In the comments to my last post, a grad student, Canuck Down South, asked how I managed to make friends and find mentors among senior scholars. It's a good question, and something I think is important for grad students and junior faculty to start working on as early as possible.
This is partly because it takes time and it's nothing you can force. I'm not a model of success, but it's definitely something I've been thinking about from the moment I got this job: I either already knew or vaguely intuited that, with the exception of my advisor, my recommenders going forward should absolutely not be faculty from my graduate institution. At the same time, there was no one at RU who would be appropriate, since I didn't have in-field senior colleagues. So, if you can't or shouldn't lean on your grad school profs or your colleagues at your first job, where do you turn?
Unless you're already publishing work that gets you unsolicited fan mail, I think the only answer for a junior scholar is conferences, professional societies, or anywhere else you meet people in person (for example, if there's a regional colloquium or working group that draws scholars from institutions other than your own). And your best bets at an early stage are the smaller venues: special one-off conferences, where you might actually get to talk at some length with people who are vastly your seniors; small societies dedicated to a specialized aspect of your research; or conferences that involve workshops or seminars rather than formal paper presentations.
And then. . . you present good work and you seize any opportunity that presents itself. If you see people whose work you admire, introduce yourself and tell them so. Sometimes--not always, not even most the time--they'll ask you about yours. And for goodness sakes, if someone comes up to you after a paper and wants to talk to you about it, keep talking. If you chat with someone for more than a few minutes, and especially if they offer you something in the way of real advice (even if it's not actually immediately useful or relevant), drop them an email after the conference saying how nice it was to meet them and how much you appreciate their suggestions. Most of these people, too, will not turn out to be actual mentors, but as I wrote a number of years back, the point of networking is that you never know.
Gradually, you'll start to know people. And sooner or later, someone will explicitly tell you that they'd love to read your work, or keep in touch about the results of your research. You'll be flattered, but you may not believe them. Believe them. Take them up on it.
Because here's the secret: most established scholars really want to know what younger people are working on, and where their corner of the discipline is headed. Many fear, at least a tiny bit, losing their finger on the pulse of what's happening. This is especially true for scholars who aren't teaching at doctoral institutions, or who teach at second- or third-tier ones. We all need mentors. But many people also want mentees: they're an additional way to stay engaged, an opportunity to give back to the profession--and, yes, a means of extending their own scholarly influence.
When it comes right down to asking for a letter of reference--or seeing whether someone would read an article draft or whatever--there's still usually a point where you just have to ask. And for me, anyway, the cold ask has never gotten easier: even when I'm asking for a letter from someone who's written letters for me in the past, it still takes days or weeks of avoidance before I'll actually send that email. But if you've laid the right groundwork, and the other person is someone who's been sincerely supportive of and enthusiastic about your work, they won't mind. After all: it's their profession, too.
Wise and worldy readers, what additional advice would you give?