Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Social Network: Or; Does Networking Really Matter To An Academic Career?

One of 17 ways to visualize Twitter.
Why do we tell young scholars to "network," and what  do we mean by it?

As I was finishing up Samuel Delany's Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (1999) last night, I came across this gem of a quote on p. 138:
I feel that my career benefits regularly from the results of my networking.  My ultimate take on networking is, however, this:  No single event in the course of my career that I can cite has been directly caused by networking.  Nevertheless, the results of networking have regularly smoothed, stabilized, and supported my career and made it more pleasant (there is that term again) than it would have been without it.
In general I would say (and I would say this to young writers particularly):  Rarely if ever can networking make a writing career when no career is to be made.
Delany, as many of you know, is a queer science fiction writer who has also written a fair amount about the sexual landscape of New York City.  To put this quote in context, Delany is writing about the redevelopment of the Times Square district in the 1980s and 1990s, and its consequences for human relationships.  In the second half of the book, he works out the distinction between the formalized set of connections that "networks" represent (in this case he is talking about writers' conferences, and the science fiction events that are a part of his professional life), and what he calls "contacts."  The latter category, he argues, are informal, unpredictable, and are produced through a spontaneous, democratic generosity that is far more likely to produce a significant change in one's circumstances.

Delany's view that cultivating connections did not make careers surprised me, to say the least, since I have always viewed the mainstream literary world as highly networked.  Those of us who fail to break in may not be writing what a larger audience wants to read, but we often don't know (or command the respect of) the right people either.  When I was living in New York full time in the 1980s, the people who got published were also the people who were adept at getting invited to parties, meeting important people, and aggressively using those people to move up the chain.  Fran Lebowitz was, and still is, a classic example of such a person; but a great many other well-published authors, who are far less amusing, also fit that category.  Perhaps it's just an outsider's perspective, but I still see major book contracts being delivered into the hands of some people and not others because they are able to work their networks effectively and get in to see the right people. 

But what about the history world?  What role does networking play and should we counsel younger scholars to put time into it?  Has my own career benefited more from networking or "contacts"?

To answer the last question first, I would say that I would have to add a third category of connections that are neither contacts or networking, but something in between:  more dynamic and spontaneous than networking, and more durable and sustaining than contacts.  For example, I first met Historiann in a cab, a cab which she reminded me many years later when we sat down for lunch over beer and oysters, I paid for.  I was a professor with a travel budget, she a graduate student, and the cab cost the same regardless of how many people were riding in it.  I have no memory of paying for the cab, but it sounds like something I might do, as it fits my general philosophy of social welfare in which resources are redeployed to those who will, in turn, redeploy their own resources to others when they succeed. 

Fast-forward any number of years, I have become Tenured Radical, and I get an email from the author asking me to look over a new blog, Historiann, which quickly became one of the hottest history blogs around.  Since then, we have become friends and done three different projects together, none of which has probably changed our lives, but which have, nonetheless, been very pleasurable and satisfying.  So is this contact or networking?  Did the cab matter?  Would we have met in the blogosphere anyway?

Who knows.  I think the tougher question, since we are all free in the blogosphere to pursue the friendships and intellectual exchanges that we desire (and it would be interesting to hear more from Delaney about whether he thinks the Internet has altered his paradigm), is:  in the more constricted realm of the job market and academic publishing, does networking matter?

To this I would actually say no, it doesn't.  This isn't a reason not to go to conferences, of course, and I would urge all universities to fund conference attendance for graduate students and younger scholars to the fullest extent that they can.  I think it works against the stultifying tendency of the academy to keep untenured people in as subservient a state as possible for the longest possible time.  It encourages friendship rather than naked competition (many of my closest friends, and those who I still seek advice from, are women who I met through the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians as a graduate student.)  Finally, it encourages people to keep up in their own and related fields, to be challenged by others and respond to those challenges, and to become socialized.  These are all good things.

