I’m excited to share this post because there is so much to gain from relationships with scholars and experts in your field. Reaching out to academics is one of the best and most underutilized steps that a person can take to learn their field and build credibility.
-A quick note about academics, and why you should bother with them-
Our society’s tale of the professor conjures a reclusive egghead who trolls the halls of our world’s ivory towers in a tweed jacket. While there are plenty of tweed jackets (with elbow pads) in higher education, I see a different truth from personal experience – that academia has a distribution of beliefs, interests, and demeanors that resembles a typical high school class.
In school and out at conferences, I’ve met professors who were gym rats, dead heads, gamers, travelers, yogis, motor heads, moms, dads, and yes, archetypal condescending intellectuals. Most are intelligent, well read, and authorities in their fields of expertise, but beyond that, it’s a pretty diverse party.
There are two fundamental misperceptions held by the public that will give you an advantage in networking.
- You don’t speak Ph.D., and therefore, no scholar will have any interest in relating to you as a fellow human being.
- Academics are immersed in their field, and rarely pursue other endeavors like politics or business.
To the first claim, I can think of more dynamic, exciting, and approachable people in the research and scholastic disciplines than I can of their boring, patronizing, and hairsplitting counterparts – especially in the top circles.
Certainly a number of professors will dive into the nitty-gritty faster than you can say “polymeric nanosphere”, but English is usually their language of choice. The stereotype of long windedness comes largely from academic publishing, in which precision, defensibility, and complexity are valued in explaining unique or technical concepts. However, most conversations outside of peer reviewed scrutiny, even relating to academic contributions, are on more human terms.
In many cases, you will be penalized for trying too hard to flex your intellectual muscles. There’s a minimum amount of jargon to drop that will cement credibility, but an upper threshold exists as well, above which you’ll begin to sound like a showoff.
So far as the second claim goes – again, there is some sort of bell curve distribution out there for professors. A few total slackers and workaholics fall at each end of the graph, with a large proportion of steady 30-60 hour a week professors in the middle. While some cannot get enough of their studies (or use them as an escape from having to interact with others), the truth is that most intellectuals value academia as a career decision because their lives can be better enjoyed and balanced than would be in industry or a high-powered government post. The manageable hours allow them to take up consulting, contribute to think tanks, take up government projects, or run their own businesses on the side.
Additionally, many professors were successful in business or entrepreneurship before affiliating with a college or university. They make for some of the most well connected individuals in our society.
If you are excited to meet some of these distinguished folks, then you’ll be interested in this next section, where we look into how professors can be reached, and how you can maximize your chances of making a lasting impression.
Getting Out There
Ninety percent of your effort will be devoted to crafting a great introduction, as nearly all university faculty show an email and phone number online. See my post on getting your emails returned by VIPs to get a good idea of how to approach your introduction. From there, you can tweak the message in a few ways to make your messages even friendlier to an intellectual audience.
Without further ado, here is the short list of steps for finding people in the field you need to speak with.
- First, know the area that you are interested in, and spend your time finding which sub disciplines underpin the study. For example, if you wanted to meet people who are experts in oil and petroleum, you’ll need to know what type of people are studying it.
- Many chemists work in the oil and gas industry, specifically of the organic variety. Petroleum products, known as hydrocarbons contain at least one carbon atom, classifying them as organic compounds. You can start doing a search on organic chemists to find the prominent ones in the field and where they are located.
- Engineers are heavily involved in the oil industry, specifically petroleum, chemical, and mechanical engineers. They help to design the systems that extract resources from the ground. Narrow down to the necessary sub discipline and search if you have an engineering question.
- Geologists survey prospective oil basins. Find topographical geologists with experience in the oil and gas industry if you have a related question.
- Energy Economists and Business professors study the financial and economic relationships occurring in the energy space. Search for people in these disciplines if you have a specific business need.
