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Earlier in the semester, I was informed by both an advisor/academic counselor and a professor at my university that it is a good idea to connect with professors on LinkedIn if they have interests in the same area as me.

I sent a connect request to one of the professors I had last semester (along with some other profs, most of whom accepted) and he just wrote back to me saying it is extremely unprofessional to be trying to connect on LinkedIn for a student/prof relationship. I am confused - how is this unprofessional and how can this be handled better in the future?

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    Mail is the most preferred way to connect, but Linkedin shouldn't be a problem. Its a site specifically made to connect to other people in the field as professionals. It may not be the best place to discuss research ideas etc., but its not unprofessional and definitely not 'extremely unprofessional'. I have contacted a few professors previously on LinkedIn (after mails went unanswered), a couple of them did reply back addressing my queries. – Jihadi Jun 1 at 5:19
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    There are a lot of people (including me) who only use LinkedIn to connect with people who are actually working (as opposed to studying). I would just ignore a request from a student, but I wouldn't consider it unprofessional to ask. – Marianne013 Jun 1 at 10:43
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    Where/what area is this? I always thought that, at least in US in math, most professors don't use LinkedIn. – Kimball Jun 1 at 14:36
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    Sounds like your professor is quite full of themselves.... – user32882 Jun 2 at 5:58
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    @Marianne013 - in a lot of cultures studying is pretty much considered work. I'm in Eastern Europe, and "colleague" is the standardized title for all teaching staff when referring to students. – Davor Jun 3 at 18:54

13 Answers 13

22

Here I quote the crux of your situation, and put in bold font your sentence containing a question:

"I sent a connect request to one of the professors I had last semester (along with some other profs, most of whom accepted) and he just wrote back to me saying it is extremely unprofessional to be trying to connect on LinkedIn for a student/prof relationship. I am confused - how is this unprofessional and how can this be handled better in the future?"

Here is my answer:

  • Whether or not it is unprofessional is extremely subjective.
  • What you did is perfectly okay, perfectly legal, and is done very frequently by many people.
  • My recommendation: feel free to continue connecting with people as you see fit, but be aware that some professors might not like it. Exercise careful judgement: if the professor has 5 mutual connections with you, and 4 of them are students, go ahead and connect with them. If they have < 100 connections in total and in real-life you are able to see that they are not the type that would ever want to connect with a student, proceed with caution if you think you might want something from that professor later.
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  • "in real-life you are able to see that they are not the type that would ever want to connect with a student, proceed with caution if you think you might want something from that professor later" Why would a student want something from a professor who doesn't want to connect with students? – JiK Jun 2 at 9:09
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    @JiK Examples: the professor does "admin" work (in the broader sense) and the student needs a signature for getting a project acknowledged or the professor is in some committee that might discuss a request by the student and the student does not want to cause the professor to raise objections. – Timotheus.Kampik Jun 2 at 19:47
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    @JiK That the professor doesn't want to connect with students on LinkedIn does not mean the prof doesn't want to connect in other ways, such as being a formal or informal advisor or whatever. Perhaps the prof just wants to use it to keep track of connections to other professionals working long-term in the field, and not clutter it with links to every student he's ever encountered. (Many people have the same issues with recruiters; if I connected with every recruiter that sent me an invitation I'd have more connections with recruiters than other professionals.) – cjs Jun 3 at 1:37
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    I would also add to maybe start asking for connections after the main interaction with the professor has taken place. For example, ask after the course is over or the exam is passed, so that there is less possibility that the connection is seen as the student trying to being noticed than as a genuine interest in sharing future professional opportunities. – bracco23 Jun 3 at 14:17
  • @cjs Correct, but the problem in question here was after the term and any ways, connection on LinkedIn should not be considered extremely unprofessional if it is just the professor's personal preference – user760900 Jun 3 at 18:53
76

It sounds to me that this is just the reaction of that particular professor, and so there's not much you can do about it. Perhaps the professor only likes to use LinkedIn to connect with other researchers and professors, but personally I don't believe that it's unprofessional or inappropriate for university students to connect with professors. You are both adults and the site is intended for networking in the professional context. I myself added many of my lecturers on LinkedIn while I was an undergraduate, with no problems.

