Saturday, 25 May 2013

Networking: conversation & generosity

Dr Steve Joy

We don't like networking. You know what I'm talking about. Those people with a loose rein on their narcissism, who oil their way around a room, talking about themselves & how great they are, schmoozing everyone including the invited star professor (how did they get to speak to her, by the way?). It's a self-important, self-promoting way to behave - too smooth, too corporate, not academic. But what's good is that researchers don't need to do it, because, in higher education, it's all about the quality of the publications & a little about the teaching. The best researchers are always & only the ones who get the jobs. Right?

No prizes for guessing that I jest. We all need to do networking, whatever our walk of professional life. Just look at the incredible success of LinkedIn (more than 225 million users) and, closer to home, of the Careers Service's GradLink interface. It works. People find opportunities to forge personal connections valuable. I'm also yet to meet a researcher who doesn't - somewhere on a colourful spectrum from glee to gloom - acknowledge the importance of building relationships with other scholars, collaborating, sharing ideas, getting readers & reviewers, acting as a good member of the academic community, finding out about opportunities, being a known commodity before getting to interview, and so on. All of this I would put under the banner of 'networking'.

So why the lingering distaste for it & the reluctance to network? One answer would be to say that it's often difficult to translate common sense into common practice. The less arch response is surely that most of us just find networking hard. (Ironic that it's often labelled as being amongst the 'soft' skills.) From starting a conversation to ending one respectfully, via the awkward bit about what you actually say in between, we're uncomfortable selling ourselves & asking acquaintances to do things for us. I think, too, that we often feel the lack of time for an activity which demands a lot of effort but comes with no guarantee of results. Trouble is, the reasons not to network shouldn't be allowed to outweigh the importance of doing it. Your career needs you. With that in mind, then, here are a couple of propositions for different ways of looking at networking.

First, keep it simple: it's about conversation, not requests or sales pitches. The benefits to you of having people in your network of contacts necessarily come second; before that, you're establishing the relationship. This mindset can be immensely liberating, because conversation ceases to be something which we have to deploy tactically in order to edge towards a half-concealed objective (how do I get off this pointless topic? when's the right moment to ask? how shall I put it?). Instead, building networks then becomes a matter of making conversation & finding people who share your interests.

A friend of mine, a Lecturer at Queen Mary, revealed her simple approach to conferences: her goal isn't to ask the most devastatingly brilliant question or give a tour de force paper; instead she puts her energies into making three new contacts on the basis of shared interest. And how do you find out if you have shared interests? Ask questions; encourage your interlocutor to do the talking. No sales pitch required.

My second proposition is that networking should really be about generosity, rather than selfish intent. Yes, there's no shortage of the oily self-promoters, but that's not the only model, and there's no reason why we have to follow it. One approach is always to aim for a quid pro quo. You'd like me to read your work - are you going to read some of mine? You'd like to talk about your findings - do you want to hear about mine? Here's something that so many early career people tend to forget: a lot of hard-pressed senior academics value the research insights that postdocs have to offer, most of whom are more up to date than they are. Besides, even if you can't arrange perfect reciprocity, don't overlook the power of being a connector: put person A in touch with future collaborator B, and both will remember your generosity.

I can't help thinking that the word 'networking' is half the problem. So let's agree to drop it. What you & I are talking about is having conversations & being generous. Deal?

Finally, if you want to explore some of this further, don't forget that the Researcher Development Programme runs a useful short course on 'Making Contact & Making Your Contacts Work for You'.