Knowing the landscape is critical to meeting the right people. Asking the right question to the right person can unlock the relationships that will help you find your dream job, learn a trade, or even collaborate with one of these professors.
- Once you know what you’re asking for, search online for the universities that are reputable in your desired discipline. This will give you an idea of the who’s who in the study. Get a feel for what the various labs or departments are contributing to. MIT has its famous media lab which is driving forward mobile and communications technology. Princeton has some of the best minds in financial engineering in the world. Find out who is making a mark.
- You can also visit Google Scholar and type in a subject, such as “nanorobotics”, to find scholars with the most cited articles. In the academic world, the number of citations that a person’s paper has is a proxy for their clout, credibility, and perceived value in their field.
- When the results list comes up, you can try author names in a regular Google search, which will likely give you their university page. On a professor’s university page, you’ll almost always see an office phone number and an accompanying email address. That’s your shot. This is where you set to crafting your message.
- If you are approaching your relationship building in a different way (perhaps you have an end goal of collaborating with people in your area), you can begin by searching for targeted universities. If you live in New York City, you might want to meet a marketing professor to talk about copywriting, or have a historian speak at a club that you run. Navigate to a university like Columbia’s or CUNY Baruch’s website.
- Find the link to your desired department’s page, or type the department and university into a search engine. From here, there should be a button or link to the faculty and staff page, where you’ll see a full list of all professors on the payroll (this may exclude adjuncts). Just as mentioned above, the listed professors will either have a dedicated page with contact information, or the necessary way to reach them listed below their name.
- If you have difficulty finding contact information on a page (Harvard Business School does not list an email, for example), find the professor’s CV, or curriculum vitae. This is an academic resume which will show all of their awards, past work experience, and published article. In just about every case, the CV will show their most up to date email address. Even if he or she is on sabbatical or taking time off, they will typically retain and use their university email address.
As an FYI, these above methods apply equally to public and private colleges/universities, as both disclose this information on the web.
I cannot stress enough the benefits of thinking two steps ahead when meeting new people in the academic disciplines. Even if you are apt to dismiss this group as theoreticians who are unamused by the “real world”, they typically have a great network of students, mentors, colleagues, and officials. When you strike the right relationships, they can open amazing doors to meet exclusive and gifted people in your field. This bigger picture thinking applies to everyone, and rather than using people as means to an end, I hope that your positive experiences will only underscore the impact that openness to meeting new people can have.
Honing your message
I’m not going to preach the law of reciprocity as anything new – I’m only going to preach about its tried and true effectiveness. When it comes to relationships, what you get out is a function of what you put in. Positive energy begets positive results. Not everyone will respond to your generous offers, but you will get more positive responses to helpful messages than you would with boiler plate emails and calls.
If you care about helping yourself through service to others, then the first logical question is how can I provide something useful and worthwhile to the person that I want to meet? With an academic audience, there are a few things that you can offer with relatively little effort and no money. The first is attention. Your attention is a currency, just like money. If you show a familiarity with someone’s work, especially if they aren’t popular by mainstream standards, you can offer a solidified sense of purpose and mission. Many struggling musicians rely on a few true fans to keep going. Scholars are not much different in seeking to actualize their purpose. You can score huge points by reaching out to express genuine admiration for specific work that a professor has done in their field. The key here is to do some of your own studying of the discipline, its issues, frontiers, and contributions to society. From here, reading targeted publications will give a great feel for what you are passionate about and whom you need to contact. The final step is communicating that enthusiasm to your audience.
Another way to add value is to send them a paper or idea from a different area of the field that you think will be valuable to them. Cross pollination contributes to most academic advances, and many publications are critiques, responses, or articles of support for previous contributions to the field. If you can show interest and meaningfully curate information to a professor, you’ll be providing real value. Of course this takes the form of suggestion, and not education. Know your place and offer what you have found as a potential road to go down – nothing more. I’d only suggest this if you feel confident enough in your knowledge of their work in the field.
