graduate students and networking

I was recently part of an online discussion about the issue of graduate students and networking. The topic is important and deserves a general discussion. The basic question is: “should graduate students network?” The answer is clearly yes. Most of us get through our professional lives with help from our friends and colleagues. I certainly have. That’s why most of us need to build a network of people who know us and can help us out. (And of course, you should buy the best grad school advice book – The Grad Skool Rulz).

Roughly speaking, you should buddy up to the following folks:

  • your adviser
  • your dissertation committee members
  • grad school buddies
  • people who hang out at the same conferences and panels as you
  • scholars in your specialty
  • other people in academia who seem to have their act together
  • book and/or journal editors
  • non-academics who are interesting

Now, by “buddy up” I don’t mean “slimy.” Rather, just “fly casual.” At conferences, ask people about their work. Ask profs at your program questions about their work, or even just daily life. Email questions to scholars about their research. If people reciprocate, send copies of your research. Heck, a lot of folks may appreciate it if you just sent them your work. Be cool and folks will be cool back at you.

A second issue is how much you should network. As usual, it’s relative to other things you could do. If you haven’t submitted a paper for publication, don’t be a social butterfly. Get back to work! But if you are doing well – your dissertation is coming along  and articles are coming out – then by all means, hang out and meet people.

In giving this advice, I want to remind the reader about the relative importance of networking. Most of the time, networking isn’t that important. Over the long run of your career, your publication record will say much more about you than who your friends are. When faculty look at job applications, they go straight to the publication section and the prestige of the school. Even in the short term, you are better served by submitting a dissertation chapter than by schmoozing at a conference. Think of networking as providing occasional benefits that help you out.

Finally, a few words for faculty. Aside from telling graduate students about the importance of networking, you can also help students. Take the time to tell colleagues about students. Write papers with them. Set them up at conferences. Even a little bit of help might make a difference.

Cheap books: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz


Written by fabiorojas

December 3, 2012 at 12:01 am

11 Responses

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  1. As career advice, this is of course uncontroversial. But what about the epistemology of it? Does the relative importance of networking for an academic career not imply the relative importance of networking for the “career” of an idea?

    Ideas that happen to be held by better networkers will do (relatively) better than ideas that are held by less savvy thinkers. Worse, there are clearly some ideas you’re better off not holding if you want to network effectively. So even if you only need your network “occasionally”, you may be wise not to pursue certain lines of inquiry.

    In this light, isn’t it worth thinking about designing knowledge institutions that make networks less important? Surely sociologists can imagine a social system that is networked to a degree that is inimical to the pursuit of truth? I think the importance of networking in academia is one the “pessimistic” aspects of the Rulz. Telling people that they do well to “buddy up” is likely to turn off a particular kind of student form pursuing graduate studies altogether. Then the academy will be short that kind of mind.

    My experience is that academia is becoming an increasingly social affair, and increasingly openly so (the Rulz being an example of this). It’s disheartening for some to discover that many academics take a lack of social skills as a completely reasonable (if sometimes “tragic”) explanation for an individual’s lack of success. I’m not talking about people who are outright socially inept, by the way. I’m talking about ordinary, conscientious and polite people who just can’t “network”, i.e., pursue fuzzily personal-professional relationships for strategic ends.

    One hopes (and if it is true then one should really emphasize) that such people, if they do the work and discover something of interest, will have perfectly happy lives in academia. The more we say that networking is important the more (some) people will think they don’t belong there. I think that would be a loss to the overall enterprise.



    December 3, 2012 at 11:52 am

  2. I thought you just need an AJS or ASR. Is this for the people who aren’t published? Does this actually work, can you get a job because you’re buddies with people?



    December 3, 2012 at 7:52 pm

  3. Fabio: I’m sure there’s no measurable cut off point but could you clarify the the difference b/w healthy networking and “social butterfly” networking?

    I’m only in my second year of grad school, and while I’m working on things I hope will eventually be publishable say 2-3 years down the line my adviser has been encouraging me to go to conferences w/o papers to present. The advice goes, that meeting people in your specialty (both grad students and faculty) is the most useful part of conferences (or at least ASA) b/c being able to talk to these people beyond my department and get their feedback will ultimately make my work better. It’s not networking for the sake of building future job ties but networking for the sake of improving my work.

    I’m not mean it this way but the passage of the post that freaks me out is:
    “If you haven’t submitted a paper for publication, don’t be a social butterfly. Get back to work! But if you are doing well – your dissertation is coming along and articles are coming out – then by all means, hang out and meet people.”

