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By the time I started my career as an assistant professor, I knew how crucial networking was to my success, and I was determined to get better at it. But I had to overcome my psychological resistance to networking, an activity that I did not enjoy. To become a better networker, I rethought my definition of networking and became clear on my reasons for wanting to connect with people.
It took me a long time to recognize the importance of networking. When I was a graduate student in sociology at Johns Hopkins University, my department regularly invited high-profile academics to present their research. I subsisted on a stipend that qualified me for earned income credit, so the free food at these talks incentivized my consistent participation. I also attended the small, intimate gatherings with invited speakers that the department scheduled for graduate students. However, once the meetings ended, it didn’t occur to me to use those introductions as opportunities to follow up with such senior scholars to build long-term professional relationships.
No one explained that was the rationale for those graduate student meetings. But in academe, much of what is counted as scholarly merit is also connected with those we know. And while even weak ties can be leveraged into opportunities, we are more likely to benefit from networking when we invest time into building long-term relationships and connections that are authentic.
Redefining What It Means to Network
Redefining the meaning of networking helped me to move away from my negative disposition toward networking. In the past, I viewed it as one’s ability to “work a room” and thought being talented at small talk was an important prerequisite. But small talk feels painfully superficial to me on a good day and like psychological torture on bad days. Those feelings were a barrier to effective networking.
I now think of networking as facilitating the development of authentic relationships that can be a positive resource in fulfilling my career and life goals. This new definition has helped me to expand the scope of activities I use to connect with colleagues. Networking is a long-term community-building strategy.
In the past, I also thought of networking as something one does with strangers, so I would drive an hour away to connect with a colleague in my field but not put in the same level of effort to deepen my connections with colleagues at my institution. That was a mistake.
When entering an institution as a junior scholar, success is partly dependent on learning the culture of your new workplace. I suggest meeting with stakeholders who inhabit different social positions and asking them similar questions about the culture and expectations.
I have also come to think of service work as an effective networking strategy when done strategically. Junior scholars, particularly those from racially minoritized backgrounds, are often warned not to engage in too much service in our early years. That is sound advice, because faculty who are women or of color tend to overperform in our service roles, which can take time away from our scholarship. However, women and black and other faculty members of color can strategically use service work on our campuses as an opportunity to cultivate relationships with potential allies, sponsors and co-conspirators who will have our backs behind closed doors.
Networking can also happen digitally. You can use social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to connect with large numbers of people at the same time and build a community. In fact, a number of online communities are discipline specific or based on various intersecting identity groupings. Those groups have been invaluable source of mentoring and support to me, and they have sometimes led to the development of off-line relationships.
Organizing panels at conferences has been my most effective networking strategy. In 2012, I put together a panel on first-generation college students in order to meet other scholars doing such work. After the panel, I invited participants to meet at the conference over lunch. I pitched the idea of starting a writing group over the summer, to which my co-panelists agreed. For the next year, I organized the writing group. This labor was minimal compared to the feedback I received from my colleagues, who were also potential reviewers for my work. And while the writing group eventually dissipated, I continued to keep in touch with two of my colleagues, Ashley Rondini and Nicolas Simon. Together we co-edited Clearing the Path for First-Generation College Students, which was published in May 2018.
Organizing sessions at conferences can be an effective networking strategy for first-generation scholars, racially minoritized scholars or any person who does not have access to built-in support structures that benefit career advancement. In one instance, I asked a colleague to co-organize a panel with me because I wanted to get to know that person better. I believe it was this deeper connection, fostered through our work together, that led them to invite me to submit a chapter to Intersectionality in Higher Education, for which they were a co-editor.
I’ve never found conference receptions to be the best way to develop new relationships -- unless that was the expressed intent of such receptions, such as an event for faculty of color or one designed to match junior scholars with a mentor. In my view, one-on-one meetings are more effective at building new relationships, and receptions are best for meeting up with people you already know. One-on-one meetings should be purpose-driven encounters. You should identify a particular goal, identify who can help you and make a specific request.
I have also come to think of engaging in public scholarship and dissemination -- writing blogs, op-eds, policy briefs -- as a form of networking. Public scholarship gets your work out to a wider audience and draws in people who have shared interests and can get you on the radar of power brokers who can provide opportunities.
Redefining networking has allowed me to be intentional about cultivating genuine connections with colleagues. That is particularly important for me as a black woman and a first-generation scholar. As a sociologist, I know that dependence on existing professional ties can exacerbate societal inequalities when practiced by individuals from dominant social groups, because it restricts resources and opportunities to those who are already advantaged. For first-generation faculty members and those of us from racially minoritized groups, networking gets us a seat at the table so that we can be considered for some of those opportunities. Merit simply isn’t enough to succeed in this or any other profession.