A Grad Student Online Starter Kit

If you’re starting an academic graduate program, such as a Ph.D., and you’re hoping to eventually finish that degree with a meaningful reputation in your area of expertise (which is a prerequisite for academic jobs), then day 1 is a great time to unpack your grad student online starter kit. Here’s what I think a Ph.D. student should do in his or her first or second year of graduate school to get the train moving down the tracks.

1. Write a CV. If you don’t already have one, it’s time to start one, even if you don’t think you have “enough” to put on paper about yourself. You’ll flesh it out over time, and having the structure in place on paper will get you in the habit of thinking of your work as part of a larger project to build your reputation and expertise in a certain topic. I have a whole post on CVs. Make sure your CV stays updated and posted online for the world to find.

2. Make a website. Seriously. Make one. Many universities have robust profiles for their grad students, but even still, it’s important for you to control your own website where you can update your profile, post about the work you’re doing, and make yourself available for consulting opportunities. And you get to keep the website after you graduate and move from institution to institution. Get a free WordPress site, a Google Sites page, or something simple like that. Install Google Analytics if you can (it’s free). That way you can be a creeper and obsessively track where all your visitors come from. Buy a URL that represents your name and redirect it to your WordPress site and you’re all set.

3. Make a plan for posting your working papers online. It may seem scary to put your half-baked ideas out there, but the work of an academic is all about making ideas public and enduring brutal feedback. It’s really the only way you’ll ever be able to improve your ideas, too. Publishing your in-progress working papers somewhere public can also lead to early citations of your work and credit for your ideas being first on the market. Sometimes working papers get cited hundreds of times before they get published in a scholarly journal. Lakhani, Jeppesen, Lohse & Panetta’s HBS working paper is a good example of this phenomenon. You can always just post your paper on your own blog and label it “working paper – do not cite without permission” or something, which encourages people who read it to contact you first to see if there’s a more current published version to cite. Or you can start a collective blog with some colleagues and publish working papers there, or you can see if your supervising professor’s lab or collective has a website he/she would be willing to post your working paper to. Some universities have working paper series (this is common in professional schools around the country – business, public policy, urban planning). Some schools also subscribe to services like Berkeley Electronic Press’ online tools, which allow groups to start working paper series (and journals, by the way). But the most common platform where some of the largest and most widely read working paper collections can be found is the Social Science Research Network. arXiv (pronounced “archive”) is kind of like an SSRN for computing and science folks, too. You would be very wise as a grad student to start a presence on SSRN and/or arXiv and start pushing your working papers there.

4. Make a Google Scholar profile. These days, it’s all about IMPACT when it comes to research. As the Internet has allowed new journals to blossom and research to become accessible to people all over the world more quickly and easily, the idea that you demonstrate the value of your work by saying you published it in the “top” journal or the “most respected” journal in your field just doesn’t cut it anymore. You’re better off demonstrating the impact of your research by showing how much of an impact it actually has had on scholarship. That is, how often are people citing your work, at what rates, and in what disciplines? Google Scholar tracks citations for you. It’s not perfect, of course. Small-time conference papers and conference proceedings are probably overrepresented in Google Scholar’s tracking, and citations that appear in books are very much underrepresented, but as a general estimate, it’s a good way to show that, indeed, people are citing your work. Saying “I published an article last year in [well-known journal]” is impressive, especially if you’re a grad student. But saying “I published an article last year in [well-known journal] and it’s already been cited 10 times in other journals according to Google Scholar” is WAY more impressive. It shows your work is actually impacting the field rather than showing your work is important merely because it is basking in the aura of some traditionally recognized “top” journal (which may or may not actually be having an impact these days). I’m of the somewhat controversial opinion that someone who is getting their article cited is having more of an impact, no matter how top-tier or bottom-tier the journal their work appears in, than someone who has published in a so-called top-tier journal and has not been cited very widely. I have never heard an argument that has convinced me otherwise. Most of the time, when people disagree with me on this point, their arguments are founded on nostalgia, tradition, and other feel-good “evidence” that members of a discipline’s old bloc spew forth in knee-jerk response. So do yourself a favor and make a Google Scholar profile and start tracking your citations. (And hooray for me – I got to 600 citations today!)