But I have never known anyone who could attribute their academic success to the fact that they were well-connected.  In fact (brace yourself for a downer):  some of the best connected people I know have suffered repeated setbacks, on the job market and in publishing, despite their ability to network and excellent reputations.  Networking is also different from having letters from influential people, whose opinion is respected by others and who testify to your excellence.  Such things count, as do the phone calls that people place before making a Big Hire, to the people they really trust (I've made those calls and received them.)  But there are simply too many people involved in any given decision for even the most influential people to have a decisive role in your future.  Paradoxically, it is not infrequent that when someone invested in your success is accidentally in a position to help you, s/he will recuse hirself from the decision entirely in order to ensure that the decision is perceived as just.   

I'm not saying that this makes academia the cradle of democracy.  I'm just saying it doesn't work that way.  Delany's best observation is:  "Rarely if ever can networking make a writing career when no career is to be made."

Where I would say that networking has helped me enormously is my ability to get things done.  The more people you know in your field, the more effective you are.  The more widely known you are as an honest person, or a fun person to work with, or someone who understands the principles of fairness and reciprocity, the more likely you are to make other people feel that you are worth spending their limited time and energy on.  In a more local sense, I find my networks among mid-level administrators at Zenith to be an invaluable resource for problem solving, information gathering, and getting channels unclogged.  If this post teaches you nothing else, it should be this:  administrative assistants hold the keys to your kingdom; information technology people are gods and goddesses; and the registrar's office is a temple.

The ability to get things done not only makes life more pleasant, and far richer when you consider time consuming projects like program development and the hiring of new colleagues, but it frees up time to write.  It also brings interesting and novel projects -- book series, journal articles, special issues, conferences, and Internet-based exchanges -- to fruition.  This, I think, reveals the basic value of networking:  when it works, it isn't about you.  It's about you in relation to others.  Scholarship, at its most effective, is about exchange, not about the grandiosity of one person.

And that's why it is worth paying attention to.


Flavia said...

I've written about this before, and I both agree and disagree with your central claim. I agree that networking isn't something you do, exactly--it's pointless to try to network for networking's sake, though it's always beneficial to be kind to others and to know as many people in the profession as possible.

But there's such a thing as being in the right place at the right time (or knowing the right person), and you increase the likelihood of that happening if you know a lot of people and/or are fairly visible in the profession.

An anecdote (or three): (1) as an advanced grad student, I was well-connected enough in a very small society to be on a closing plenary panel, and the society was small enough that I met all the people there whom I didn't already know. (2) On the strength of that paper and chatting over drinks with someone, I was invited to give a keynote talk at an even smaller and differently specialized conference overseas, where I met two of the biggest scholars in this emerging field. (3) From that conference I was first invited to submit an essay to a fairly important collection from a major press, and then (4) invited to co-edit a major new edition from another top press.

Yeah, that's luck, and obviously everyone liked my work well enough to keep inviting me to do stuff, but I could have been doing exactly the same quality of work, and no one would have known about it if I hadn't made a couple of crucial connections (I couldn't have afforded to go to the overseas conference on my own dime, and there was no CFP for the collection--it was made up of people who were already known quantities to the editors).

Historiann said...

This is a great post. And that was a lucky cab ride for me!

I should probably talk to you off-line, TR, and get some advice. I feel like I'm very well networked, but that I'm not *doing* anything with it. I'm afraid I may be too shy or too modest about asking my contacts to do things for me--which, in the end, is kind of the *point* of "being networked," right?

Tenured Radical said...

Any time, HA (lucky cab ride for me too: that's what Delaney calls a "contact.")

Hunter said...

I think that context is important. Networking has proven to be relatively important in my career already, and I'm a mere first-year Ph.D. student. (Long-time reader, first-time commenter.)

My own anecdotes: (1) As an advanced undergrad, I was fortunate enough to take a seminar with a well-known feminist scholar in my field. In addition to writing my letters of recommendation, she sent individual letters to her colleagues at the institutions I applied to, one of whom is now my advisor. My other recommenders were in a different subfield, and I suspect that her word helped open the door for me. Like Flavia, I could have ended up doing the same quality of work, but ended up in a more obscure program and lacked the visibility I've already gained.

