Advice

It Is Who You Know and Who Knows You

Brian Taylor

January 19, 2010

As provost, I write a weekly column for a local newspaper highlighting the research of my university's faculty and familiarizing readers with our key academic programs. Recently, a faculty member contacted me and sheepishly suggested that in a future column I might want to write about the research he and his colleagues were doing.

He apologized repeatedly for what he called "shameless self-promotion," but he was rightly proud of his groundbreaking work and eager for others to hear about it. "I know you have more important subjects to write about," he said. "But I thought that news of our work might make more people proud of the university."

I was momentarily struck by the timidity of this otherwise self-confident man. But then I was reminded of an odd paradox of academic life: Faculty members are expected to become world renowned in their disciplines and well respected within their institutions, yet are also expected to avoid appearing to be self-promoting or, worse, boastful. In fact, many professors overcorrect by adopting a false humility—feigning, for example, not to want a particular award, honor, or position when the exact opposite is the case.

Apparently, this stance is so much a part of our collective DNA that it begins even before we become faculty members. Learning to network early in your career is one way to increase the likelihood that you will be successful in academe. I routinely advise new scholars that networking—forming professional relationships with other scholars in a field—is an important way to help build their credentials. I have spent three decades serving as a mentor for doctoral students and junior faculty members, and yet I am continually surprised to hear them dismiss networking as a clear form of self-promotion.

At workshops when I mention networking, someone inevitably blurts out, "Aha! Just as I thought: It's who you know that counts!" The implication is that, somehow, that system is corrupt and people are rewarded or advanced based principally on favoritism and personal relationships, not on intrinsic merit.

My standard reply is, "Of course it's who you know. How could it be otherwise? If no one knows you exist, how can you expect you and your work to be 'known'? Networking is the way you become known, and recognized, in your discipline."

Clearly, some people have confused the important work of promoting your ideas and research with a kind of fatuous promotion of self. Promoting yourself ("Look how great I am") is different from promoting your scholarship ("Here's what my research has discovered" or "Here's what I've been working on lately"). Central to the research endeavor is the desire to disseminate the results of your scholarship widely, and while interesting or groundbreaking research will certainly reflect well on the researcher, the focus should be on the former.

I know one prominent scholar whose narcissism is legendary. You would be hard pressed to carry on even a brief conversation with him without his reminding you of his importance. That is the type of behavior that is objectionable because his main subject of discussion always seems to be himself and only secondarily his work.

By contrast, I know plenty of equally prominent scholars who are quick to tell you about their recent research but do so without focusing relentlessly on themselves.

A long-serving dean once told me, "The small handful of faculty who behave like used-car salesmen ruin things for all the rest." As a dean, part of her job is to publicize the accomplishments of her faculty because the more people who are aware of and impressed with them, the more successful she will be in attracting donors to support the college. She needs professors to help her get the word out about their accomplishments, and not be shy or reticent about their work. But she's found that some faculty members are reluctant to talk about their research publicly because they do not want to be likened to those few boastful colleagues.

New faculty members make a critical mistake when they go so far to avoid appearing full of themselves that they skip opportunities to network or to describe their research to others. Professional conferences, for example, present ideal opportunities for emerging scholars to develop the types of relationships that will help them build their credentials. Here are some common ways that new faculty members might begin to make themselves known in their disciplines:

Introduce yourself. After hearing an especially good conference presentation or one that is relevant to your own strand of research, go up and meet the presenter. It's a simple way to begin building professional relationships with fellow scholars. Occasionally, these short introductions turn into substantive discussions about common research interests. I have even witnessed such a chat result in the presenter's inviting the young scholar to contribute to a edited volume, join a research project, or participate in a panel presentation.

Talk to editors. Introduce yourself to the key journal editors and book publishers in your discipline. They play a pivotal role in who and what gets published, and it is best when they can associate a face with a manuscript.

Offer to serve as a manuscript reviewer. Not only is that good experience, it also helps you stay current in your field because you are reading the most recent research well before it is published. A bonus is that if you earn a reputation with journal editors as a thoughtful and judicious reviewer, they will be more likely to trust your judgment when you submit your own manuscript. You might also approach a journal editor and offer to contribute a review of a new scholarly book. Especially if you have not yet published your own research, writing a book review is an excellent way to break into print.

Volunteer to review conference proposals. Contact the organizer of a professional conference in your discipline and offer to serve as a proposal reviewer. As with manuscript reviewing, this is a superb way to remain current with the latest research while building valuable professional relationships.

Make friends in your disciplinary society. Introduce yourself to officers of your professional organization and ask how you might become more involved in the organization (chairing important committees or running for election to the executive board, for example).

While networking is how your peers learn about you and your work, it is in your interest that people outside the campus are aware of it, too. The dean I mentioned who was frustrated by her faculty's reluctance to help publicize their research was attempting to use local and regional news media to familiarize the public with her faculty's accomplishments and lay the groundwork for effective fund raising. Here are some tips so that you as a faculty member can help in the effort:

Inform your department chair first. Always let your department head know of your recent accomplishments. The chair should be at the forefront of publicizing faculty accomplishments to the institution and beyond.

Keep your media liaison informed. If your institution has a well-developed advancement operation, then each department will have a designated liaison responsible for passing on news of faculty accomplishments to the institution's public-relations department. The professionals there will then notify the appropriate news media. Always let your liaison know when you win awards, secure important grants, or have other accomplishments that will reflect well on the institution.

Or talk directly with the public-relations office. If your institution does not have an advancement liaison, then you can always pass on news directly to PR. Most universities publish faculty accomplishments in an internal newsletter and select certain accomplishments for even wider coverage.

Sure a few academicians go too far in the self-promotion department. But being too shy may well hold back your progress in becoming a player in the discipline.

In short, it is who you know (and who knows you) that counts—but that's a good thing.

Gary A. Olson is provost and vice president for academic affairs at Idaho State University and co-editor with John Presley of "The Future of Higher Education: Perspectives from America's Academic Leaders" (Paradigm). He can be contacted at golson@isu.edu.