There’s this notion that being, or becoming, a successful academic depends exclusively on a person’s brilliance and dedication to their studies. As much as I wish one’s natural abilities and commitment were the only determinants of one’s success, this simply isn’t the reality in academia, or in any field/profession for that matter. Fueling this perception is the fact that many in academia were drawn to intellectual pursuits because they are naturally introverted or lack social skills. That’s a nice way of saying that a lot of academics are socially awkward and/or don’t play well with others.
If there is one thing I have learned in my years in graduate school, it is that no matter your brilliance you absolutely must put yourself out there to network within your field and seek help from established scholars in order to succeed. First, it is important to understand that networking is not the same as participating in an old school, “good ol’ boys club.” That is to say, by professionally networking you aren’t participating in a system that is designed to exclude people in order to ensure the power and success of a select few. In contrast, networking is open to all and allows you to engage with like-minded scholars and gain exposure for your work.
Here are some ways to network as a grad student:
Conferences are a very traditional form of academic networking. They often feel stuffy and awkward, but it is important that you both give papers/presentations and attend other scholars’ papers/presentations. In addition to presenting and attending, you should push yourself to ask thoughtful questions and introduce yourself to the presenter following their talk (especially if they work in the same or a related field).
Again, a blind email introduction feels awkward. Scholars, however, are always excited to “meet” junior scholars working in their field, especially since fields are often very specialized. When you do email, make sure you have something to say. Don’t just tell them about you; let them know how their work has influenced your own (who doesn’t love flattery?). Finally, try to ask a meaningful question. This will hopefully start a significant dialogue!
Academic Networking Sites
Make sure that you are aware of the relevant academic networking websites for your field. These sites are used to announce things like conferences, publications, and job openings. Academia.edu (aka “Facebook for academics”) has become a very important site for scholars to connect. Make sure you have an updated profile and samples of your work.
Believe it or not, many historians have taken to twitter and they call themselves “twitterstorians” (with a hash tag and everything). Twitter is a fun and casual way to interact with scholars (who are people too!) and there are lots of important scholars who tweet regularly. I have even live-tweeted a conference for the institution I am researching at in Florence. Social media isn’t going anywhere and I imaging it will only become more important with future generations of scholars.
Finally, if your research allows for collaborative or interdisciplinary projects and research, you should definitely pursue it! I am seeing more and more grants geared to these types of collaborative projects.
As important as networking is, it is even more important that you don’t stop at making connections. You need to use the connections that you make! That means not being afraid to ask for help or advice. And most importantly, you want to create connections with scholars who can one day write letters of recommendation for you when you apply for grants and jobs.
One final thing to remember, don’t just focus on networking with the most well-known people in your field. Horizontal connections with your peers, or those slightly above you, are just as fruitful.
If you have any networking tips please share!