Graduate students are often asked to introduce themselves in a professional context (usually to visiting speakers or at conferences). For many graduate students (including myself!), this ask causes a moment of panic and then we stutter through something awkward. Why is this so hard for graduate students to introduce themselves and how can we do better?
Here’s my hypothesis about why this is so hard for us. In academia, your research agenda is your professional identity and therefore needs to be the primary content of your professional introduction. But as a graduate student, your research agenda is often nebulous and liable to change at any moment. So summarizing your professional identity (i.e. your research agenda) in a few sentences can feel premature and impossible, especially when put on the spot.
But a challenge is no reason not to try! A succinct and interesting introduction is essential to having fruitful conversations with academics you’ve just met (and someone would probably say it is essential to goals like networking and marketing yourself).
So how can we do better? I recently attended a conference and I wanted to nail down a decent professional introduction before going. I convened a group of Harris Ph.D. students to all workshop our professional introductions. In the process, we developed the following 3-4 sentence template.
A template for introducing yourself and your (super cool) research
- One sentence with your name, program, year
- People want to know who you are!
- Example: “I am Maya Lozinski, an MD-PhD student at the University of Chicago.”
- One sentence with your broad research agenda area/questions
- This sentence should show that you have research agenda.
- Ideally, your research area should be more specific than “health economics” or “labor economics.” These vague terms make you sound like you don’t have a specific area you work on.
- It should be broader than the exact pitch for a single project so that you don’t sound like a one-trick pony/one-paper graduate student.
- The exact sentence here will be more specific when talking to people in your general field and broader when talking to people outside your field.
- Example: “I study organizational economics in healthcare and causes of increasing physician specialization.”
- One or two sentences summary of your most interesting project that you want people to ask you more about.
- You don’t have time to talk about more than one project without sounding like you are droning on and on.
- You only get one project, so pick you most interesting one! Note that this may not be the project you have spent the most time on. You don’t have to talk about a project just because you spent time on it.
- If your work makes a methodological advance, you should describe both the advance and how the advance enables you to better answer a policy-relevant question. The second half is key to engaging your conversation partner! Applied researchers tend to be uninterested in methods solely for methods’ sake. You must articulate why the advance matters in some real-world application. This can be hard, but if you do this successfully you will sound really impressive!
- Example: “In one of my main projects right now, I’m studying how the introduction of new drugs for cancer treatment influences oncologists’ specialization within the field and the overall geography of specialization.”
- (Optional) One sentence about why your project matters, the policy it informs, and/or the bigger economics questions/tradeoff this illustrates.
- You want to convince your conversation partner that your research project is significant and of broad interest. They likely won’t know the significance of your research project unless they are in exactly your sub-sub-field or you are researching a very hot topic. Make it easy for them to care about your question.
- Ideally, your paper will have several features that make it significant. Pick one or two at most.
- Tailor your choice to your audience to the extent you can. People care about different things.
- Example one (for economists): “More broadly, how does the introduction of new tasks change the organization of labor and agglomeration economies in healthcare?”
- Example two (for clinicians): “When you talk to doctors about why they are so subspecialized, they say that it’s the only way to stay on top of all the advances in their field. I’m trying to test this empirically.”
- Strongly resist the temptation to blather on about your projects. Do not monologue for more than thirty seconds to a minute. You don’t want to trap or bore your conversation partner. If your conversation partner is interested in the specifics of your project, they will ask follow-up questions.
- Avoid technical details. Don’t talk about specifications or robustness checks or the primitives of your model. If your conversation partner wants to know, they can ask you! That material is more appropriate for a long-form presentation or paper, not a casual in-person conversation.
- Have fun! Hopefully, you are excited about your research and getting to share that excitement with the person you are talking to!