how do you build a network? ask a scatterbrain*

From grad students, a series of questions that I have compiled into one big mess. Basically: how do you build a network and does it matter what kind you build?

People keep telling me how important it is to “build networks.” I understand why. I just don’t understand how. So, how do you go about “building networks”? If you’re at Berkeley or Wisconsin it’s one thing (big departments, people leave, you have “real” connections outside your department). But what if you’re not? Or if you are and you don’t really have a network other than your adviser and committee members? And what kind of networks are most important? Inside your substantive area? Outside your substantive area? Does it matter? And while we’re on it, would I rather have a few really strong ties, or a bunch of weaker ones? You know, would I rather have a few people who overlap with one another (they know each other) that I know well, or a bunch of people I don’t know well but who aren’t themselves overlapping? I know what Granovetter says. But what about in sociology, the discipline? And finally, are ties that important early on when I’m first getting a job? Or are people just telling me this because it’s important for later (tenure) so I might as well start working on it now?

* I know this is a Wednesday feature. But I’m busy tomorrow. So I’m pushing it forward to today. And I leave on Thursday to go to visit Kieran’s (and my mom’s) people back at the old sod.

27 thoughts on “how do you build a network? ask a scatterbrain*”

  1. I’ll say more later, but for starters, your fellow graduate students are important. They will be your colleagues in a few years. Both the people in your own program, and the students in other departments who work in the same area. Don’t think of this as people who can help you, think of this as people you know who know you. Being interested in other people and what they are doing is important.


  2. Agreed. Conferences have good for me on this front. My activities at conferences have included:
    riding my advisor’s coattails (“come along, I’ll introduce you to ___”);
    meeting luminaries who left my (grad school) dept. just before I arrived;
    reconnecting with anyone from grad school;
    emailing someone to follow up on their presentation;
    meeting germane authors, i.e. ESS has a “meet the author” thing;
    meeting people by presenting (/organizing/presiding) in the same session, and then keeping in touch.

    I’m a bit of a conference junkie, and have benefited by being able to afford ASAs, regionals, states, multidisciplinary topical things, and the SWS winter meeting. Another way advantage accumulates, but I digress.


  3. Fellow grad students are incredibly important, and what I hate most about my program (despite my decision to stay in it that no one should question) is that there is no cohort at all. My program is so, so unstructured, and so dominated by international students intending on going back to their home countries to be law professors, that there is no real useful contact I could make from my actual “department” at the law school.

    Similar criticisms are made of the interdisciplinary PhD program here (I avoid googability, but it’s the one that LBN went through): everyone is doing their own thing, so no one is actually talking to each other past year 1. But at least they have year 1! At least they have a string of foundational courses, so there’s _some_ continuity!

    I started a blog and a lot of law profs started noticing. Sociologists too. I now have a nation-wide network! It’s not for everyone though. Mostly, I just email a lot of people saying “I really liked your paper on _____” and I _mean_ it and I say something descriptive and interesting. That’s another way to build a network of people in your field (mine would be employment discrimination law) without leaving your seat, or if your department isn’t very big or is very isolated geographically. I’ve gotten invited to conferences b/c of my scholarly epistolary exchanges!

    You review someone else’s work, and you get offers to have your own reviewed. Even grad students can offer something interesting to an established faculty, and most are grateful to have someone interested. It’s a good way to build up the idea of academic collegiality, and a good way to make friends. You get good advice, they get comments, everyone wins!


  4. I should also say that my friends in the interdisciplinary program went out of their way to approach like-minded, similarly-projected students in their seminars in other departments (including me!) and those of us interested in orgs, social movements, social justice, and discrimination have formed our own dissertation support group, which meets monthly (used to meet weekly until everyone had field exams) and I bring cookies. It is called Dissertation & Dessert, or D&D. It is just as geeky but even more awesome.

    We care about each others’ projects, but we also care about each other, and this is probably the best experience I have ever had in my student career.


  5. My advice would be to realize that networks aren’t just for you, they’re for others as well. So like BL says, be a good network citizen. Read others’ papers. Tell others about work/people who might help them. If you treat networks like something you “have” vs. “are in” you will have a tougher time.

    Also, abarian once gave me some of the best advice for my interviews on the job market. Simply, “No one wants to work with an asshole.” It turns out to be VERY true. The same goes for networks. Something that really helps if you have a reputation for being a reasonably nice person.


  6. I’ve no advice for graduate students about networking. As for faculty members and network, I’m surprised that how if you are affiliated with places that people pass through and you otherwise just stay engaged, your network gets stronger every year even if you are introverted and horrible at any kind of small talk.


  7. I agree with many of the above comments. I will say that I have generally found the ASA section meetings useless. During my first year of grad school, my adviser, a very well-connected and friendly individual, told me that section meetings were all important to my future career. So, I went to one, expecting to come away with boatload of business cards, new friends, and potential research projects. In fact, my adviser only knew one other person there. So, I spent 45 minutes drinking a Heineken and standing around awkwardly.

