn't read in the right spirit -- read and contemplate until you have questions!) These e-mails are a pleasure to receive and I always answer them substantively and relatively quickly. And they are much more likely to establish the e-mailer's existence in my mind.


* apologize for writing. E-mail is not an imposition.
* suggest a skype/phone meeting with someone you don't know. That IS an imposition.
* ask vague questions like "what do you think are the biggest issues facing field A?" or "what should I read to learn about B?" This tends to make me feel the writer has sent the same e-mail to dozens of senior people and is just networking for the sake of networking.

But again, do, do, do write people with specific questions about their work.
posted by escabeche at 7:28 AM on May 16, 2012 [8 favorites]

I recommend the book Marketing for Scientists. Echoing the commenters above, you need to figure out exactly what you're trying to achieve ("networking" is not a goal in of itself), and, to draw from the book, you need to give your correspondent an answer to the question "What's in it for me?". That answer could be that you wrote a paper of relevance to their work, or you are both working on similar topics and you have some insight or interesting questions that you would like to share, etc. It doesn't have to be stark, "Dr. X, I'd like to offer you all my data", but if you want them to notice and remember you, you need to provide some way for them to engage with your work.

Also, when 3rd party tells you to "Email X", the important part here is to pick up on why they want you to contact them. Chances are it's not an abstract idea of "networking", but a more concrete idea. Ask them if necessary.

For more comprehensive advice, I recommend reading the book. It might be a little sweeping in its conclusions, but I think it gives a very valuable mindset for approaching the business of marketing yourself as an academic.
posted by kiltedtaco at 7:39 AM on May 16, 2012

Good advice above, but came in to chime on what DiscourseMarker said. What you want to do is better suited to informal mediums like social media than e-mail. In my field, a lot of people are on Twitter, and that's usually the norm for informal, never-met-each-other networking. Liked someone's talk on Topic X? Retweet a thoughtful point from it and follow them. Spend time posting interesting, relevant tweets of your own and see how many people you can engage.

I have only in the last few months gotten over the "sheesh another social media thing?" myself, but I'm really glad I did. Depending on your field Twitter can be a really good way to stay connected to people you know and make connections with people you don't. You can just google "twitter higher education" to find tips or people to follow, and the Chronicle of Higher Education also has articles about best practices for academics and suggestions of people to follow.
posted by stellaluna at 10:05 AM on May 16, 2012

I came in to say what stellaluna said about Twitter. There has been a fair amount of research in academics who use Twitter for scholarship - it's not intended to be promotional, but it might give you an idea of what kinds of stuff academics do on/with Twitter. Two of these are self links, so mods can feel free to delete if they'd like:

Ebner, M., & Reinhardt, W. (2009). Social networking in scientific conferences – Twitter as tool for strengthen a scientific community. Presented at the SCIENCE2.0 FOR TEL workshop at ECTEL09, Nice, France.

Letierce, J., Passant, A., Breslin, J., & Decker, S. (2010). Understanding how Twitter is used to spread scientific messages. Presented at the Web Science Conference, Raleigh, NC. Retrieved from

Priem, J., & Costello, K. L. (October 2010). How and why scholars cite on Twitter. Proceedings of the 73rd ASIS&T Annual Meeting. Pittsburgh, PA. doi:10.1002/meet.14504701201 [self-archived]

Priem, J., Costello, K.L., & Dzuba, T. (2011). Prevalence and use of Twitter among scholars. Poster at Metrics 2011: Symposium on Informetric and Scientometric Research. New Orleans, LA, USA, October 12. [self-archived]

Ross, C., Terras, M., Warwick, C., & Welsh, A. (2011). Enabled backchannel: Conference Twitter use by digital humanists. Journal of Documentation, 67(2), 214–237.

Uren, V., & Dadzie, A. (2011). Relative trends in scientific terms on Twitter. Presented at the altmetrics11: Tracking scholarly impact on the social Web (An ACM Web Science Conference 2011 workshop), Koblenz, Germany. Retrieved from

Weller, K., & Puschmann, C. (2011). Twitter for scientific communication: How can citations/references be identified and measured? Proceedings of the ACM WebSci’11. Koblenz, Germany. Retrieved from

Young, J. (2009, December 17). 10 High Fliers on Twitter. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from Archived by WebCite® at

Also, it's likely that there are people in your field on Twitter - you'd be surprised. In a forthcoming study I worked on with Priem (he's my coauthor listed on a few things above) we found that there were no significant differences between discipline or rank in terms of adoption on Twitter - you can see this in the Priem, Costello, & Dzuba poster linked to above, but the article goes into much greater detail. It will be published in the Journal of Information Science and Technology fairly soon.
posted by k8lin at 11:07 AM on May 16, 2012 [5 favorites]

So here are some stories about "academic networking" that I've done. They're all pretty mundane and tedious, which is sort of the point. Successful networking doesn't really feel like networking. It just feels like asking people for small favors and sending friendly notes and whatever.

1) I was looking for published sources on a particular question and, after weeks of hunting, I was still coming up with nothing. My advisor suggested I get in touch with X, who's an expert on this subject. X said that, no, in fact, there really hasn't been anything published on that particular question as far as he's aware, but he had some suggestions for how to approach it. He also said "Let me know how it goes," which is useful, because it gives me an in to contact him again in a little while.

2) I was coauthor on a paper that was mildly critical of published work by Y. Our position was "Y is 95% right about this, but she's not 100% right, and we have some ideas for how to improve on her approach." Before we submitted it for publication, we sent a copy to Y to see if she had any comments. She didn't really have much to say, but she wasn't mad or insulted or anything, so I'm counting this as a very minor win.

3) Z is a frequent collaborator of my advisor's. I was doing a pilot study using some techniques that Z had developed. I wrote up my preliminary results and sent a copy to Z, asking whether she had any comments. She made a couple of very useful points in her reply. Since then, we've had a few more email exchanges on the subject, and bumped into each other once or twice at conferences. She's also put one of her advisees in touch with me to talk about research he's doing on a related topic. So I know I've ended up on her radar as Someone Who Works On This Stuff.

4) W works in my subfield, and he's developed some questionnaires and other study materials that he's made available online for other researchers to use. I met him at a conference, said some nice things about his work, and asked "Do you guys have a questionnaire about such-and-such?" He said, "Yes, we do, but it's not up on the website yet," and offered to send me a copy, with the understanding that I'll cite a paper or two of his if I end up using it.

In each case, I had some small practical thing that I wanted to talk to them about — a small favor to ask, or some results I thought they might want to see. And then I basically let them steer the interaction after that.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:11 PM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Like it or not, if you want to have an academic career, you're going to need to get over your introversion.

But guess what? Most academics are socially anxious introverts and conferences are the time that everyone gets over it (often with alcohol).

I'd recommend reading The Professor Is In's Working the Conference blog posts.
posted by k8t at 7:47 AM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

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