(2) My wonderful advisor has already networked me in with several of her former students, one of whom put out a non-public CFP for a paper panel at a national conference. This turned into my first paper presentation at a national conference and an important line of the CV of a student just starting out.

(3) My publications that are actually in preparation at present are all coauthored with conference contacts or advisors' former students. While I'm glad I chose a substantive project to work on with my advisor, it is slower and the work coming out of these other relationships is important in working toward getting the requisite 3-5 publications expected of graduates in my field.

GayProf said...

It seems like Hunter's comment might suggest subtle differences based on field. In the social sciences, where co-authorship is more normative, it seems like a diverse set of contacts/network could be quite useful.

At Big Midwestern University, we are also reminded that people are more willing to write letters for your tenure file if they, at the very least, have a vague memory of having met you at some point. Most of the key figures in our subfields are constantly pestered for such letters, so they often chose which ones to write based on those with whom they are most familiar. Conferences are the main way to do that...

And you never paid for my cab. I'm not sayin', I'm just sayin'.

Matt_L said...

Great post. I think your main point holds true. The work a scholar is doing has to be good in order for her contacts and network to be useful. You can't write garbage and expect to get published based on who you know.

That said, I think your other point, about who gets published in the New York Literary world also holds true for jobs in academia. I was on the job market for four years, before 2008 when things were 'good' (i.e. we didn't think it was good at the time, but after the Great Recession it was a veritable garden party). At the time, it seemed like I could draw a circle with a 300 mile radius centered in Manhattan and know that NYU, Columbia, Rutgers and the Ivies were all going to hire other people who did their graduate training inside that circle. At least that was what it looked like from the Midwest. Maybe I'm wrong, but schools on the coasts hire from their own coast. That is a network, its exclusive and that exclusivity matters.

rustonite said...

"I think it works against the stultifying tendency of the academy to keep untenured people in as subservient a state as possible for the longest possible time."

Here here.

Susan said...

Networking is particularly important for people who lack traditional employment. In all the years I worked at Weirdo University, my networks kept me engaged with the more traditional world. I was visible at conferences and such, but I had connections, so people thought of me as someone in the field even though my employment did not engage my scholarly specialization in any particular way.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

In the sciences--where peer review makes or breaks careers--networking is *huge*. The same exact manuscript or grant application with me as the senior author/PI gets a hugely different treatment by my colleagues than one with someone they don't know (or do know, and think is incompetent/assholish/etc).

Anyway, the key sentence you quote reads different to me. I read it as not saying that networking never makes or breaks careers, but rather that networking can't make a career for an untalented unworthy individual. But this seems to me to implicitly contemplate the fact that some (many?) talented worthy individuals do or do not achieve career success as a function of networking.

Dr. Koshary said...

Scattered thoughts:

1. You mean I wasted all that money on the display of neon-lit business cards I set up at every conference? Rats.

2. I appreciate your call to other professors to, in so many words, treat grad students respectfully as junior colleagues, rather than lackeys. I've always been grateful to my professional superiors who reached out to me like that, especially at conferences, and made me feel more part of the group. Buying the beer is an added bonus, but professional encouragement is the big thing.

3. I mostly agree with CPP's reading of the Delaney quotation. However, while Delaney may well be correct within the field of science fiction writing, it seems clear from the blogging of a number of academics that, at least in the Bad Old Days of the old boys' networks, making a career solely on the strength of one's contacts – instead of one's professional merits and intellectual achievements – was exactly what a lot of academics did. Isn't this partly why Historiann finds the phrase "doodly doodz" perennially useful?

Dr. Cynicism said...

I agree with you and Delaney's second part of her quote. Networking isn't going to cause you to be a brilliant scientist, BUT - knowing the editors of solid journals, big wigs in the field, and seriously making the rounds at conferences with CERTAINLY smooth some hardships that other folks may face instead.

