Creating Serendipity

Stephen J. Aguilar offers guidance for developing habits that will help you maximize the odds of being at the right place at the right time when it comes to your career.

April 18, 2019
 
 
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Knowing how to identify and take advantage of serendipitous opportunities is one of the most important things an academic can do. Our communities are often large on paper but small in practice. On occasion, you will find yourself sitting next to the very person you wanted to talk to during a conference dinner or reception -- such as a dean, a senior faculty member or a representative of a funding agency. When such opportunities arise, you should make the most of them.

What if, however, such opportunities don’t arise? What should you do if you never find yourself at the right place at the right time? This month I focus on what I call “creating serendipity” -- or, more simply, developing habits that will help you maximize the odds of being at the right place at the right time.

Affiliations matter. I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that much of academe is a place where your affiliations matter. They matter because they help two (or more) strangers establish an affinity for one another. If I meet another Georgetown University Hoya, University of Michigan Wolverine or University of Southern California Trojan, then I will immediately have something to discuss with them. Such conversations are seldom long and typically involve acknowledging that our respective academic journeys were similar. This is usually enough to break the ice and enable an entirely different conversation to unfold.

That said, it would be a mistake to blurt out all of my affiliations in sequence to a complete stranger. It’s obnoxious and may actually have the opposite of the desired effect. When should you share an affiliation, then? I suggest that you do a bit of homework before a networking event. That will give you a feel for what institutions might be represented. If you and someone you want to speak with share an affiliation, then you should find a way to mention it. But don’t force it -- find the appropriate moment.

Think broadly. Affiliations help bridge gaps between people, and while institutional affiliations matter, it is a mistake to assume that one’s institutional affiliations are the only ones that do. In fact, I think they’re the least important because they are poor proxies for your current scholarly interests. Think broadly. Are there schools of thought you consider yourself a proponent of? Do you have hobbies that someone else might share? Relationship building is predicated on finding points of contact with someone else -- the more distinctive the shared interest, the more the relationship can develop naturally.

Unsaid is the fact that some affiliations are orthogonal to one another. I don’t go on and on about Michigan to an Ohio Buckeye, for example. Nor do I mention my love for quantitative methods to a qualitative researcher. Read the person you’re speaking with and avoid obvious land mines.

Find advocates. A few years ago, I was at a conference dinner with senior faculty, junior faculty, heads of funding agencies and a few graduate students. A program officer sat two seats to my left, and a senior faculty member sat to my immediate left. Recognizing the need to help junior faculty network with funders, the senior faculty member asked another assistant professor to take her place. The move was subtle yet powerful -- “come build a relationship with this person” was the intended message.

Unfortunately, however, the assistant professor didn’t notice the signal, as she chose to speak with those she knew over building an important new relationship. Don’t be this person. Look for cues and respond to them. Build relationships with those who have a reputation for creating such opportunities for junior scholars. Avoid those who have a reputation of doing the opposite.

Attend social events. There are three reasons to attend social events. The first is to have fun and socialize with your community. The second is to build relationships with those whom you might only see once a year. The third is, through the course of the first and second reason, to learn about new opportunities. You cannot be at the right place at the right time if you do not have a sense of where the right place and what the right the time is.

When have successful peers received particular grants? Early in their careers? A little later? After multiple tries? You can often learn some of this information from a vita, but getting the firsthand account is much better -- and often more candid.

Be professional. Social events often involve alcohol. I will not weigh in on the debate on whether or not this is appropriate, as drinking at social events is unlikely to stop. Instead, I urge you to know your comfort with alcohol. Once you have it -- be it zero drinks or four -- stick with it. If you don’t drink, order sparkling water or a virgin cocktail, because having a drink in one’s hand is a useful tool.

For example, when I need a moment to think about an appropriate response to an unexpected question, I take a drink and mull it over. When I need an excuse to leave a conversation, I finish my drink and say I need another one. Good news often involves clinking or raising glasses. Thus, not having a drink in these circumstances is salient for the wrong reasons.

Be brave. Walking up and talking to someone you’ve never met is hard. But making that difficulty an excuse to never do it is inappropriate and limits your potential to learn about important opportunities. If you are reticent about reaching out, try to have someone introduce you instead. Find buddies to go to events with you, but take care not to simply be seen as a member of a clique that travels together from person to person.

Follow up. I like helping junior colleagues and peers whenever I can, and at the end of every conversation I generally say something to the effect of “I’m happy to help you do X -- just let me know,” where X is the topic of a job-related conversation. Often this is in response to a direct request for help. Despite my honest offer to help, I would say that, on average, less than 15 percent of the people I speak with actually follow up. I’ve never understood this.

Follow up.

Follow up, or break the habit of ending a conversation with a request for help, feedback or the like.

Dealing with Racism, Sexism and Bias

Every person whose identity is underrepresented in their field knows what it’s like to be an outsider. Formal affiliations are irrelevant when implicit -- and explicit -- bias from a (potential) colleague override said affiliations. I do not have a solution to this; no one with an underrepresented identity does.

Why? Because we are not the ones responsible for the exclusion we face. If you are underrepresented in your field, my advice is to find a community to support you emotionally as well as a mental health routine that allows you to mitigate the emotional exhaustion associated with dealing with racism, sexism and bias.

My routine is simple. It involves equal parts of making sure I connect with peers who understand some of what I deal with, and alone time where I can regroup before I go out again. Find something that works for you.

If, however, the salient dimensions of your identity are dominant in your field, then you have (at least) two responsibilities. First, look around and assess how homogenous your field, group or society is. If you’re all mirror images of each other, then there’s a problem. Fix it. Second, police members of your community who are problematic. Call out individuals responsible for making others unwelcome. Remove them, if needed. If you choose to do neither, then you are complicit in your field’s lack of diversity.

Bio

Stephen J. Aguilar is assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education. He leads the Learning Analytics and Psychology in Education Lab. You can follow him on Twitter @stephenaguilar.

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