In business schools they call it networking; in academia they call it collaboration. Either way, if you aren’t connected to your field, you’re not only missing out on the best part of an academic career, you’re missing out on a valuable career-building resource.
Get up and dance, Professor Wallflower
The concept of networking seems far removed from academe, where reputation and expertise are carefully constructed through years of diligent research and publication. What relevance could networking have in a world where hiring and promotion decisions are made with such cool objectivity and sober scholarship? More than most young scholars realize – and this lack of awareness can be a huge impediment to landing the first tenure-track position.
For many in academia, networking resonates with hints of nepotism and deception. Vague notions of insincere handshakes and business cards have contributed to the term being virtually banished from the ritual of the academic job search. But in denying the term, we may have inadvertently swept the very core of the academy off the radar of doctoral candidates sending out their first applications.
The mandate of the university system has always been to provide a community for scholars to meet, discuss complex ideas and develop new ones. Today, the administrative structure of most graduate-level programs actually prescribes scholarly collaboration through seminars, the supervisory relationship, oral defences and conferences. Throughout the course of their graduate degrees, doctoral candidates are carefully nurtured and helped to develop intellectually through participation in these activities. But once they graduate, newly minted PhDs can find themselves suddenly cut from the scholastic umbilical cord that connected them to the academic community. Their colleagues and supervisors can seem very distant and engrossed in matters that no longer concern them. This can be a very disorienting experience, and, for some, a significant obstacle to progress on the job market.
Start small, think big
For Greg, this time in his life was terrifying. For the first time, he was facing a future without offers of scholarships and promises of continued funding. His program, had welcomed him so enthusiastically when he first arrived, appeared to have little interest in him now that he had graduated. After the intense months of pressure and support leading up to his defence, this new reality was unnerving. Even though he was busily sending out his applications to the various postings he came across, he couldn’t help but feel anonymous and very much like a statistic.
One afternoon, while despondently browsing through the latest issue of an online journal he was thinking of submitting to, Greg came across an article written by a scholar he had cited in his dissertation. The article seemed to miss a couple of important points that he had argued during his defence. For the first time in months, Greg felt connected and relevant to the discipline.
Before he realized what he was doing, Greg was composing an email to the author to say he had enjoyed reading the article since he had been working along the same lines. He then asked if the author would be interested in Greg’s take on the subject. To his delight – the author responded positively. This began an email dialogue between Greg and the scholar which led to Greg being invited to give a talk on campus. During the visit, he met other academics from the area who were also interested in the direction Greg’s dissertation had taken, and encouraged him to publish in a journal they were affiliated with. He did, and some months later was contacted about a job opening by one of the scholars he had met on his trip. He thought he’d be a good fit. When offered the position, Greg couldn’t believe his luck. It took some reflection time for him to recognize how he had fostered this opportunity and that its happy conclusion was less a matter of luck and more the direct result of good old-fashioned networking. Greg had moved from academic anonymity to known quantity by connecting himself and his work directly to others in the field.
Cultivating your contacts, early and often
Marlene Delanghe, a career adviser at the University of British Columbia’s career services, prefers to use the term “connecting” over “networking” since it more transparently describes the activity while avoiding unpleasant associations this word has picked up over time. She has worked with several doctoral candidates, who, like Greg, have gone out of their way to connect with faculty and colleagues in their fields through conferences and email. “Connecting with people isn’t only a ‘just-in-time’ job search strategy” she notes, “but is an everyday practice of relationship building.” She says those candidates that successfully connected with people in their fields were able to land tenure-track positions aided by developing their awareness of appropriate ‘social-cuing’ – the social rules that determine what is appropriate social behavior – and by looking for opportunities to get involved.
At York University, Anne MacLennan, sessional assistant professor in communications and social science is a great advocate of the value of conferences in academic career development. “The conferences are a wonderful opportunity for new scholars to meet others in their field, not just as part of a merry-go-round of audition/interviews but also to find collaborators for research.”
By taking the time to connect with and develop relationships with scholars in your field, you are building the foundation of your own academic community of colleagues to replace the infrastructure of your home university. This community will not only provide a valuable resource for your own research agenda, it will also be an important grapevine for learning how specific departments operate, about job openings and for making future references.
Four practical strategies for networking in academe:
Genuine flattery works: Start contacting a researcher you’ve read or used in your dissertation – let them know how their work had contributed to your thinking. Be sure to ask a pithy question to encourage a response and begin an ongoing conversation – look for opportunities to meet up at conferences.
Ask for sage advice: Begin talking to faculty members in your area about the schools they have attended or worked in to find out the behind-the-scenes details about the politics, cultural idiosyncrasies, and war stories – this will help you clarify your own expectations and may help guide your job search – especially if it means establishing a contact at one of these universities.
Social phobic? Get over it: If you fear initiating a conversation, consider attending a networking workshop at your university’s career centre – most offer these for free. Many participants will be undergrads and the focus will be on non-academic positions, but the principles will be useful and are easily transferable.
Conferences: a crucible for connecting: If you’ve put this off, get started – and force yourself you introduce yourself to at least one new person after every presentation you attend. If the speaker was good, let them know it – you might even suggest a follow-up conversation over a coffee or beer. At the very least, get their email address and go back to point #1.
Carolyn Steele is career development coordinator at York University.