Sunday, January 07, 2007

Networking: You Never Know

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.


life_of_a_fool said...

I think your approach to networking is a great one. I agree with the "you never know" approach, and it has the added benefits of reducing (some of) the anxiety and decreasing the likelihood of coming off as an opportunistic blowhard (which I think often comes when one focuses exclusively on meeting Important People).

Mel said...

I completely agree with you -- I you've described much of my own approach to this aspect of the profession -- we are all barely separated by only two or three degrees of connection, and all sorts of interesting cross-pollinations and connections inevitably arise --

Terminal Degree said...

I agree. It IS fun to know people and to enjoy re-meeting them, whether at conferences, meetings, or one's own dinner table.

When I had a "day job" years ago, my boss would collect business cards whenever he traveled. It was my job to put the cards in his Rolodex and to update his Outlook Contacts file, including a brief note about how he knew them. He'd been building that list for years and had to store his contacts on two huge spinning Rolodex files. He had over 1000 contacts by the time I quit. No, he didn't know them all personally (many were vendors, and in those cases the company was the primary focus), but he probably could have identified 500 of them. He had a huge talent for this, and it's because he genuinely likes people.

As a result of that job, I started my own Rolodex/contact file. It's not as massive as his list, and it doesn't need to be, but it's been very helpful on many occasions. It's also a fun way to remember and keep in touch with people I enjoy. And yes, keeping that list hasn't hurt my career any. :)

Tiruncula said...

Excellent post! You've said everything I wanted to say in Crazy's very fine thread. On a related note, I've been trying to think about what a thriving social-professional community means for the health of a field and the possibilities for individual careers therein. I posted this in response to a recent post by Michael Drout, but it has some relevance to this discussion, too.

I should add, perhaps, that helpful references from bloggers' boyfriends are an excellent example of "you never know"!

Margo, darling said...

I like your approach to networking--sensible and gracious. I am over-the-roof excited that you will be conferencing and networking in my town next month. Although I am not in your field, and don't know how to imitate your blow-hards, I do have a bevy of poet-impersonations I can whip out at a moment's notice. Edith Sitwell and Edna St. Vincent Millay are my specialities, but I also do a pretty wicked Ezra Pound and a devastatingly funny H.D., if you like that kind of stuff. In any case, save room in your networking for a meal with me, puuhhhleeeeze.

Hilaire said...

What a great post. I have a personality that sounds a bit similar to yours - not an extrovert, but I *like* people. As you say, I love knowing them. It really helps me to think about networking as an effect of this. And it also helps me to recognize what's going on in the networking I've already done, and that I like so much: "Oh yeah - that's what I like about it. It's making connections with people, who are generally awesome."

Cocledemoy said...

In order to fulfill a New Year's resolution to de-lurk, as playfully set by Hieronimo, I'd just like to thank you, Flavia, and all the other academic bloggers for your truly helpful advice / information about the profession.

I'm a PhD candidate at Big U., and while I've always sought out advice on professionalization, my requests have often (but not always) been met with puzzled, cranky stares. A visiting bigwig (and director of the grad school for a big name uni.) even told me that I needed to figure out the elements of professional development on my own. "Rough it, kid."

Anyway, I don't really have anything useful to add to this discussion, but I wanted to make a small effort to extract myself from the purgatory of introversion.

Can one network anonymously?

Dr. Crazy said...

This is a great post, Flavia, and a nice contribution to the ongoing discussion about this that began over on my blog. While I AM a bit of an extrovert, I think we actually think about networking in much the same way. I think that some of my strident tone about it in my post had less to do with my actual approach than with wanting to shout at people who aren't paying any attention at all to this aspect of things - or who think that they aren't "good" at it and so just don't try - to wake up. The post didn't necessarily reflect all of my thoughts on networking, and yours really fills in that gap that was left in my blustering post!

Flavia said...

Crazy: I do think that we have a similar approach to networking, and I should have said as much--this wasn't intended as a disagreement with your point, at all, so much as a reframing of the issue for myself and for some of your readers who seemed (to my mind) to misunderstand the variety of ways of networking and thinking about networking that you yourself brought up.

