Throughout your academic career, you’ll have professors who will only exist to you for a semester and won’t impact your life much beyond giving you a final grade. That’s fine. But there will also be those professors who genuinely seem to care about you, take interest in your growth, and may even be inclined to help you with your career down the line. You definitely should stay in touch with them, but you don’t want to be weird about it.
It can certainly be awkward to network with someone significantly older and more established than you, particular someone with whom you shared an imbalanced power dynamic during your time as a student. Still, you must push past the discomfort — a closed mouth doesn’t get fed and the shy former student misses out on the job opportunity.
Here are some tips for keeping in contact with a former prof in a professional way, without going overboard or being too timid.
Let them know you’re graduating
When graduation rolls around, give the professor a thank-you card or gift, advises Shiyel Rittenbach, an experienced teacher who recently completed her M.S.Ed (and keeps in touch with her old students and professors). This doesn’t need to be elaborate; you can just write a note detailing how the professor helped you reach your goals, and sincerely express your gratitude.
But you should also include your contact information. Add your phone number or email to the card. It’s likely they’ll send you a quick congrats in response — and now you’ve established a direct line of communication outside of the classroom.
Find them on social media — but proceed with caution
When social media was a newer concept, it was weird as hell to add teachers as “friends” on Facebook. Depending on your relationship, it still can be. Use your own judgment about following a prof on Facebook or Instagram, but if they use Twitter to promote their research or endeavours, give them a follow there.
Of course, the best place for professional networking is LinkedIn, Facebook’s cornier, nerdier sibling. LinkedIn was designed for professionals to connect, so you don’t run the risk of seeming too personal if you find them there, where every interaction carries with it the expectation of professionalism. You’ll probably never post something revealing about your personal life on LinkedIn, nor are you likely to accidentally learn something weirdly intimate about your erstwhile mentor.
But you do still have to make that connection. “Make sure to be active on your page so they [can learn] about your education/career updates,” says Rittenbach, who adds that you may even notice a change on their profile, giving you an opportunity to open the lines of communication by way of congratulating them. If a former professor takes a job in the industry you studied and they have hiring capabilities…well, they already know your skills, interests, and talents. That’s one foot in the door.
Send sincere updates
Keep in contact periodically, sending updates about your education and career advancement. As with any relationship, it’s not nice if you only appear in their inbox when you want something. A quick note to say you hit a milestone is always appreciated, least of all because it strokes the egos of the instructors who helped you along the way. Don’t forget to ask how they’re doing, too — and mean it.
“Professors love to see your professional growth, but you also want to see what they’re up to because of their impact on your growth. It’s a mutually beneficial thing,” says Rittenbach.
You don’t have to send a long letter every time you reach out, but you should communicate every few months, keeping things positive, and showing an interest in their goings-on. Just don’t badger them constantly. It’s no longer their actual job to help you, so don’t make demands, spam their inbox, or expect instant miracles. Nurture that relationship so you’re top of mind if and when you do need to ask them for a favour or they hear of an opportunity that would be perfect for you.
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