If you'd added him on Facebook, that might have been a different matter, as many people want to keep their work and personal lives separate and would regard such a friend request as overstepping that boundary. However, all you can do now is move on. In the future, perhaps only add professors that you have got to know quite well, as then they will recognise you if you request to connect, which in turn will hopefully mean they are less likely to refuse.

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Yea that's rubbish - most academics have huge networks on Linked In. Many of their contacts are former students who have remained active in their field. This is particularly the case among graduate students and academics in their department.

Personally I think if an undergrad made the effort to connect on Linked In I would take that as a sign that they were motivated and keen to continue working in whatever field it was that prompted the connection.

If an academic is chastising a student for trying to build their professional and academic network - frankly I would just call them an idiot.

Don't be deterred! Keep building your network but seek out the enlightened people who thrive on making connections. Avoid the morons that refuse them...

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    Most academics I know are not active on LinkedIn at all. So I expect this varies by country and field. – Thomas Jun 2 at 6:40
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It is totally fine to connect with your professors on Linkedin. You don't have to chat with them or comment on every post they upload but it is good to stay connected via social media in a professional way. I used to get requests from my professors on Facebook and LinkedIn, so I knew that they like to stay in touch somehow with good students. But again, try to not chat with them or comment a lot on their posts.

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I agree with the answers here stating that LinkedIn is fine for creating a professional connection (as opposed to Facebook, Instagram etc.)

One important point- when sending an invite request, make sure you write a personalized note. Explain that you want to connect on LinkedIn for the purpose of developing network of professionals in your field, which currently (while you are a student) consists of your professors etc. Write some sort of intro along these lines.

This may sound stupid- after all, it's your professor who already knows you! Why do you need to write such a request?

But lots of people, especially students who are just joining LinkedIn, view it as just another social media platform. They don't understand that LinkedIn tries to keep a more professional focus. Instead you have people who treat it as just another platform, and act like they do on Facebook. This includes negative aspects like trolling, or sharing inappropriate personal information etc.

It's possible that this professor has had negative interactions with students on LinkedIn and therefore is against connecting with them.

By writing a note along with the actual invite request, it shows that you are actually interested in using LinkedIn in a professional way. it might not help with this specific professor, but in general it's a good way to establish your seriousness and professionalism.

Also- instead of connecting with a professor, you have the option of "following" him/her instead. Especially if a professor shares content on a regular basis, you can start seeing that content and commenting/engaging on it. When people see that you are taking their content seriously, they are more likely to be willing to accept your invite request. It's another way of showing that you are serious about building actual connections and not just trolling etc.

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Another vote here. There is nothing wrong with it, since it is a professional network. Other academically oriented network tools are also fine, and many academics have a strong preference for Twitter for communicating work. I would avoid facebook, Instagram etc.

Don't hesitate to add other academics and don't fret over a strange reaction. You did well.

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I get plenty of LinkedIn requests, mostly from companies that want to sell me something, hiring companies and random people. I just ignore them.

So not getting a reply does not mean much.

I would not write back to a student to tell them that this is "extremely unprofessional", for several reasons

  • such wording is condescending and shows that the demi-god who replied to you is full of himself. Should he want to explain you something, he would have chosen better words
  • but especially that my opinion about "who can be connected to whom" is very personal: young people may not have the barrier which was instilled when I was a student - that one should approach professors with deference. Times change and the fact that someone lives with their times (and not mine) is not a reason to be unpleasant.

I would not have done what you did. But there is nothing wrong to do that.

I would not have done what the professor did. This is extremely unprofessional, coming from someone who is supposed to teach.