A third tactic that can be of value is lining up an introduction of like minds. If you know someone who might be an authority in a related field of study or industry, putting the two in touch with a warm introduction can put you in a great position to benefit both people. This becomes easier and easier as your personal network expands, and you’ll gain a feel for who you can mix and match. Successful people are usually great connectors.
By far the most widely applicable and easy to implement exercise is to show interest and appreciation for a professor’s work (mentioned above). This alone has gotten me quick responses from and introductions to great thinkers. This tactic was used to help secure Paul Krugman as a speaker at my college. It also helped to have other professors on my side already, who were willing to second my interest – something that you can achieve through good networking. In my eyes, the key to success is not knowing everything, but having the right relationships to tap into for just about any subject and problem.
Here’s just one example of how showing interest in a professor’s work can pay great dividends. This is an email pitch that was sent to a rock star professor for a speaking engagement. She held a high powered-government post reporting to a member of the President’s cabinet, and taught at some of the most highly-regarded institutions in the world. You’ll see that there is no voodoo, and that a simple message got a simple response. One thing to note is that we did offer money as a thank you, but this was hardly discussed, and was a peripheral issue in our discussion. The attention was much more valuable.
About a week later, she responded with a nonchalant yes – and the deal was sealed. A few months later, we had a crowd of a couple hundred students show up to a great speaking event, and I made a great connection to someone I still keep in touch with.
In my view, hustle and grit are about hardheadedness in approach and refusal to give up on a worthy idea. However, as you can see by the tone of my email, I believe that politeness and accommodation fit into this framework comfortably. Having grit doesn’t equate to being a jerk. I simply found someone that I liked through my reading that seemed like a great person to know, and emailed them with my request, telling them why I liked them – simple as that. Also, I’m not trying to advocate my exact words, or force feed any sort of style to others. Above all else, I just advocate trying, because even with utter cluelessness and rather mediocre attempts, I’ve made great breakthroughs in my personal and professional life by simply showing up or reaching out.
Beyond the intrinsic positive of broadening your horizons, I’ll close with a list of things that I or friends of mine have personally gained from building relationships with professors:
An expert contact in the field
Professors are great additions to a brain trust and can be an excellent go-to if you have difficult-to-answer questions about a specific subject.
If common ground seeps into personal hobbies and interests, you may find friends in the scholars that you reach out to – even if the relationship does not begin that way. Don’t bank on this, but at the same time be open to the possibility.
A job or internship
If you have the right qualifications, professors can be great connectors to people on the professional side of the field that they study. Keep in mind that this will never happen unless you have demonstrated strong interest in the subject and displayed aptitude. However, once you’ve established credibility and generosity, this is certainly a possibility. Just don’t jump the gun and ask before trust is built – it can backfire big time. You need to give enough value to the professor for this to be a compelling request, and they need to know that you’d reflect positively on them. Also, you are more likely to succeed in finding a professional opportunity with them if you had them as a professor in the past or have a long standing relationship. I’ve had multiple friends break into an industry because of a selfless professor who fought for them.
If you can’t find a job or internship, try for a RA gig
If you like a professor’s work, one move is to volunteer to work in their lab or under them as a research assistant. This can include menial work such as data cleanup, administrative work, and proofreading, but you will also have a chance be a part of emerging contributions to the field, which you can definitely take to the bank as a resume booster. If you want to be in a field badly enough, then screw the people who tell you to never take an unpaid stint, and use this valuable maneuver. Also, you can find ways to do this remotely and on the side, so there aren’t excuses for those working a typical nine-to-five to not explore.
Introductions to other influential people
This was covered above, and applies for all of networking. The more people you make quality relationships with, the more people you will be introduced to. If you leave a solid impression, it’s usually fine to ask a person if they have anyone else that they’d recommend you connecting with. Do your part, add value, and at that point, this will be a non-issue.
Good luck out there – leave any questions or eventual success stories in the comments.