Hilaire: You've described it very well. I really like people, and I'm social in the sense that I love going out and doing things, throwing parties, etc. I've taught myself how to act so as to seem extroverted and to put people at ease, but it's not something that came naturally to me or that I can do, even now, without being aware that I'm putting on an act. This is why I always like to emphasize when making an argument like this one that I'm NOT an extrovert--the point is that networking NEEDN'T come naturally to you. Fuck natural. Anything you want or need to do can be learned.

Cocledemoy: welcome and congratulations on your delurkation! I do think that one can network anonymously (in the sense at least of getting to know non-anonymous persons), but certainly pseudonymously. So many of the bloggers I've read and exchanged comments with have helped me with professional dilemmas even when we were corresponding under our pseudonyms--and with time I've come to correspond with more and more of them, off-blog, under my own name.

Good luck completing your degree.

And Margo: you betcha. Soon's I buy my tickets, I'll drop you an email.

Hieronimo said...

For me, this kind of attitude got a lot easier to maintain after I had a job than when I was a grad student. Being a grad student at a big conference is just so intimidating. I think our profession needs to do a lot more, actually, to counteract hierarchy. That's why I enjoy SAA so much, because ever since I first attended as a grad student, it's been a really welcoming conference that engineers conversation between very senior scholars and grad students with a minimum amount of hierarchical posturing. I wish there were more structures in place that achieved that at other conferences. MLA is obviously the worst, because of the job market.

When I was a grad student at conferences, or just talking to my advisors, I was always amazed at how many people and how much of their work they knew. It seemed like I could never get that kind of panoptic knowledge. Only in the past few years has it dawned on me that there is no mystery in this: it's the nearly inevitable result of spending 30 years in the same field, at the same conferences, with the same people. You realize that what appear to be professional connections and voracious reading is often just the result of ordinary conversations with old grad-school or former-job friends, and their friends, and people you were on a panel with, etc.... Once I realized that, and once my own former grad school friends were now professors that I saw at conferences, who introduced me to their colleagues, etc., it made conferences so much less stressful.

P.S. Cocledemoy, I appreciate your taking up my call for de-lurking, but you're still officially a lurker at BtR!

Flavia said...

H: I think you're right that this is easier after getting a t-t job than before (and I have to say that, despite other people's experiences to the contrary, I feel more like a real person at a conference now, bearing a badge with a school that most people don't know anything about, than I did when I had INRU listed under my name).

But part of this, as you say, is about going to the right conferences. I'll be attending SAA for the first time this year, but the very first conference that I attended as a grad student--and which I'll be attending soon for my 4th or 5th consecutive year--was and remains my absolute favorite. It's small enough that all the panels are plenary, and although 2/3 of the people attend virtually every year, they're very excited by new people and go out of their way to introduce them around. That conference alone (and the chains of events that the papers I've given and the people I've met there have set in motion) is responsible for probably more than half of the people in my professional network and almost half of my publications.

Can't say that about no MLA.

Anonymous said...

What is the SAA, anyway? I would chime in (as I think I did at Dr Crazy's) that the MLA is neither the best place to "network" nor the right place to start practicing. Too big and too full of very stressed-out people. You'd do better finding the conference best suited for your field or subfield and chatting up the people there.

--- trystero49

Anonymous said...

I'm a PhD candidate at Big U., and while I've always sought out advice on professionalization, my requests have often (but not always) been met with puzzled, cranky stares. A visiting bigwig (and director of the grad school for a big name uni.) even told me that I needed to figure out the elements of professional development on my own. "Rough it, kid."

Well, there are at least some virtual guides to help out:

How to Be a Good Graduate Student

Networking on the Network

Excellent advice about graduate school life

Dr. O. said...

Excellent post. Of course, ideally scholars are evaluated on the strength of the work, but for so much of what we do (executive board positions in societies, editorships/associate editorships, chair positions, awards, grants) knowing someone who is connected is critical. Might not be ac (academically correct) to say so but there it is. Some positions and awards may involve being nominated - one person's opinion can be critical there - and are appointed by committee. Being a 'known quantity' can work for you , one hopes, if you haven't been a hideous jackass. Especially critical if you are running neck and neck with the other candidate(s)...