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The Secret to a Successful Search for a Graduate Position is Networking

As the number of graduate school applications continues to soar, prospective students face an increasingly competitive landscape. With thousands of applicants vying for a limited number of spots, how can you ensure that your application stands out? The answer lies in the power of networking.

In a world where graduate advisors are inundated with applications, personal connections can be the key to distinguishing yourself from the masses. Consider this: at the University of Helsinki, a recent pilot program for doctoral researcher positions attracted 1,300 applicants for just 236 spots, averaging about 5.5 applicants per position, with some programs seeing up to 17 applicants per vacancy​ (​. Similarly, research assistant positions at prestigious institutions like Harvard receive an overwhelming number of applications, though exact figures are rarely disclosed​ (Harvard University)​.

The Importance of Networking

In today's competitive academic environment, networking is not just beneficial—it's essential. Graduate advisors, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of applications, often rely on personal connections and referrals to identify promising candidates. This trend is not limited to academia; in the corporate world, referred candidates have a significantly higher chance of advancing past the initial resume review. According to Greenhouse job boards, applicants with referrals had a 50% chance of advancing compared to just 12% for other external candidates.

This reliance on networking is even more pronounced in academia, where the personal connection can act as a crucial differentiator. With many prospective students now using tools like ChatGPT to send out large volumes of applications, advisors are faced with emails that often sound eerily similar. This deluge of generic applications can make it difficult for even the most qualified candidates to stand out.

The Networking Advantage

The advantage of networking is clear. When a graduate advisor receives a recommendation from a trusted colleague or a respected member of their field, they are much more likely to take notice. This personal endorsement serves as a form of validation, giving the referred candidate a significant edge over the competition.

Graduate advisors are often hesitant to post openings publicly due to the influx of low-quality applications that such postings can attract. Instead, they prefer to fill positions through their professional networks, relying on referrals from colleagues and other trusted sources. 

The Role of Networking Software

To address this challenge, new tools are emerging to help students connect with potential advisors more effectively. One such tool is Coltie, a networking software designed specifically for students seeking to enter graduate school. Coltie matches students with advisors who share their research interests, increasing the chances of securing an interview with the right graduate advisor.

By using a targeted approach, Coltie helps students bypass the digital slush pile and connect directly with advisors who are actively looking for candidates in their field. This not only increases the likelihood of landing a position but also ensures a better fit between the student and the research group.

Practical Steps for Effective Networking

To leverage the power of networking in your graduate school application process, consider the following steps:

  1. Identify Potential Advisors: Start by researching potential advisors in your field of interest. Look for professors whose research aligns with your academic goals and interests.

  2. Attend Conferences and Seminars: Attending academic conferences and seminars is a great way to meet potential advisors and other professionals in your field. These events provide opportunities to network and establish personal connections.

  3. Join Professional Organizations: Becoming a member of professional organizations related to your field can open doors to networking opportunities. These organizations often host events, webinars, and forums where you can connect with experts and peers.

  4. Utilize Social Media: Platforms like LinkedIn (tailored towards industry) and Coltie (tailored towards academia) are valuable tools for networking. Connect with potential advisors, join relevant groups, and engage in discussions to build your professional network.

  5. Seek Referrals: Don’t hesitate to ask for referrals from your current professors, mentors, or colleagues. A personal recommendation can significantly enhance your chances of getting noticed by a potential advisor.

  6. Follow Up: After making a connection, be sure to follow up with a thank-you email or message. Maintaining these connections can be crucial for future opportunities.


In the highly competitive world of graduate school applications, networking is not just an advantage—it’s a necessity. By building and leveraging personal connections, you can significantly increase your chances of standing out from the crowd and securing a position in your desired research lab. Whether through traditional networking methods or innovative tools like Coltie, taking a proactive approach to networking can be the key to unlocking your academic potential.

Getting referred is the cheat code to get into the right research lab of your choice. So, start building those connections today and give yourself the best possible chance of success in your graduate school journey.

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