5. Determine your online thought leadership strategy and do it. Yep, you’re a brand, whether you like it or not. Academics are seen as experts in something, and they get hired as professors because they bring with them a unique identity as an authority or leader on a given topic, however narrow that topic may be. To position yourself as a thought leader on your area of expertise (or, if you’re a grad student, as an emerging, aspiring thought leader), you need to start making your expertise known and trusted online as much as in person. You can do this by getting on some social networking sites and by blogging regularly on topics squarely in the center of your expertise or on topics of tangential relation to your area of expertise. You don’t need to be on every social media tool – this is a common misconception. Just do one or a few social media tools really, really well. If you choose Twitter, then tweet a LOT, and keep it professional and focused (Guy McHendry’s Twitter account is a good example of a focused, thought-leading grad student studying national security, privacy, cultural studies, and other topics). If you choose LinkedIn, then really take advantage of LinkedIn by getting your profile to 100% completeness and using LinkedIn groups effectively. Just find something and do it well. It’s perfectly fine to inject your personality, your sarcastic humor, or whatever into your social media presence (social media isĀ socialĀ after all!), but just be mindful to keep your extreme opinions and any pictures of you doing keg stands hidden on your Facebook account or something. Once you start getting papers presented at conferences or published, too, make sure Wikipedia includes citations to your work on the appropriate entry pages. Some people think this is vain, but it’s not – not any more vain than someone writing a traditional encyclopedia article about their areas of expertise for a print encyclopedia. Wikipedia is one of the most valuable places you can grow your thought leadership because it’s so widely read. Make a profile on Wikipedia and add citations to your work (and the work of your colleagues…it’s not ALL about you) as appropriate. Just have a bit of humility and remember that you’re not THE sole voice on a topic just because you’ve published an article on it…but the Wikipedians will surely correct you if you overstep your bounds.

If you do all these things in tandem and have all of these pieces hang together in a constellation that is “you” online, I am confident you’ll have established an online identity and a reputation as an emerging leader in your field by the time you graduate. This will help you get jobs, get you invited to contribute chapters to anthologies, get you invited to speak at conferences, get you media interviews, and land you paid consulting gigs. And it may even make you known to grant teams, who might be looking for someone like you to round out their multi-million-dollar grant application. And forcing yourself to publish bare-bones CVs and Google Scholar profiles may even spur you to be more productive in order to flesh these presences out a bit.

I say this from my own experience. I track what people click on on my website, and I know this stuff matters. It has worked for me. So do it. Consider this grad student online starter kit your first bit of homework in grad school.

Anything else I’m missing here in the starter kit? Leave your comments below.

Mastering the Cold Call

I mentioned back in an August post that I’m a big fan of cold-calling and cold-emailing as a way to open doors for oneself. Cold-calling involves picking up the phone and calling someone you don’t know at all. These calls usually involve you introducing yourself, asking for something, or inquiring about potential employment. The premise of the cold call is that 1) you’re good enough, and 2) they just haven’t met you yet. Cold-calling should always be a supplement to other forms of networking, such as getting involved in local industry groups, connecting with people on LinkedIn, leveraging your friend and family networks, and asking people you know about leads.

Cold calls require a lot of guts, a lot of time, and a lot of resilience, but when cold calls pay off, the joy is immense. Consider the rifle and the shotgun. Rifles fire one bullet and have a lot more precision than shotguns. Shotguns, on the other hand, spray an imprecise bunch of small projectiles at a target in the hopes that at least one will hit it. Cold calling is definitely a shotgun approach to networking, but there are ways to improve your aim over time. I’ve had a LOT of success cold-calling in my career, and I can’t tell my students enough how much they need to start cold-calling, too. Here are my tips for cold-calling/cold-emailing.

Know Thyself

First off, you have to know what you want and what your strengths are. If you’re looking for an internship in PR, for instance, you need to know what you enjoy about PR and what your ideal internship would look like. Figure out your needs and your wants in an internship, For instance, you probably need either money or college credit out of an internship, so prepare to make that your minimum requirement. Identify your ideal scenario. Again, if you’re looking for an internship in PR and you really want to do a paid internship in the sports industry specifically, then your ideal scenario would involve doing exactly this for the local professional sports team. My advice is to start with the ideal and work backwards toward the situations you’ll tolerate. Why start with the ideal? Because you just may land it on your first attempt. In any case, though, you need to know what you’re good at, know what you’re looking for, know what kind of situation you’ll accept, and be prepared to act fast if an opening is available (e.g., have a resume and portfolio ready).


You’re probably going to have to send out a lot of calls/emails before something sticks. A LOT. I once called more than 80 PR firms to inquire about internships before I finally found one (note: the internship was a great fit for me, but I didn’t end up taking it, though, for other reasons). If you call, you’ll leave a lot of voicemails that won’t get returned. If you email, you’ll get a lot of unanswered requests. But occasionally, you’ll get a lead that you can pursue.

