Networking for Dummies

May 17, 2002

Question: "It's always suggested that networking is a good way to hunt for a job, but I feel as if I know hardly anybody, and the people I do know won't be of any use to me in a job search. What do other people know that I don't?"

Julie: Whenever I hear someone say that, I think the person must be working in relative isolation. Perhaps you have been a graduate student working alone in the library on your dissertation. Maybe you are a postdoc and see the same five people in your laboratory everyday. Or possibly you are a faculty member unhappy with your institution and alienated from your colleagues. You really may feel that you don't know anyone. Or you may have the idea that networking is sleazy and not something you want to be involved with. It doesn't appeal to you because it sounds like self-promotion or because it sounds like "using" people, as in "the people I do know won't be of any use to me in a job search."

Mary: Or it may mean that you come from another country, where the etiquette of networking is different, and perhaps more formal, than it is here. You may be very self-confident, but simply don't want to appear rude. The good news for you is that you may have more latitude here in making contact with people than might be the case in your home country.

Julie: However, being part of the academic enterprise means not only doing one's research but sharing it. It means teaching students and training some of them to be the next generation of academics. At whatever stage you are in your career, you do know people, and some of them are interested in what you do. Maybe you haven't spent enough time describing how interesting your work is in a way that relates it to other researchers' interests. Maybe you simply haven't spent enough time thinking about those you already know who may be interested in what you're doing. It may be useful to make an actual list of people who know something about you and your research. This can help remind you to reinitiate contact with people you've lost touch with.

Mary: It may also be helpful to watch people who seem to have wide networks. What do they seem to do? How do they act at conferences? How do they act at departmental colloquia? What do you see them doing that you might want to emulate? Realize that behaviors that now look easy are habits that these people also had to work to develop.

Julie: A network that is developed only for the purpose of a job search is not as strong as one that exists for all kinds of professional purposes. Developing and nurturing a network is helpful in every aspect of your work. The more people you know, the more sources of expertise are available to you. A network can give you access to additional information and can be a means of publicizing your own work. It can give you access to people when you need it quickly. For example, perhaps you're a grad student who's been asked to organize a speaker series in your department. If you know people on other campuses who can give you names of speakers on their campus who gave a great -- rather than a merely good -- talk, you have a head start on creating the best series your department has had in years.

Mary: If any of the speakers in this series talked about topics related to your research, be sure to discuss your common interests immediately after the talk or later via e-mail. Scholarship involves sharing. Most advanced scholars are interested in learning about the work of junior scholars. You should know who the senior professors are in your area, and when the opportunity presents itself to communicate with one of them, take it. Additionally, after that speaker series is over, contact the people who suggested the speakers and thank them for their help. Those people are now part of your network.

Julie: If you're in a research setting where you truly do not see more than the same few people on a regular basis, try to communicate electronically with scholars who have similar interests. You may have met people at conferences with whom you'd like to speak. Or perhaps there are people you haven't met personally but whose work you are familiar with. You may be able to begin an exchange on topics you both hold dear by using e-mail. Discussion groups in your field can help you start an ongoing conversation. Netiquette, gives some good basics for presenting yourself well online.

Mary: Sometimes a third party can play an important role. If you'd like to approach someone you don't know but whom one of your colleagues or advisers does, ask them for an introduction at a conference, or for permission to use their name in an initial phone call or e-mail.

Julie: People who view networking as somehow sleazy often don't realize that it works best as a two-way process in which there is mutual benefit, even if the benefit is sometimes intangible. For example, young Ph.D.'s interested in a senior scholar's work nourish that sage's natural desire to see his or her ideas carried forward. On a more concrete level, new Ph.D.'s can offer fresh ideas, references, and contacts. To keep your network healthy, you need to think about what you are contributing, as well as what you're taking.

Mary: Take the time to drop someone an e-mail to alert them to a reference in which they might be interested; to comment on a recent piece of work; or to congratulate them on a recent achievement. On the other hand, because so much communication is now electronic, a written thank you has become a particularly elegant and courteous means of expression.

Julie: Another safeguard against insincerity here is for you to develop a network of people whom you genuinely intelligently respect. Yes, it's smarmy to compliment or congratulate people in whom your only interest is what they can do for your career. However, there's nothing wrong with respect sincerely rendered if it's based on a genuine understanding of someone's work. That you know someone's work is famous is not a good reason to make contact. That you have a question about one of the techniques they used in a groundbreaking study is, provided it's an intelligent question.

Mary: Don't wear your network out. Use it primarily to ask for information, not for favors. For example, if you see a position listed in a department where you know one of the faculty members, you might contact that person with questions before you write your cover letter (if the answers are not readily available on the departmental Web site). However, don't push your luck by asking that person to "put in a good word for you." If they know that you're applying and they want to vouch for you, they will.

Julie: In communicating with your network, use common sense about whom to trust with what information. For example, if you're applying to a college simply to practice your interviewing skills, or to generate a job offer you can use as leverage with your current institution, do not confide that fact to a faculty member at the hiring institution unless they're your best friend, and maybe not even then. That person will probably quite properly be loyal to their institution rather than to a casual professional contact. If you want to tell someone something in confidence, ask them if you may do so, but avoid burdening people with information they might rather not have. For your part, be scrupulous about not circulating "information" that doesn't amount to much more than malicious gossip.

Mary: Remember that a network does imply reciprocity, and be glad when other people ask you for information. Their questions show you're succeeding in developing your network. There's usually an implied suggestion that they'll be willing to reciprocate in return, and there's certainly an implied compliment in the expectation that you'll know the answer. See how good it can feel to be approached as part of someone else's network? Keep that in mind as you develop your own.

Mary Morris Heiberger and Julia Miller Vick are the authors of "The Academic Job Search Handbook" (University of Pennsylvania Press). They have provided career services for thousands of graduate and professional students since 1985. Ms. Heiberger is associate director and Ms. Vick is graduate career counselor at the Career Services office of the University of Pennsylvania.