Networking is Hard-Working

15 August 2013, 1846 EDT

The question of networking tends to arise as conferences approach.  With APSA less than two weeks away (which means discussants are going to be getting papers any day now–ok, in about a week if they are lucky), I thought I would post some thoughts about networking.  There was a post earlier today that did address such stuff, but, well, stuff happened.  A key point was lost in the course of events–that networking sideways and down is far easier and perhaps far more fruitful than trying to connect with the big names in the discipline.

For many networking is pretty uncomfortable stuff, as approaching strangers can be a bit of a challenge.  While my friends and family do not consider me to be shy (and that I post here at the Duck and elsewhere would also suggest that I am not shy), I do feel shy in a crowded room and I feel awkward approaching strangers.  Yet, I have managed by accident and by time to be fairly well connected.  How does one do this?  Here are some clues gained from my two decades in the discipline (!).

I have always been more comfortable hanging out with the junior folks than the senior folks at the APSA and ISA.  I never liked approaching the big names who are very, very busy, and perhaps I am ageist as I am more comfortable chatting with younger folks than older ones.   So, the first suggest is not to focus all one’s efforts on connecting with a big name but just meet people.   Just because someone is junior does not mean that they cannot contribute/matter either in the short term or long term.  Junior folks may be more more likely to read your stuff since they don’t have masses of dissertation chapters to read from their herds of supervisees.  The folks you meet may also have interesting connections that may lead you to be connected to a big name (more on that in a minute).

I made a lot of good friends by going to the reception held by my old school, and meeting the next generation of folks. We had something in common–experiencing the same profs.  We could compare notes and so forth on that common topic, plus we have compatible views about methods/research/whatever since we received similar training.  So, perhaps go to your PhD dept’s reception and introduce yourself to the folks produced by your program before or after your time.  These strangers will be less strange and thus easier to chat with than other ones.

The business meetings of the APSA and ISA sections to which I belonged tended to be populated by younger folks, so that was an easy way to meet people. These folks led me to a poker game that introduced me to a senior faculty member who has become a mentor and mensch for me, but that was not my intent (I like poker).  This year, there will be some side activities that will be fun but also potential spots to meet people with at least one similar interest (soccer or ultimate). Besides networking at conferences, you can do stuff at your institution.  When I worked on a speaker series at my old job, I wanted to include younger/newer/female voices since the previous person to organize them tended to focus on big male names. As a result, I met several really interesting people who are doing fun work that changed how I look at the world and at my research.  So, if you have a chance to organize a speaker series or just bring in a speaker to your campus, don’t always go for the old guy with the big name but choose someone who is doing exciting work.

As I get older, the potential set of “younger” folks widens, and I hope to keep meeting new folks at these conferences while remaining connected to those I have met before–the time does tend to fill up (contact those people you already know that you want to meet up with ahead of time as dance cards do get full). This is a very social business, and you never know where your research will turn. The new scholars are more likely to turn you on to a new set of ideas or perhaps be excellent co-authors as they have the latest methods training.

To be clear, my networking at conferences was never very strategic–only once did I try to meet someone with the purpose of establishing a co-authorship (that did work out real well). But my non-strategic behavior has largely paid off in the sense that I know a larger community of people who do interesting work, some have become pretty influential people in the discipline, and I am now pretty well connected even if I am not wired into some big names/networks.  And, most importantly, I have made a heap of friends in the business, which is its own reward (especially when they buy the beer).