Academic Conferences: From “Networking” to Forming and Nurturing Social Ties

17 August 2013, 0900 EDT

I don’t care much for APSA. Indeed, this year I am continuing my recent tradition of skipping it entirely. But it always occasions discussion in the political-science blogsphere. This year the focus of that discussion, at least as it pertains to conferencing as an activity, appears to be on “networking.”

Steve recently echoed the substantive part of Brian’s post in recommending a focus on meeting younger scholars rather than pursuing brief meetings with “big names” in the field. He also suggests a variety of social and professional events as good venues to meet people. Dan Drezner advises PhD students and untenured faculty not to get stressed about networking, and also provides some similar advice:

I would recommend that younger scholars realize the following when it comes to networking at APSA:

1)  The best kind of networking is always — always — to research, write and present really good papers.  Really.

2)  There is a small arbitrage opportunity to be had with the kind of networking that Rathbun is discussing.  You can try to make the Milners and the Keohanes and the Lakes of the world remember you.  That’s a very crowded market, however, and they are bombarded with people trying to Get to Know Them.  Instead, connect with the people who seem to be writing/presenting the work that you find to be the most interesting.  That’s how you’ll improve your own ideas — and then see (1) above.

3)  You don’t have to network at all.  It likely helps your professional development a little bit on the margins, but not nearly as much as you would think.  The opportunity costs are small compared to researching and publishing good work.  Pour your manic energy into the latter far more than the former, and don’t fret that you’re missing all the cool parties if you don’t feel like schmoozing.

Erik Voeten agrees with Dan:

I think this is both right and potentially useful for mental sanity. Small talk at conferences is not going to get your article accepted in that prestigious journal nor will it land you a job at that university you always wanted to be at. It is important to get to know the people in your field but that is a gradual process much of which takes place after people start inviting you because they like your work. Stay focused on meeting people with whom you share intellectual interests and don’t be too worried if some other grad student manages to line up coffees with all the “big people.” If you have to spend time in lobbies at all, consider playing bingo rather then seeking opportunities to have small talk with “VIPs.”

This is all good advice. But I have a slightly different spin: don’t “network” at all. Instead, meet and talk to people with the goal of having conversations that:

  • Deepen your knowledge, thinking, and ideas with respect to the substance and methodology of your work;
  • Expand your boundaries by engaging with people who work on different subjects, use different methodologies, or both;
  • Teach you things about life at other institutions, in other parts of the world, in different modes of being, and in other subfields; and
  • Provide fun and amusement on topics unrelated to your professional pursuits.

I can’t recall ever going to a conference with the goal of “networking,” but in my 14+ years of conference attendance I have developed a range of close friends, collaborators, and pleasant acquaintances through social and professional interaction. Sometimes I have approached “big names” in the field, but usually because I’m interested in what they have to say about something or want to pursue a disagreement.

I can’t stress how much I enjoy talking to new people at conferences and reconnecting with friends and colleagues. Our field is full of fascinating people, most of whom have strong intellectual passions and almost all of whom like to talk about themselves. That’s a great environment, even (or perhaps, especially) for people like me, e.g., who are basically introverts and have a somewhat unwelcoming demeanor.

Thus, my core advice:

  • Be professional and impressive in your presentations; 
  • Instead of adopt an instrumental approach toward conference interactions, treat that interaction as an end in of itself; and
  • Enjoy yourself.