Everything is packed up, your diploma is in hand, and you’ve said your goodbyes to the people who’ve made up your entire world for the past four years. Whether you’re excited to move onto the next stage of your life or completely unsure of what comes next, there’s one thing you should do before everyone goes their separate ways that will make life easier for you in the future.
Identify the people who have been the most influential and helpful during your time at Clark and ask them if you can keep in touch.
Why keep in touch?
There are so many reasons to stay in contact with your professors and others who have supported you throughout your college years. The most obvious reason is that someday, you might want to ask for a letter of recommendation. If you haven’t spoken to the person who is best suited to write one in years, you might have to look elsewhere. But professors aren’t just good for writing letters or serving as a reference. They’re interesting people and professionals who are passionate about the same things you are. Someday, you might want to share some good news with them about how a project you started in their class has now grown into a nonprofit organization, or you might want to finally take their advice and try to break into an industry they said you’d be perfect for. If you leave Clark today with no promise of staying in touch, it’s going to make reconnecting a lot harder, if not impossible.
Don’t wait until it’s too late
Years from now, the last thing you want to do is reach out to someone who has no idea who you are or what you’ve been doing with your life. Sure, the time when you need to do so might never come, but if it does, it’s highly unlikely that your professor will remember enough about you to network or do you the favor of writing a letter of recommendation. What’s more, they might have also moved on to another university and be harder (or impossible) to find. Instead of waiting, identify a person or two who has been a champion for you during your time at Clark and ask if they wouldn’t mind if you stayed in touch. If you ask them and they say yes, be sure to do it!
Express genuine interest
When deciding who to stay in touch with, go with the person (or people) you feel you really have a connection with or whose work you have a genuine interest in. Don’t just choose a person because they seem important or well-known and might make for an impressive reference in the future. The more of a genuine connection you’ve already made, the easier it will be to sustain the relationship in the future. Let them know why you’ve chosen them as someone you’d like to stay in touch with. Consider more than just professors as connections too. Your advisers, supervisors, mentors, coaches, and others are also great people to stay connected with.
A sincerely written thank you message to someone who has helped or inspired you won’t just make their day, it will strengthen the connection the two of you share and show them you’re a kind and thoughtful person. In fact, even if you don’t plan on keeping in touch with someone, saying “thank you” can have just as much of a positive effect on you as the person you’re showing gratitude to.
Be direct (and reasonable)
Asking for a letter of recommendation or for someone to serve as a reference can be awkward. One of the ways to minimize this awkwardness (for all parties involved) is by being direct about what you’re asking for. If you need a letter of recommendation, it’s okay to come out and ask your professor for one. It’s even more helpful if you can provide them with 1) adequate time (ask them what “adequate time” looks like for them-each person is different) 2) detailed information about the program you’re applying to and 3) any helpful information they might not know about you (a resume is a great way to share this info) to help the process run smoothly. Once the letter is written, be sure to follow up with a thoughtful thank you card or email!
Find out how they like to keep in touch
Everyone has their preferred way of staying in touch. Some prefer emails, others strictly use LinkedIn or social media platforms. If you’ve asked your professor if they wouldn’t mind staying in touch with you and they’ve said yes, ask them what their preferred method of communication is. This not only makes it easier for them, it also provides you with a surefire way to find them when you want to connect in the future.
How much is too much? Or not enough?
While I can’t give you an exact number, I can tell you that keeping in touch is a balancing act. Do you have to reach out to your former professor(s) every month for the next five years of your life just to remind them you exist? Absolutely not. Instead, try to take advantage of the little ways you can connect with them every now and then. If you see they’ve just published the book they were writing while you were their student, send them a brief congratulatory email. If you’re connected on social media, comment on their posts every so often if you have something meaningful to say.
Don’t force it
Unfortunately, there are times when as much as we want to make a lasting, personal connection with someone we admire, they just don’t feel the same. I still cringe (just a little) when I think back to a professor I had in college who I thought was one of my biggest advocates. He was not, however, interested in serving as a reference for me in the future. In retrospect, I was embarrassed and afraid I had done something wrong. Why didn’t he want to be my reference? I’ll never know, but I can now appreciate the fact that his honesty might have saved me from some even more awkward moments if he had said “yes” when he was unable to.
Start building a foundation early on
If you’re reading this and you still have time left at Clark, start working on building genuine connections with professors and others starting now. Stop by office hours to say hello and ask a question. Send them an email when you make a real-world connection to a point they made in class. When the time comes, standing out from the crowd now is going to make navigating keeping in touch after graduation a lot easier.