Dr. Crazy put up a post several days ago about the importance of networking for junior scholars that generated a great discussion. Crazy was arguing that graduate students (and to a lesser degree junior faculty) are really shooting themselves in the foot if they don't learn how to socialize and network at conferences. It's a point that I entirely agree with--you can build a career on the sheer brilliance of your work, no question, but given how long it takes to get anything into print, and what a limited number of conferences most junior scholars can afford to present at, the sheer-brilliance approach can mean that your career takes an awfully long time to get going if you aren't also getting out there and meeting people.
Many of Crazy's commentors expressed anxiety about the need to be social, if one is an introvert, or disgust at the fakery of so much conference schmoozing. I understand that perspective, too, but I think that's the wrong way to think about professional networking. It's not, ultimately, about kissing up to someone important (even someone whose work you genuinely admire), nor is it about calculating who might be a "useful" person for you to know. To me, it's about getting to know people, pure and simple: making connections, making friends, learning more about the shape of your own field. And knowing people means that you will, eventually, know "useful" people--but it also means that you'll know interesting people, and fun people. . . and who doesn't want more of that in their life?
I'm not an extrovert, and I have a fair amount of social anxiety and a definite imposter complex. But I love going to conferences and I love meeting people. No, scratch that: I don't love meeting people--the awkwardness of initiating conversation and trying to figure out if the other person has any interest in talking to me--but I love knowing people. In my personal life I've always been a good keeper of friendships: I'm in touch with a large number of people from the previous stages of my life, and being in touch with them, and having them as a resource, really matters to me. And as far as I'm concerned, professional networking is a version of the same thing.
Sure, networking is more focused in its intentions than merely hanging out with one's friends, but that doesn't make it crassly utilitarian. I may say to myself, "Self, you really need to increase your visibility in Sub-Subspeciality A." But I don't go and find all the Important People in that field and try to finangle a meeting--I just go to a conference, give a paper, and make sure to talk to a reasonable number of people while I'm there. If there's someone whose work I admire, I make it a special point to meet them--but otherwise I just talk to whomever I run into, whether grad students, emeritus professors, journal editors, whatever. I don't work the room, but I don't stay in one place for an hour, either.
My philosophy is, simply: You Never Know. You never know who might be working on a project similar to yours--or know someone who is. You never know who might be on a hiring committee next year. You never know who might, in a year, or two, be putting together a panel and think of you for it. But you also never know who has a great piece of gossip, who can do a wicked impersonation of Famous Blowhard, or who knows the best bar or Ethiopian restaurant in town. In most cases, there's no immediate payoff to meeting someone, and when there is, it's usually more about luck than anything else. . . but that's not the point of meeting people. And unless you put yourself in the way of luck, on a regular basis, it's not going to know where to find you.
When I left one of my law firm jobs, back in the day, I made off with my desktop Rolodex. I don't use it in any meaningful way any more, but I do think of myself as having a mental Rolodex that I update and consult all the time: "Oh--you're moving to X City? I have a friend there you should totally meet"; "You're thinking about switching jobs? Well I know someone who made a similar move a couple of years ago. . ." Whirr! Whirr! Who do I know who. . . ? Is there anyone I can contact about. . . ?
Most of my professional friends and acquaintances are not friends in the sense that my "real" friends are. But just as my friends and I are continually offering each other advice, generating ideas, and expanding the number of our connections--and just as that activity is neither entirely selfish nor entirely disinterested--so it is with professional friends. Knowing people is good for you, absolutely. . . but knowing YOU is also good for THEM.