And finally, LinkedIn is crap, do not put too much effort/faith into it. It is just a fancy online CV. EDIT: see the comment below for an alternative view on the usefulness. (interestingly enough, this is exactly what I was complaining about in my answer: to not focus on one's personal point of view but understand that others may have a different approach. Point taken)

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  • I think your last statement is contradictory and as much as I love to criticise "social networks" for not being useful or not really understanding their use, you made a prime use for LinkedIn abundantly clear - which is incidentally one of the only true benefits I see: LinkedIn provides and excellent job listing aggregator if one searches for new employment. Of course it has its fair share of spam, but it is much easier and more convenient than finding companies without. The "Easy Apply" function is nice too as it uses a standard format for the CV which will be the same. ... – DetlevCM Jun 2 at 6:16
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    ...I do not know if I got my current job via the "Easy Apply" link on LinkedIn or sending my CV to the company, but searching for jobs is one function where LinkedIn definitely has its uses. Also if only just to identify companies hiring in your area. (You see a job posting that is interesting, you then research the company.) - So in conclusion, yes, it seems to be really primarily an online CV today. But this can have its uses for job searching (for those without connections). - I'd thus suggest to edit out the judgement in the last sentence. – DetlevCM Jun 2 at 6:18
  • @DetlevCM: fair comment, thanks. It is true that the usefulness depends of the use someone makes of it. I would never find a job over there and the "blog" part is horrendous (mostly self advertising). This said if it useful to some then great. – WoJ Jun 2 at 7:41
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While there is nothing utterly unprofessional about it, I'd feel weird to have a LinkedIn connection with students. LinkedIn in my region is for professional work relationships, whereas - unless we're talking Phd students - a professor does not have a colleague relationship with their students, especially undergrads. This holds even more in regions where "professor" means teacher (i.e. covers highschool).

It might also be that your professor considered it a too private kind of connection, i.e. that they could get in trouble for "befriending" you. I don't think that is a realistic fear or at least it shouldn't be.

That being said, since you explicitly were encouraged to connect with professors from an official advisor, you did nothing wrong and the professor is the oddball here. Maybe they have another cultural background. Many social networks are used quite differently across the world - with the US having one of the more social media friendly and "open" populations as far as I can tell.

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    Well, I would suspect most students would get a job somewhere after their degree. (Whether it is a good one is a different question.) - Especially if you think the student might do well it could even be self serving as you might have a connection in "important places". – DetlevCM Jun 1 at 19:09
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    @DetlevCM Ah see for me this is not about getting people in any important places but about a) staying in contact with friendly colleagues that are not really friends yet, but close to it and b) having a network of people that can vet for my abilities and where I can vet for theirs. A student especially a low grad student can barely do that aside from a low level of teaching skill evaluation, but otherwise they are far too far away. – Frank Hopkins Jun 1 at 21:20
  • I suspect you might be doing the graduate student a disservice there. If someone wanted to know about you as an educator, former students might be good people to ask to see what they thought of your teaching. And if the pool of colleagues is reasonably static, I would actually consider them very bad evaluators. On the other hand, if the colleagues change and come from a diverse background, they can offer very valuable insights. I don't think your point of view of LinkedIn quite agrees with today's spirit of the site which has become a looser network of connections. Effectively we would need... – DetlevCM Jun 2 at 6:11
  • ..two contact tiers. One for the "looser connections" of potentially valuable employment contacts. And a second tier for people we know well personally or have worked with. As it stands, those two functions are mixed resulting in potentially very inconsistent views amongst users, as seen in this Stackexchange query and its responses. – DetlevCM Jun 2 at 6:12
  • @DetlevCM I don't think there is a universal way to use LinkedIn, plus I'm in industry now. But most people I know in my sector barely use it (i.e. have very limited circles), but indeed there are some who collect a lot of connections. I've observed similar behaviour on many social media. There are a minority of power users and a majority of casual more "private" restricted users. The minority is obviously way more visible because they are connected to many and thus one comes across them more often. That being said, I'm really really rarely logged in to LinkedIn specifically. – Frank Hopkins Jun 2 at 10:38
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I agree with all the views that this is fine. (Of course it depends on what you do with this connection. Treat it as a professional connection.)

To add to the previous comments: Our subject has a LinkedIn group which contains at present 301 members. Of course with time this changes - people leave, move on forget about it and the last post is from two years ago. However when one of our former lecturer retired, this was shared via LinkedIn with us for example. It keeps a small link back to your old university which may well grow fainter as the staff retire and new students come in.

