The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Don’t Stress About Networking

August 23, 2013

Editor’s Note:  This is a guest post from Professor Peter M. Haas of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Finding myself on the grey haired side of the academic divide and having experienced both sides of the process, let me reiterate David Lake’s points about networking with senior faculty.  While networking to make friends is a lovely idea, it doesn’t always work at a large professional event, nor with senior people who aren’t necessarily looking for junior friends.  The point at major international conferences, like APSA or ISA, is that networking isn’t really a social activity. It is an instrumental activity aimed at establishing name recognition for later interaction.  As they say, it is what it is.  I have found more specialized workshops and conferences a better place to network and meet, such as the annual Earth Systems Governance conferences.  They are more laid back and welcoming and they have far fewer distractions (fewer colleagues with whom to catch up, fewer publishers, fewer concurrent panels, and generally more time with less to do in more isolated venues).

Senior scholars do value the ideas of, and interactions with, junior scholars.  Indeed the source of change in the discipline comes from new ideas.  So the interaction is healthy and necessary.   Yet, everyone tends to be too busy at the large conferences.  The vast size and overbooking is actually a lamentable thing, and truly counterproductive for facilitating serendipitous contacts.

What you can hope for from networking at ISA or APSA is probably rather limited. In the end, you’ll be assessed in the profession based on the quality of your work, though it is true that successful networking might help increase the likelihood that your work will be read and supported.

Probably, the best way to network is to show that you are interesting and have something of intellectual value to contribute. It is always important to be able to succinctly summarize your research and have a real question to pose to someone.  Fawning and playing to people’s egos by mentioning that you have read their stuff is never a good idea, as in most instances it merely confirms that your comprehensive exam reading list was sufficiently broad.

Don’t network too soon.  The best time is when you have a good conference paper that is done and reflects your work, or you already have published work in the pipeline so that well-read scholars may already recognize you.  If you have an interesting idea that you wish to get feedback on, or see how the scholar’s work might apply, or if you have their argument fully accurate, that is fine too.  But be clear in explaining what you want from the interaction.

My professional experience shapes my advice, of course.  I was a terrible networker.  I was shy, and didn’t want to be seen as taking advantage of my family name.  I was somewhat intimidated by authority, and yet irreverent and suspicious of institutions (including the political science profession and networking).  What worked for me was to do some research and publish it, and then I found that I was developing a reputation and thus was recognized by others, so I didn’t have to make the dreaded cold calls.

In the end, the profession is a meritocratic institution.  While notions of merit may vary, the (social) fact that it is meritocratic means that people are evaluated and their reputations rest on their productivity and imagination. Differential access may be affected by gender, class, ethnicity, and the ranking of your graduate program, but at the end of the day hiring, publication and promotion decisions are overwhelmingly shaped by your work.  The large scale post world war II socioeconomic  and demographic changes have reinforced this in the profession away from the old boy networks that characterized much of the profession earlier.

So, if you can establish some familiarity or recognition at an ISA or APSA then subsequent professional interactions may be easier – but such networking is only a part of the professional equation.

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Jon Western has spent the last fifteen years teaching IR in liberal arts colleges at Mount Holyoke College and the Five Colleges in western Massachusetts. He has an eclectic range of intellectual interests but often writes on international security, U.S. foreign policy, military intervention, and human rights. He occasionally shares his thoughts about professional life in liberal arts colleges. In his spare time he coaches middle school soccer, mentors the local high school robotics team, skis, and sails.