    It makes it sound like that at my point in my career I shouldn’t be trying to meet people above me in the academic hierarchy whose opinions are relevant to what I’m working on and could give me feedback that would improve my own work while it’s still in data collection or analysis rather than necessarily waiting to have a draft manuscript when the ability to make major improvements would be much more circumscribed. Despite best intentions of faculty, departments can be echo chambers, no? Isn’t it valuable then to take the organizational setting conferences provide to try to move beyond the echo chamber when it’s relevant to your research?

    Of course, a second or third year floating around trying to meet as many famous people as possible seems crass but I’m talking about getting in touch with maybe a handful of junior or senior scholars whose work is really relevant to whatever project I might be working on at the time.


    Anon Grad Student

    December 4, 2012 at 7:54 am

  4. Quick responses:

    @student: Geez, no – you can’t get a job just because you are buddies. I never said that. Rather, it’s on the margin. Put yourself in my shoes. I may have to sort a pile of 200+ applications for assistant professors. Many will look similar. I won’t prefer one candidate over another just because of social ties. Instead, I may be willing to spend more of my precious time reading a folder.

    @Anon: Once again, no – it doesn’t mean you should spend all your time networking. Just do the (seemingly) obvious. First, learn to be a good researcher. Second, tell people about it. Your networks matter a lot in the second phase. But it’s not everything. Networks get your foot in the door. You must continue to be excellent.



    December 4, 2012 at 9:53 pm

  5. I think @Anon may overestimate what it takes to have a paper at a conference. That bar (especially when including roundtables) is low, and a modest paper with empirical results (an MA thesis, a decent class paper, etc) will get in to ASA and (at least in my sub-discipline) some speciality conferences. That gives you a “reason” to be at the conference and a good conversation topic when someone asks what you do. So, yes, go to a conference to network, but try to present some work there too. I think that’s really part of what Fabio’s “networking” is about. Not just introducing yourself, but introducing your work-in-progress too.


    Another anon grad student

    December 5, 2012 at 6:39 am

  6. I think it’s important not to read the students’ question as “Can you get a job just by being buddies?” but the way Fabio originally put it: “Is it important to have buddies in academia?” Fabio answer might indeed seem just to indicate that scholars should do something that is “obvious. First, learn to be a good researcher. Second, tell people about it,” but keep in mind that this is actually not a very appealing way of framing the problem for many people who go into research for the intellectual challenge, not the social struggle. A grad student might think that “telling people about it” is the same thing as getting published and that the two tasks are therefore the same: being a good researcher means being a good writer, which will get you published, which will get you a job. Now, comes the Nu Rul of Grad Skool: buddy up or perish.

    We all know that friends are not a sufficient condition for getting a job in research. But it is disturbing enough for some of us that it might be a necessary one. And that it’s necessity is accepted as natural, an “obvious thing to do”. Indeed, it’s troubling even if it’s just vaguely “important”, i.e., a conditioning and not a determining factor of success.



    December 5, 2012 at 7:59 am

  7. Fabio and my fellow anon:
    I don’t think I made my primary concern about Fabio’s ambiguity clear. I did bury it in the middle. I’m not worried about the connections for getting a job or making the connections to get my work out there. researcher.

    The concern I expressed was with developing the connections that will make my research better, higher quality (even for its own sake). As a second year the future market is obviously a concern I should have and be working on it but, again according to advice I’ve received, _right now_ connections for the sake of knowing the people that can make my work better (a prereq for a good job) should be more important than presenting now.

    Still, I feel this is cleared up now. So thanks to both of you!

    P.S. fellow anon. I’m aware of what you’ve said. N/w undergrad and grad school I presented at conferences, so I know how low the bar is. I’m just repeating faculty advice: basically not to worry about papers for last year’s or this year’s ASA b/c time is better spent developing work that has a greater possibility’s for high quality down the road working. It’s a question of priorities. The message was polishing and pushing out something I worked on in the year and half of grad school should be a very very low priority compared to collaborations with faculty I’m involved in. or working on research towards a qualifying/MA paper that will have a better chance of being a significant publication in a couple years.

    Again, thanks everyone.


    Anon Grad Student

    December 5, 2012 at 3:13 pm

  8. Oh, Fabio. I didn’t mean to imply in that first sentence that you were definitely ambiguous. It was an impression I had probably with its roots in grad school induced neuroticism…


    Anon Grad Student

    December 5, 2012 at 3:16 pm

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