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Future Proofing your Ph.D. with Networking

Brenda and I have mentioned many times that networking is a key activity for future proofing your Ph.D.. As I head off to the MLA, I am reminded of those days when I attended the American Academy of Religion/Society for Biblical Literature conferences. I knew, from my graduate mentors, that networking was a vitally important activity for several reasons.  It was the means to start relationships with departments who might be hiring, it fostered familiarity with people who would provide useful feedback on my writing, and it was a critical source for developing future publication opportunities.  Knowing this, I put a great deal of pressure on myself, fretting with much angst since I am rather introverted and, at best, described as “quaintly awkward” in social situations.  The point here is that regardless of whether or not you are on the altac track now, networking is something that will help you retain options far into the future.

At first, networking was a difficult, sometimes dreaded, exercise. Over time, I received a lot of good advice that made networking much easier. The most important counsel I received was to think of one’s network as an asset like a savings account.  A network is capital that grows with many small investments over time; something one develops before it is needed. The second thing that helped immensely is that networking should not be confused with making friends.  Social support is a topic for a future post. A network is an informal, almost organic, association of professionals connected by overlapping interests and affiliations. It is a web of people who can share information and resources, working for mutual benefit. Sometimes this can lead to friendship, but that type of relationship should not lead your desire to connect with people in a professional environment. Once the friendship issue is off of the table, a lot of the anxiety and pressure to connect with people is alleviated. Also, having more reasonable expectations will allow you to spread your efforts across a broader range of connections. Avoid pinning all of your time trying to make that deep connection with a famous scholar or rising star grad student, people, who will likely be very busy.  Instead think more about introducing yourself to a larger number of people since this will likely lead to a better return on your time investment.

Here are some networking do’s and do not’s:

  • Do go in with a commitment to network and have some form of a plan. For example, map out your networking time. Attend the big socials/mixers and have a concrete number of people to whom you will introduce yourself.  If you have intentionality, you are much more likely to succeed.  Also, look over the program and try to prearrange meetings with people of interest. Don’t forget about colleagues from previous institutions, they are great support and are likely to introduce you to others.
  • Do aim for reasonable time commitments from others.  Asking someone to a quick chat or coffee is more likely to receive a positive response than invitations to lunch or dinner.  People are often busy and a meal is a big commitment.  Don’t forget, some people may be much more interesting on paper and not so much in person. You could be the one dreading that dessert and second cup of coffee he just ordered while going on about his exotic allergies and antique mitten collection.
  • Do be positive and remember to smile.  This does not mean be fake or superficial.  Smiling and being positive makes everyone more comfortable, including yourself.  Too often people in uncomfortable situations seek power and safety by criticizing others. Negativity tends to feed on itself. Having a snark-fest bonding moment might feel good at the time. but it does nothing to present who you are or your academic talent.
  • Do not gossip, or criticize your program, your advisor, or your institution.  This is neither the time nor the place, and it only reflects poorly on you.  While you may have legitimate frustrations in your work, others do not want or need to hear about it. Remember, if you come from a crappy place, why would someone want to connect with you? Also, if you do not know this by now, you soon will: the academy is like the internet, it’s always on record and it never forgets.
  • Do follow up on your contacts after the meeting and with anything that you said you would do.  While this seems simple enough, people rarely do this. Ever.  If you follow up, I guarantee you, you will stand out from your peers.
  • Do offer more than what you yourself ask for.  Keep any requests, if any, focused and intentional.  For example, do not ask someone to read your dissertation or even an entire chapter.  Instead, send a few pages, providing some context, plus a directed question that your contact is suited to answer. In exchange for helping you, offer to read or review other things for this person.
  • Do not take things personally.  If someone does not respond to you or take you up on your offers, they are likely just busy and could not follow through for you. Avoid nagging; you can, however, send a follow-up note. Thank them again, let them know that if they find time, you would appreciate any feedback, but that you also understand people are busy and you look forward to seeing them again in the future. At the very least, when next you meet, they will remember your grace, and won’t feel awkward for not responding to your request. If, on the very odd chance, someone is rude to you, please remember, it is not about you, don’t take it personally and move on.
  • Do be confident, but avoid arrogance or starting an argument.  At the same time, do not be a sycophant.
  • Do be grateful for people’s time and do take an interest in what they do and what they are working on. Having people talk about their work will make them more comfortable and it will allow you to learn more about the discipline and identify more opportunities for you to make connections with them.

In the end, a network is a storehouse for your future.  It is not about immediate needs, but it is about planting seeds of familiarity, shared competencies, and collaboration.  Networking is not an optional activity, it is a necessary part of your job; there is only so much your brilliant writing and great teaching evaluations can take you if only a few people know about them.  The world is waiting for you, go out there and let everyone know what you have to offer.


[photo credit flickr user futureshape]

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