Look at it this way: the worst thing that can happen is you’ll get a lot of “no’s” and unreturned calls, and the majority of the time you’ll be seen as a go-getter who is trying to drum up some opportunities. But the best thing that can happen is that you’ll land a dream opportunity that will open up a series of doors for yourself for the whole first stage of your career. Most people stick to Monster.com and stick to the lists of internship opportunities available in their schools, and so on. But most people aren’t picking up the phone and trying to generate new opportunities. You need to be this person.


When you contact people that you don’t know and ask for something, you need to be polite. You’re butting into their headspace, after all. Always emphasize why you think you’d be a good fit for the company and why the company would be a good fit for you. And ground your calls/emails in loftier concepts; don’t just say you want an internship with anyone, but rather say you want to have a valuable learning experience with exactly that one company. Ask for simple things, like the opportunity to apply for an internship rather than the opportunity to have the internship. Don’t ask for handouts–ask for opportunities. You’d be surprised how often this gets you in the door. In all cases, though, be brief and professional and courteous. Throw in some flattery, but don’t suck up. And make your cold calls and emails personal and specific; don’t make it seem like you’re blasting out hundreds of copies of the same email. Research every organization you contact and tailor your cold call accordingly.


Finally, remember in a cold call that you’re trying to emphasize what you’ll contribute as much as what you’ll get out of an opportunity. Back to the internship example. The point of an internship is to supply a bit of free labor to an organization in exchange for getting an insider’s look into how the organization/industry operates. It’s a learning experience for you, but it should also very much be a benefit to the organization. Hopefully, the organization won’t just require you to make coffee and make copies, but that may happen, and you need to be enthusiastic about it. You can also emphasize that you think you’d bring some good energy, a college student’s perspective, and some great ideas to the mix, and you just want an opportunity to immerse yourself in the culture of that organization.

Organizations are always looking for talented people and good ideas, whether they’re actively hiring for a position or not. And you never know when someone at the organization just rolled out of a meeting where everyone seemed overworked and they needed to start thinking about hiring someone (but they don’t have the money to do so or the time to interview candidates). You could be the perfect solution as an intern, and they may just say “OK, you’ve got the internship. When can you start?” Just remember that those organizations that have posted a job announcement know precisely what their needs are. But all organizations have needs, and you may find yourself fulfilling those needs before the organization can even crystallize what those needs are.

Recent Cold Call Successes

I’ve had a few cold call successes recently. This semester, I wanted to include some guest speakers in my PR classes, and I wanted these speakers to represent a variety of perspectives. I cold-emailed PR folks at Logo (MTV’s LGBT channel) and PR folks at Lowe’s Home Improvement (headquartered in the state), and both attempts were successful. Without having any prior connections, I was able to make new ones with these organizations, bringing valuable professional perspectives into my classes and making (what I hope are) some long-term professional connections. In time, I’m hopeful these connections will benefit my students, the organizations, and me. And no one gets “used” in this process, either. I was surprised to see how eager the Lowe’s and Logo folks were to speak to classes, which reminded me that professionals are sometimes eager to give back to classes and teach a bit of what they know. It’s fulfilling for them in some ways, and their talks are fulfilling for my students.

Another cold call success was when I picked up the phone last summer and called the U.S. Curling Association. I was writing an article for Flow about curling’s TV success in the Winter Olympics, and I wanted to get some stats about the growth of curling. I linked up with USCA’s PR person, and I ended up contacting her again later in the summer to see if USCA was interested in being the client for my PR Campaigns class. And they agreed.

I wouldn’t have made these great connections without having the guts to shoot cold emails into the abyss.

The Purpose of Conferences

While I was a senior at Trinity, Harry Haines took me to the Western States Communication Association (WSCA) conference in Albuquerque. I had already applied to master’s programs (and was already starting to get quick rejections), so checking out WSCA was a way for me to get my feet wet in the world of academia and, frankly, to put my face in front of some admissions committees at the schools I applied to.

