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A Teetotaler's Guide to Networking in Grad School

Advice for navigating academic social events when you don't drink alcohol.

October 8, 2015

Katie Shives is a PhD candidate in Microbiology at the University of Colorado. Her various writings can be found on her portfolio site, kdshives.com.

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For students,  graduate school presents many opportunities for professional networking and socialization. These events are usually held over beers at a conference or that one bar across the street from campus. So what about students who don’t drink? Being the only person in the bar with just a glass of water can be a little uncomfortable, especially when continually met with questions of “why are you not drinking?”


Unfortunately, by not drinking some students may find themselves left out of department social life (depending on the culture, of course) or having difficulty navigating networking events where alcohol is a major component. Students who do not drink deserve all of the same opportunities to form social connections in their programs and within their fields of study, so if you find yourself in this position as a graduate students do not despair, being a teetotaler does not have to hold you back.


So what do you do if you are a graduate student who does not drink and you find yourself at a networking or professional event with alcohol?


If you are at a professional event where booze is being served a nonalcoholic decoy drink is always a great idea. A decoy drink is something with bubbles and a citrus wedge (soda/lime or cola/lemon). Looks like a cocktail; no one but you will have to know the truth.


If you choose to forego the decoy drink at events and find yourself facing these awkward questions there is always the opportunity for a witty comeback such as “I’m pretty charming without it”  or a polite deferral along the lines of “I’m the designated driver tonight.” If witticism is not your route a simple, direct “I prefer not to, thanks” is more than enough of an answer. You are not required to explain yourself in this sort of situation.


An important point to remember in these moments is that if someone is really pressuring you to drink or heavily questioning you as to why not then they have overstepped into unprofessional behavior. These are personal questions and you do not have to answer them, so don’t be afraid to move on and network with someone else who will not put you on the spot in such an unprofessional manner.


Students choose not to drink for various reasons, so whether they are religious, personal, or medical is beyond the point. (Also, NEVER ask a woman “are you pregnant?” when she’s not drinking at a professional event. Don’t be that person.)


If you are graduate student who does not drink, there can some serious benefits to your professional life.


Not drinking at networking events means never having to:


Miss that morning conference session due to a hangover. Yeah, that one that cost over $3000 for you to attend on another continent? That one.


Worry about what you said to your adviser and committee chair after that 3rd glass of wine

“Ha, and so this other time at Burning Man….”


Untag embarrassing photos of yourself on social media

“Greg found a new use for the hemostat!”



Remember, even for individuals who drink, these different professional events are about socializing with the other people in attendance, not the alcohol. Drinking should not be the focus of a professional event. If everybody is clearly there for the alcohol then it’s probably an event that you can skip.


In the professional world, “Let’s grab a beer” is not about the beer, it’s a figure of speech. It’s easier to say beer than deep-fried mozzarella sticks, but the idea is the same: let’s talk. That’s something that everyone can do, even without alcohol.

[Image by Flickr User RomanBoed and used under Creative Commons Licensing]


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