So, just to re-iterate: Yes, connecting with lecturers is perfectly fine. Of course do not spam connection requests. Treat them as a professional connection, ideally add people you know only. An exception may be people you could reasonably approach - say you are working towards a PhD and want to connect with a researcher, then you could equally consider LinkedIn. However for the latter, I suspect that the vast majority of people would prefer regular email for the initial contact.

(Oh, and maybe (conference) networking events? Again, a LinkedIn connection may be easier to create and exchange.)

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TLDR;

Social Media is a new media that is still unnatural and leads to ambiguity. There is a greater disparity, in the perception of the etiquette and usage of various social media platforms, than physical communities. It is best, in such cases, to first be sure of the etiquette that a given person adheres to regarding a given social media. In your case, a simple question you could have asked before connecting with the professor is this: "Is the professor connected to other students on LinkedId?". Having said this, you certainly did not do anything unprofessional.

A Probable Cause for Miscommunication

A probable cause of such confusions comes from one basic dynamic of social networking: "People across different age groups and different communities have a different perception of social media etiquette."

This is very common and leads to many cases of miscommunication in social media (more than in physical communities). For example, we have witnessed a difference in the perception and usage of Facebook across different age groups, and how teens may feel embarrassed about what their parents may be posting on social media and how they are using it. (You may look at Prof. Cristian's work to look at more concrete examples of social media miscommunication).

With this hypothesis at our disposal, it is now understandable that some people may consider LinkedIn as a platform to network with professionals who are colleagues or are equal in position. As mentioned in one of the answers, students would not be considered equal by many people, and they may consider them students in the sense of a high-school student. Having said that, it is certainly not "extremely unprofessional" and this was more of an opinion of the said professor.

A General Heuristic

In such cases, a general heuristic that I use is that I first observe if a given professor connects with students on a given social media platform or not, and how friendly and active he is. On one extreme, I have professors who are highly active on Facebook and connect with students there. On the extreme, there are professors who do not even respond to emails and I have to meet them during their strict office hours.

I consider it presumptuous (it's my personal opinion) to assume that a given professor looks at a media the same way as I do.

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"Extremely unprofessional?" Definitely not! Apparently unwelcome in this instance - seems so. That's OK too. Just move on, and proceed as before.

As context, if you connect with someone on LinkedIn, your own LinkedIn feed starts displaying anything they say, whatever they comment on, etc. This is desired behaviour when your connection is someone you worked with, remember, trust, and want to stay informed about. However, as someone who regularly teaches executive education courses and gets (and used to accept) LinkedIn connection requests from many of those students, it does get tiring -- and overwhelming -- to have your feed flooded with random commentary and reputation-building by all sorts of people who passed through your life briefly for a few weeks a couple of years ago, and left no particular lasting impression. I'm proud of my relationships with my current and on occasion former students, but if that relationship has run its natural course, a connection just becomes LinkedIn noise. All of this to say I'd never be so unprofessional myself to "pull rank" and criticize someone I do know from trying to form a LinkedIn connection, but I empathize with a professor who isn't keen to connect with most of their former students, whatever the reason.

Both in real life and on LinkedIn, it's about genuine connections you do make, not connections you don't make. Doesn't seem like this ex-prof of yours cares to be a real connection, so move on.

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I feel one of the better connections on linked are your former professors...maintaining those contacts and relationships can prove beneficial in your professional career. For example, i know many that have engaged their former academic contacts for intern programs as well as for outsourcing/consulting (both near and far-shoring) opportunities.

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  • This might not be an option everywhere (legal constraints, time constraints, company policies) but otherwise very good points. – DetlevCM Jun 2 at 6:19
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Final year Undergrads and Masters students do connect with their Profs after graduating, depending on how well they got to know them (e.g. through Project work, or a 2-semester lecture course). Rather than LinkedIn, try 'Researchgate', where you can (passively) follow any Prof and be one of the first to know about their new Research.

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