In Defense of Networking

18 August 2013, 1203 EDT

There’s been a lot of discussion, here (1)(2) and elsewhere (3)(4) about the value of networking. Dan Drezner suggests that the best kind of networking is doing good research, and that there is a small professional benefit to networking, but not much. Eric Voten agrees, suggesting that networking is not going to lead to significant professional opportunities. Dan Nexon suggests that one not network at all, but talk to and meet people as an end in itself. While there are a lot of gems of advice in all of these posts (do good research, be professional, have fun, don’t chase around “big names” all star-struck), I think that the punchline of these posts (individually and collectively) misses the mark pretty significantly in a couple of ways. One way, as Will Moore points out, is that both the need to network and the act of networking is very different for (even junior) people positioned differently in the field on a number of axes, including graduate school, mentors, race, gender, socioeconomic status, sexual identity, sexual preference, social skills, and competitiveness, to name a few. The need to network, the value of networking, the performance of networking, the reception of attempts to network, and the success of networking all differ across these and other axes. That is crucially important, and something where we should recognize the positions of privilege that we have …

I want to make a different argument, though. I think that networking actually can help one’s career in a lot of ways, and significantly more than many posters recognize. Further, I think that the ways that it helps your career are not dirty or underhanded, but make a fair amount of straightforward sense. While I don’t think that there’s a single way to “network,” or a universal application, I want to talk about three ways networking can be a positive thing in a significant way.

1) Networking can make you more efficient. Learning from others’ successes and failures, good decisions and mistakes. Since I started graduate school, I’ve looked to establish a group of friends who are a couple of years ahead of me in the field – who took comprehensive exams first, defended their prospectus first, went on the job market first, published their first article first, applied for tenure first, etc. From listening to them, I have learned what to expect, common mistakes, unexpected problems, successful strategies, windows of opportunity, turnaround time positives and negatives, and many other “shortcuts” that made my doing what I do more efficient. When you learn from others’ successes mistakes and take advantage of others’ connections to make your career progress both quicker and less painful, that can be a significant benefit to the timing, length, and depth of your career. The more people you network with, the more you know (I know, I sound like a lame NBC special). This sort of networking has a direct, positive professional impact, as well as the indirect impact of establishing a community of people that one can talk to about one’s own professional progressions and struggles. I am not saying that this is a universal experience – and it certainly differs on different axes (for example, its easier for people who make conversation with relative strangers easily), but I do think that it is a way that networking can make one’s career radically different for a bunch of little lessons adding up.

2) Networking can help your career significantly, if indirectly.  I think one can improve the traditional indicators of professional success by networking. It is not that a conversation in a hotel bar gets you an elite article published, but its also not that simple. My argument relies on two points: first, that there are opportunities that one can get that can improve one’s chances of those sorts of publications without directly giving them to one (e.g., section leadership opportunities, book review opportunities, workshop participation opportunities, journal review opportunities, invited talk opportunities); and second, that those opportunities are distributed on some other metric than pure and objective merit of scholarship (if there is such a thing, which is a discussion for a later post). This is not to say that the advice “first and foremost, do good research” is not the best advice in the world – it certainly is. But when it comes to the opportunities listed above, or even co-authoring opportunities, the people who give them are relying on a combination of the judgment of your work and the judgment of whether or not they trust you. This trust includes factors like whether you get your work done in a timely and efficient manner, whether they can rely on you to do your work ethically, whether professional association with you reflects positively or negatively on them, and a whole bunch of other intangibles. It is those intangibles that can be established by getting to know someone – at lunch, at coffee, and yes, even in a bar. This is not an argument to make a list of the five biggest names in the field and approach them clumsily. But it is an argument for looking to get to know the people in your immediate and tertiary research communities better than you could by giving good presentations and asking good questions. That is certainly a baseline for professional success, but networking changes the ceiling – sometimes pretty significantly. For example, one can parlay a conversation about common interests into a suggestion to put together a panel at the next conference, and parlay that into a co-authorship opportunity, a debate opportunity, a workshop grant proposal, or something similar, which can then be parlayed into a high-quality publication that is different/more than one could do oneself. This does not work every time you meet someone at a conference – but my argument is that when it does work, it makes more than a marginal difference in career success. We may all be in a profession of geeks (a comment that Will Moore quotes a facebook friend making), and many of us may be ridiculously awkward at socialization, but I think it is an important tool to add to good work to establish trustworthiness and desirability – which produces opportunity. This replicates throughout one’s career, since the skills involved in networking early in one’s career are similar to the skills involved in leadership later.

3) Networking is good politics. There are many injustices in the field – and over our careers, most of us are likely to be both victims and perpetrators of those injustices in a number of different scenarios. Organizing to redress them, looking to reshape fields of inquiry, looking to reorganize organizations, looking to change norms – all of that “takes a village” rather than individuals. Sure, some people will get on board with a cause because they agree. But scholarship on networking in global politics suggests that the success of advocacy groups relies on pre-existing social networks being activated, rather than on the creation of new networks for each issue area. Translating our research to our careers and lives suggests that being well-connected across the field can be advantageous both to knowing the dynamics of the field and to any interest or attempt to change it.

I’m not suggesting that networking comes naturally to any of us, or that it is always effective. Certainly, there are more or less effective strategies (ah, the stories I could tell …) and strategies need to be tailored to the situation. And even more seriously, of course there are ethical problems with instrumentalizing people (though we do it significantly less than most professions). But I also think its important, though, to recognize that, whether for normative good or bad, networking can (and often does) really matter.