I loved WSCA, and I went to WSCA every year for the five years after Albuquerque – San Francisco 2005, Palm Springs 2006, Seattle 2007, Denver 2008, and Mesa 2009. I presented my first two papers and my first roundtable panel in Palm Springs, and I still remember vividly the feedback I received from the likes of Dave Natharius and Arne G’Schwind. The feedback was especially good. It was thorough, critical, but also constructive. Natharius and G’Schwind had taken careful notes, and in their role as respondent on these two paper panels, they presented their prepared commentary in the way a teacher would respond orally to the strengths and weaknesses of a student’s paper. I watched a lot of professors in the Media Studies Interest Group and Communication & Instruction Interest Group at WSCA provide serious, thorough critique in their roles as respondents. When you presented a paper at WSCA, you were guaranteed to walk away with constructive feedback to make your paper truly ready for submission to a journal.

As a regional conference of NCA, WSCA is largely a speech communication conference, and as my research veered away from rhetoric, it was difficult to justify going to the conference anymore. I also now live on the east coast, so WSCA makes little sense for me now.

WSCA is a shining example of what an academic conference should be. Papers are strong, people actually attend panels (even the ones at weird hours), and respondents take their job seriously. It’s also a hell of a social event, and the folks at WSCA are a close-knit group. I’ve heard similar positive appraisals of other regional conferences and small, boutique conferences like COCE.

But large conferences, in my experience, fail to provide what WSCA does. I’ve attended NCA and AEJMC and have not quite seen the level of quality in the respondents’ work. NCA is especially bad. At NCA, many of the panels have fewer than 10 people in the audience (and some don’t have an audience at all), and respondents roll into the panels with scant scribbles on cocktail napkins. The feedback is very light – a lot of “I like how you did this in your paper” and other empty reflections. Presenting a paper at a conference without a respondent publicly critiquing it is a pointless exercise – why not just post the paper online and call it a day? Why spend all the money (and for a grad student it’s a lot of money) to travel to some usually very expensive city with expensive convention hotels and present a paper without feedback to an empty room? (I should note that AEJMC is better than NCA in this regard. There are frequently sizable audiences, and a lot of the time respondents do their job).

I’ve heard my colleagues say bluntly that conferences aren’t really about presenting research, but rather they are about schmoozing. Yuck, I say. But they’re kind of right. An hour at a cocktail party, especially if you’re outgoing or have your advisor present to introduce you to people, is as valuable as an hour presenting cutting edge research on a panel. It’s a shame that this is the case, as a conference could definitely be about BOTH socializing and presenting research (like WSCA).

Grad students at conferences

The purpose of conferences for grad students is to get exposure, whether that is through presenting research or schmoozing, and to observe how the industry works. Showing up to an interest group’s business meeting is important for grad students, too. Sometimes just being present can land you an officer role in an interest group (AEJMC divisions, for instance, have graduate student liaisons, and WSCA sometimes lets advanced Ph.D. students sign up to review papers for next year’s conference or, in desperate situations, to be elected as a secretary in the group).

As a grad student, it can be intimidating to approach a small group of professors having a conversation at a social hour, especially if you’re still kind of star-struck by some of the “big names” in the game. A good way to do this is to email someone ahead of time. I’m a big fan of cold-calling and cold-emailing. Shoot someone an email ahead of time and ask if you can buy them some coffee at the conference. Tell them you want to pick their brain about some things and to connect over some common research/teaching interests. Professors are generally kind people who enjoy mentoring, so the worst that will happen is you’ll get an “I’m already booked at the conference, but let’s keep in touch through email” response. This is good enough, as you’ve at least succeeded in introducing yourself.

I’ve wandered a bit in this post, but I’ll part with some quick tips for grad students thinking about breaking into the conference scene:

  • Find a conference that suits you. Write a good paper and figure out where it belongs. Regional and boutique conferences tend to be a bit easier to get into than national conferences, but it also depends on the interest group. Ask around to see where your paper might fit in terms of conference and interest group. Also, if you’re more interested in good feedback but feel like you have to go to XYZ conference for the networking opportunities, you can always circulate your paper around to your peers for additional feedback.
  • Figure out funding. Will your department pay for your travel and your registration at a given conference? Do you know if there are matching funds available through different offices on campus to fill any gaps in funding? Can you truly afford to fill the gaps? Conferences can be enormously expensive, so be prepared. A conference in San Francisco costs a lot more than a conference in Albuquerque, and if the conference hotel is overpriced, are you able to walk or take a cab from a cheaper hotel? There’s also the cost of materials. If you submit a paper to AEJMC, for instance, you could be slotted into a poster session instead of a paper panel. Poster sessions are just as legitimate as a paper panel (and in many ways a lot more fun, relaxing, and networking-friendly), but the cost of producing a respectable poster can run anywhere from $20 to $200, not to mention the burden of lugging a poster tube on a plane and to the conference the day you present. There are a lot of things to think about in terms of cost.
  • Submit your work. This can’t be emphasized enough. If you don’t submit a paper, you can’t get a paper accepted to present at the conference, and this will likely mean that your department will not fund your travel. Write a paper you’re proud of. This will make it much easier to present without being nervous and insecure about your work. Or, team up with some colleagues and submit a panel proposal, a roundtable talk, or a workshop.
  • Dress the part. Don’t be afraid to ask colleagues what the attire at a given conference looks like. WSCA is pretty casual, AEJMC is a bit more formal, and I hear ECA is quite formal. That being said, you can never really go wrong with a good pair of slacks and a jacket (for men), and if you’re presenting a paper you may want to dress up just a bit more the day you present. It depends on the conference whether a tie will be necessary, and you’ll be fine in jeans at some conferences. Be sure to iron your clothes when you unpack. Ask around about attire.
  • Prepare your materials. Many conferences say to bring 25 copies of your full paper with you to give to people in the audience who ask for it. Don’t do this – it is ridiculous and wasteful and it adds about 20 pounds to your luggage. You’ll end up handing out one or two copies. Instead, have a few copies (2-3) on hand and connect with those interested in your paper in other ways. If someone asks for a copy of your paper, exchange business cards (or email addresses) and send your paper after the conference. This is better anyway, as you can provide your paper AND make a connection. That being said, you also need some business cards. Even if your title is just “master’s student,” you still need business cards. Ideally, these cards will have your university’s branding on them (check with your campus’ printing office to order these), and ideally you’ll also include a link to your website. Prepare a website to act as your virtual resume ahead of time and keep it up to date (more on building an online presence in a future post). Also have a pen on you at the conference.
  • Set up appointments. When the conference program becomes available online, build your personal schedule for the panels you want to see, and, of course, build in some meal time. Don’t just attend the panels you have a topical interest in. Also attend panels where people you admire are presenting. Observe these folks and learn the practice of good research from their performance. And, of course, walk up and say hi at the end of their panel. In your free time slots, try to set up some coffee meetings with people. Email them ahead of time and try to schedule a time to hang out at the conference. Bring your business cards.
  • Wining and dining. Have some cash on you at the conference. Always be prepared to split a check or pick up someone’s meal, and having cash on hand makes that process easier. Odds are, if you’re a grad student, some professor you’re eating with will try to buy your meal (because you’re poor and professors pity you), but you should at least attempt to pay your way. If you drink, then have a drink at the conference, but conferences are not the place to get drunk. That is, of course, unless you’re at WSCA, which prides itself on its parties. Even then, use good judgment. Cash bars are expensive, too, so have cash on hand. If you didn’t pay for the special lunch/awards dinner/banquet, don’t worry. If you linger around the entrance to the ballroom around the time the meal starts, you might just get handed some free tickets. A lot of folks opt out of these meals last minute, and you could find yourself waltzing in to a free meal and another opportunity to network and meet new people. Sometimes there are even fishbowls by the doors to these ballrooms full of tickets people are donating to starving grad students. Don’t be shy. Grab a ticket.
  • Know yourself, be yourself, ask questions, and relax. Figure out what exactly you’re into, as people may ask you many times over what you’re interested in researching. Then, be honest and true to yourself. People don’t like it when you’re nervous, so just try to relax and enjoy yourself. Professors aren’t stiff, generally, so don’t feel like you have to be quiet, stand at attention, and act like you’re in a job interview all the time. Don’t try to perform some alternate (better) version of yourself; it’s fake and off-putting, and people don’t like that stuff. And ask people a lot of questions about their interests and career path. You can learn a lot if you just talk to people.
  • After the conference. Shoot some thank you notes or emails to people who agreed to meet with you, bought you drinks, or gave you some great feedback on your paper. Continue the conversation with these folks into the future and link up with them at next year’s conference. If you were not able to make it to a particular panel to hear a specific paper, email the presenter and ask for a copy of the paper anyway. Connecting with people can lead to a lot of opportunities and some great friendships. You can find mentors, publication opportunities, friends, co-authors, jobs, etc. at these conferences, and it all comes from the human interaction you pursue. Also, after a conference, carry your research to the next level. Incorporate the feedback you receive and send that paper to a journal! And remember that you don’t have to present a paper first in order to publish it.

I’m curious to know if anyone else has some tips to add to this list. Feel free to comment.