Anonymous said...

The feedback I received about this question from a professor was by way of an aside about a once-upon-a-time grad student. Student was probably one of the best networked grad students ever, a consummate conference junkie. But if student had put half the effort into writing the dissertation that student put into networking...this student might be much closer to finishing. Write a good dissertation, I was told, and work your a** off, talk to the people in your field, but lead with the quality of your work, not the quality of your small talk. I find this very reassuring, because I am pretty mediocre at academic small talk myself! ;D

Isabel said...

Physioprof said:

"The same exact manuscript or grant application with me as the senior author/PI gets a hugely different treatment by my colleagues than one with someone they don't know..."

This sounds like favoritism, or nepotism, to me. Networking is about getting to know people in your field or related subfields to increase your chances of being in the right place at the right time, to meet potential collaborators, people you can seek advice from, etc.

Manuscripts or grant applications should not be favored because of "who the authors know". This is wrong.

Tenured Radical said...

In academia, people who have a reputation for doing great work are more influential than those who have a reputation for doing mediocre work. It's like the difference between getting a letter of recommendation from John Roberts versus a letter from Stan Shark, the ambulance chaser.

Anonymous said...

I would also add that if you are 4 or 5 years out of the Ph.D., with several articles published in respected journals and a book, and not only still have not landed a T-T position, but happen to be currently unemployed, then no amount of additional publications is going to change the situation. Neither is networking. Because these are not the issue.

Isabel said...

I meant cronyism, and was specifically referring to Physioprof's comment about getting a paper published (or a grant). A reviewer or editor should not be influenced in their decision on whether or not they know the person, or they should try not to be. Also we are talking about networking, not reputation. These aren't really the same thing.

Anonymous said...

So, Anon 1:16,

What is "the issue"? The person's work must automatically be lousy, is that it? Oh yes, we all know this business is a meritocracy. Not.

Anonymous said...

No, the work is not lousy. Didn't mean that at all. What I'm getting at is that something else is obviously the issue. In my case, I can only speculate as to the reasons. But in one particular instance the reason is clear - I lack a degree from a prestigious university.

Tenured Radical said...

Anonymous 8:04 -- could be right. Someone who works at one of those prestigious universities told me that despite the lousy job market, they placed 85% of their graduating cohort last year.

Something else unattractive happens though, that I think is not unique to academia, although it has a particularly insidious effect given that a history is not very portable. A person simply ages out. With all the new kids coming onto the market, plus the post-docs, plus the people angling to move up in the world, someone who has gone x number of years without getting a job is unlikely to appeal to hiring committees.

This is where networks actually might help, if the historian is open to it, which is to get an academic job that isn't primarily teaching, but administrative, IT, or media-based. Lots of people I know who did not get jobs but were willing to move off the tenure-track have made excellent careers that way, and any number of them also write and teach.

Anonymous said...

TR, any advice about how to land an admin or media-based job? I've been applying to those as well, but, so far, no bites.

Anonymous said...

Like Hunter, I have found the relationships I've developed with faculty and other students outside my university to be essential as a grad student. I am in a prestigious department, but one with very few others working in my field.

I've used organizing conference panels, taking courses at other universities, and other methods to make contacts that are among my most important intellectual and personal relationships with other academics. This has made my academic life much more productive and enjoyable. It's also been a practical benefit: finding an outside reader for my committee was a piece of cake, since I already had good relationships with key faculty in the field at other schools.

I'm not great at the big conference meet-and-greet. For me, what works is to make a point of developing one or two really good connections at ever conference or event I attend. Then I work on cultivating those through a few emails or other contacts throughout the year. In this way, I've been able to develop and maintain a growing handful of substantive relationships rather than a huge number of "drive by" networking contacts.

DrugMonkey said...

Whether it descends to cronyism or is reality. So the advice to trainees is the same.

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