PhD Tips PhD Tips

Tip # 2: Reach Out

Why reach out? There are many reasons why you might want to do so

As you advance through academia, you will find yourself connecting with other brilliant people like you. Your individual success will benefit from the network you build through those connections. Why would you want to reach out and build new connections? There are so many reasons! Here are a few:

  • College student** decides to reach out to:
    • start a research career
    • apply for grad school
    • complement the graduate school interview experience
  • Graduate student has to reach out to:
    • assess possible lab rotations
    • decide which lab to join
    • establish collaboration
    • manage a lab change
    • discuss papers with other academics

Regardless of the academic stage you are in, reaching out will be a worthy exercise, and one that will continue bearing fruits for you from the moment you reach out and into the future.

What do you say? When you reach out, make sure you are clear about your ideas

Each of these scenarios pertains to a different academic stage in your career. As you progress through these different stages, your ideas and intuitions will be developing in parallel. Successful progression through these stages will be more likely if you have built a solid network of colleagues and friends. This network is your sandbox, full of knowledge and support. And in this sandbox, you get to play with and shape your ideas from theory to practice. Without a doubt, do spend some time reaching out to others in your department and field. It will be worth it. 

More often than not, you will be reaching out to lab members, including the PI. Each one of them will have their own set of ideas and priorities. Your job is to make sure that your ideas (irrespective of your career stage) have at least some overlap with their efforts and priorities.  Keep in mind that most of them will have a busy email queue. So if they do not reply within a week, do not be afraid to reach out again and send another polite email reminder. We have even heard that some PIs APPRECIATE reminder emails. Although it might be a little nerve-wracking at first, you will grow more confident with every new email you write in an effort to reach out. 

Reaching out during interview season

Let’s say you have been sent interview invitations from a few institutions. During this process you will be interviewed by some PIs and/or postdocs from the labs you are interested in. We HIGHLY recommend that you reach out to others in the community, not just the ones that you interviewed with. Reach out to grad students in the labs you like, reach out to grad students in other labs, talk to the research assistants, the post-docs, people you find interesting on the department website. You have absolutely nothing to lose. While you think that everyone is there to find out how much you know, they are actually there to find out how much you want to develop and contribute.  Reaching out will allow you to plan ahead and see possibilities for collaborations and other interactions that will help you progress in the future with less hurdles.

What kinds of things can you talk about with the people you reach out to in the community? You can ask the people you meet about the working environment, social climate, expectations and general feelings about their time there. 

You should also reach out to others you cannot meet during interviews through email. Be direct and express your interest in becoming part of the department. State the ideas you are interested in, your research experience, your goals and why you think the department would be a good fit. It will increase the chances that they will separate some of their time to reply to you, providing feedback about your ideas and match potential. They may even suggest a chat in the future.

(Here is the link to our How To Have Successful Graduate School Interviews post)

Reaching out to assess possible rotations

Some fields, particularly those related to the medical and health sciences require 1st year graduate students to test 2-3 labs before they decide to join a team. Most of the PIs will be looking for promising new members in the department to join their team. This will likely be one of those rare times you will hear back from busy PIs in record time.

Since you went through the process of the graduate school application process with success, you must already have an idea of which labs you might want to join. All you have to do now is reach out to the people in those labs without any fear. Leave the shyness behind. They are looking for new prospects, just like you are looking for a team. Be clear about your ideas and goals, while portraying confidence in your past work and experience. Most of them will be open to see if there is a mutually beneficial fit. Ask to join their lab meeting, ask what their mentorship style is like, ask what kinds of expectations they have. It’s always easier to do this at the beginning, before anything is set in stone.

Reaching out to decide which lab to join

Some graduate students get to try out multiple labs before picking one, while others enter graduate school directly under a lab. Irrespective of the situation, you have to reach out to others for input. By this point, you will likely have a small network of people you can rely on for guidance (this can include the people you interviewed with, even if they are at different institutions!). Reach out to them. What’s their process?

Reach out to members of the labs you are considering. These people will become your research family for the next few years. They will be the ones that will guide you, help you and bring you up to speed. What’s the lab culture like? Every lab-member will have a different approach to work-life balance, so ask different members what their work-life balance is like. Do their answers match your approach? It is possible you get paired with an existing project. So, it’s important to ask what kinds of scientific questions are the lab members asking in their research? What’s it like being mentored by the PI? Are they hands-on? Hands-off?

Obviously, reach out to the PI and ask these questions too. What’s their mentorship style? What kinds of things do they expect from students? Do they expect some level of work on the weekends? Make sure you have a good idea of the expectations you will have to deal with once you join. Remember, you are figuring out whether the lab is a good fit for you just as much as the PI is wondering the same thing

Reach out to people in labs who have a history of collaboration with the lab in your sights. People in or others tied closely to the lab you are interested in might omit details about the working environment. Colleagues that have collaborated with the lab and are not directly tied to a lab might be more candid. Consider input from all these sources, and make your best fit decision.

(Here a link to our Choosing a Lab post, with relevant background for this section)

Reaching out to establish collaborations

Once your ideas are relatively well thought out and have taken flight, consider reaching out to colleagues that are working on similar ideas or projects. They might be members of other labs, maybe other institutions. Be clear about what you work on, what your ideas are, and what possible connections you see with their work. If the potential is there, either you or them will see a possible direction, ideas will flourish and further discussions will pave the way for a collaboration. Working with others is a lot more fun. The notion that you have to be a “solitary genius” is definitely a myth about graduate school that is far from true.

Reaching out to manage a lab change

There are some very specific situations that merit a change of labs. A researcher might feel they have lost interest in the ideas they are currently pursuing. The working environment might have taken a dark turn. Maybe there is lack of much needed mentorship. Maybe, the lab is migrating to another institution, a situation that may not be favorable for all lab members. In any of these cases, having a network of colleagues who can help you find a transition to another lab is important.

Knowing who to reach out to in these circumstances will help relieve some of the immense stress it will induce on you. The department should have some measures in place to take care of these situations on a case by case basis. Yet, it will not always result in the best outcome for you if left to their methods. Success in such transitions will depend on you. You will be more likely to succeed if you take the wheel on reaching out to those that can help you make it happen. Given the nature and diversity of situations that would merit a lab change, we will devote a whole post to it. Look forward to it!

Reaching out email example

The emails you write should not be long, should be brief and should get to the point quickly.

Subject: Reaching out about research ideas

Hi Olivia,

I’m a student at XXXX department and [how you found out about their work] (i.e. just stumbled upon your paper, So and so suggested I connect with you). I think your work on the unintended consequences of diversity initiatives has interesting overlaps with my line of work. I am trying to assess social network dynamics within this context. Would you be interested in scheduling a brief chat to entertain some ideas?




If you just want to ask us something, or want us to refer you to a place you might get your questions answered, send us a  DM/tweet!

**For those curious about the process of reaching out to academics as a college student, please check out our articles Choosing Graduate Programs and Guide to Graduate Applications.

And as always, you can reach out to us @phdxlife on Twitter if you have specific questions about any of these.

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