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Grad School 101: How to use networking to strengthen your grad school application

When it comes to grad school, networking can give you much more than a foot in the door.
BY Mallika Khanna |   19-08-2019

Grad School 101

Networking isn’t technically a requirement for applying to graduate school, but it can really boost your chances of getting in if done right. You can get access to insider information, find people to follow while honing your work and even end up with someone rooting for you on the admissions committee. However, if networking is done wrong, you can come across as pushy or uninformed, and end up hampering, rather than boosting your chances.

What does networking even mean?

Often, the term networking comes with a lot of stigma attached, seen as diminishing the value of social interaction down to professional gains. But that’s only half the story. At its essence, networking is nothing more than the cultivation of a group of people with whom you can share and learn valuable information around a common interest. Don’t think of networking as a way to make yourself sound good. Think of it as a way to learn as much as you possibly can by asking questions and opening yourself up to hearing different points of view.

How can networking help me with applications?

There are three networks you can take advantage of while applying to grad school: first, the professors you want to work with; second, graduate students in departments you are applying to and third, people of interest in your field at large. Here is how you can form meaningful connections with them.

Cultivate relationships with professors

Depending on the program you’re applying to, you may have already been told to reach out to professors in prospective departments. If you have a professor in your undergraduate program who happens to know the people you want to work with, ask to be put in touch with them. With professors you don’t have a referral for, an email is the way to go.

Before you reach out to professors, make sure you’ve done all your groundwork. Read up on the program, familiarize yourself with their work and find common ground between your interests and theirs. Nothing is more off-putting than a generic and under researched email. Avoid asking questions to which answers can easily be found on the department’s website or social pages. Instead, tailor your email to each individual professor, referencing your interest in their work and what you might bring to the program whenever possible.

A word of warning: professors get a LOT of emails from prospective candidates for their program. Consequently, quite often, they send out a generic response thanking the candidates for their interest and asking them to reach out to the program director or other graduate students. It is equally common for them to not respond at all.

If this happens to you, it’s ok to send a follow up once after a couple of weeks have passed. Please don’t be accusatory- no matter how frustrating it is to not hear back, it’s still not enough reason to badger professors who might be deciding whether you end up in their department or not.

At the same time, know when to give up. If you’ve sent an enthusiastic email and a follow up and still haven’t heard back, you might want to take it as a warning sign and reconsider whether you really fit with this program or not. Also, remember that “big name” professors tend to receive a lot more emails. So, if you’re considering one of them as an advisor, it’s probably still a good idea to email another professor in the department who might have more time and interest in taking on new advisees.

Finally, remember that not all programs expect you to reach out to professors beforehand. Some might explicitly state not to, because they don’t want their admissions decisions to be biased. If that’s the case, you might want to move on to the second networking step.

Meet and interact with current students

Here’s why it’s a good idea to reach out to current students in your programs of interest: they were in your exact position not more than a couple of years ago. They know what it’s like to feel confused and intimidated, and most often, they want to impart the knowledge they gained while working on their applications.

Email current students if you have queries about the application process that you might feel stupid asking professors, Or if you want insider knowledge about the program, like whether a professor you want to work with actually cares about their students or not. Even if you need a second set of eyes to look at your application, email them.

While it is possible that they won’t have the time to address everything you ask for, it’s very unlikely that they will hold it against you. Just remember to be polite and respect their time while asking!

Network more broadly within your field

Remember that ultimately, networking is about bolstering your own knowledge. By engaging with research in your field, you gain a broader perspective of the issues and concerns of your scholarly community.

Social media is a great way to seek out this knowledge, especially if you haven’t done a lot of academic reading in your undergraduate program. Look for the Twitter and Instagram profiles of professors in your field to find any links they share about your field and work they’re doing. Alternately, if you happen to stumble across a piece by someone in your field that you were particularly interested in, shoot them an email introducing yourself and just let them know what you enjoyed about their work. While this might not lead to anything tangible, it broadens the network of contacts from whom you can seek out information about your field, or even jobs when the time comes.

Finally, remember this: networking during your application process sets you up for success once you’re actually in a graduate program. No matter what career you plan to enter after graduating, networking is going to play a big role in getting you there. Having a broad network of scholars, mentors and prominent names in your field will not only open professional opportunities, but also help expand your worldview and boost your critical thinking and creativity. These are skills that will stand you in good stead not just in grad school, but through the rest of your life.

Do you want to figure out how to choose the right grad school? And whether rankings should have a huge say in the process? Or how to use social media to your advantage? Our Grad School 101 series has you covered.



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