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Careers Café

Striking the right tone


Since my last post was about staying in touch with your network, it seemed suitable to get back in touch with someone from mine. This past weekend, I had coffee and a conversation with one of my favourite profs. We talked about networking, particularly as it applies to the academic job search. Her take was that networking is like exercise. It’s painful in the moment, but healthy in the long term, and can even bring moments of elation.

The trick, she said, is to strike the right tone. This consists of a blend of “personal warmth and professionalism.”

What does that look like? She gives the example of an email to a prospective postdoc supervisor who is presenting at an upcoming conference. After providing a brief description of how your work engages in a conversation with the professor’s, you can say, “I’ll be at this upcoming conference. Would you like to meet for a coffee to talk about our work?”

She notes that not everyone will rush to say yes, but most will.  In her own estimation, “meeting new scholars in my field is one of the most enjoyable things.” For you, it’s also a chance to expand your scholarly community — that’s where the moments of elation come in.

Naturally, I asked about the less elation-worthy parts: what would make networking go wrong? If you’re networking with someone in a department to which you plan to apply, don’t get really intrusive too soon by asking for the secrets of the department. Instead, ask what sort of courses would be involved in the role you’re considering and what the department is looking for. If other juicy information happens to be forthcoming, the professor notes “you can file that,” but don’t request it.

Many people early in their careers feel really weird approaching people out of the blue, but, the professor advises, “you have to,” and “people are used to being approached.” She concedes that, while most professors are happy to be asked for their advice by junior scholars, not everyone will be. If you reach out, but get a chilly response, back off and be grateful that you’ve just crossed someone off your list of people to work with.

The biggest risk she sees for young scholars networking is missing the right tone by being too self-effacing. Since striking the right tone is so difficult, she suggests a tried and true method for anyone about to contact a potential employer. Have someone read over what you plan to say and ask, “What tone are you getting from this?”

If there are awkward moments in the job search that you’d like to see addressed in the Careers Café blog, please leave a comment or contact me at

Liz Koblyk
Liz Koblyk is the associate director of the Wilson Leadership Scholar Award at McMaster University.
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