    As has been said, your friends in grad school are important. But there will also we people who are not your friends who are important later on. As shakha said, try to be a nice person and help out others when can. I think that matters.


  8. Sorry to be a bloghog, but I had one more thought. I have been surprised to find that most of the people in my social network do NOT work in my subfield. I think that’s okay.


  9. I think that I would’ve found building a network to be much more challenging if I had set out with that intention.

    However, talking with really smart and interesting people about their work, helping people out by reading paper drafts or thinking together about research methods, serving on paper award selection committees, and, organizing conferences (or paper sessions at conferences) about the topics that most interest me…these sorts of things are fun!

    So, I guess my advice for the more-sophisticated-and-intentional-than-I would be to make a priority of activities that you ENJOY which have also network building potential.


  10. One more thing: I agree with andrewska. Go to things. Show up. Even to stuff that you don’t directly do work on. I spent my graduate career going to things I wasn’t immediately interested in and/or didn’t work on. Two things happened: (1) I learned a lot of sociology – a wide range of stuff I wouldn’t have otherwise known; (2) I was around. I often didn’t actually DO anything while being there. But I was there. And I think that helped me. Like OW’s advice for assistant professors – I think being there/around is incredibly helpful. So show up to departmental stuff. People will notice. And it’s likely that this noticing will also turn into something more useful still (like being asked to do things which will help with your network). Oh, and learning stuff you wouldn’t otherwise know is really helpful.


  11. I agree with sara. The best way to build your network is to care about people, engaging with people who you find interesting and enjoyable to be around, and not worrying about what this node in my network can do for me. Just be yourself and enjoy getting to know people!


  12. I agree with the importance of conferences, especially early on. I started a collaboration with someone just because we were on the same panel at a meeting and realized the overlap in our interests.

    It helps if you’re not shy. It’s also important not to let one bad experience set you back too much. I remember, perhaps at my first ASA, I walked up to a famous sociologist just to say hi and he was very rude and offputting. Fortunately, there are not too many obnoxious folks like that in the field so don’t let one conceited person ruin it for you. That said, having something concrete to say other than “I really appreciate your work” may help in starting a meaningful conversation.


  13. To echo others and give a “senior” point of view, think of networks as reaching out to get to know people, and being interested in helping other people. It’s a karmic thing, not a tit-for-tat.

    @12, I’m not saying people are not rude, but in those initial introductions and conversations, please remember that famous people are often just as shy and awkward as you are, and that social occasions are social occasions. I remember one young person who “jumped” me an hour into the alumni night (remember this is a drinking affair) to cross-examine me about the argument in a paper I’d published a few years before — I just wanted to run away, and don’t care if that person thought I was rude and dismissive to a young person, I thought young person was being extremely rude and inappropriate. Your eyes also glaze over if young person launches the 20 minute version of the dissertation summary at a cocktail party. The trick is to have a conversation, which involves turn-taking and back-and-forth. This can be difficult if neither of you has any social skills, but that is the goal. Some hints: Try not to speak for more than 60 seconds in a turn if you are in an informal setting. The initial moves in a conversation are to find things to talk about. If you launch into a monologue, all but the saints are going to try to figure out how to get away from you. Also remember that not everything is about you. Famous person might be trying to edge out of the conversation not because s/he does not want to talk to young people, but because s/he has another appointment, or a headache, or has to go to the bathroom.

    By the way, I’ve personally never been offended if young person tells me how much s/he likes my work or is excited to meet “required reading.” I’ll take all the ego boost I can get. There are probably better openings, but that one is ok. I then say, “Why thank you. And what do you do?” And you give the 60 second version of what you are up to, and we see if we can segue into an actual conversation. But you should not expect to get a job out of a cocktail party chat, nor treat every conversation as a job interview. Don’t worry about always making a good impression. When you act as if you are treating social chat as a job interview, it makes people nervous.


  14. I think this question and (olderwoman/wisewomen, CD’s, Andrew’s comments, among others) demonstrate the importance of presenting at conferences (not just going to soak it all up and go to receptions). I’m somewhat outgoing and do okay in the ‘cocktail reception’ format — that said, my best network connections have always come from people who were on a panel with me.

    Beyond just the fact that panels are a place for you to show ’em what you got, it offers multiple avenues for discussion on a relatively equal footing. As OW/WW says, it’s pretty tough to turn the “gee, I like your work” comment at a reception into a substantive conversation (especially at an alumni thing — people want to see their grad school buddies and former colleagues there).
    A panel is the place where people are most in ‘work’ mode…

    I’d also argue that one decision that is important in deciding where to go to grad school is the level of department funding for conference attendance (and that they require you to present to get it) as well as the engagement of current grad students at conferences.


  15. OW, you made several wrong assumptions about my comment. Just to point out a few: First, I’m not shy. Second, I don’t recall saying that the encounter happened at a social occasion (it didn’t). Third, I didn’t go on for 20 minutes about anything.

    Regarding the original question, a few additional suggestions. When (if) seminar speakers come to your department, go and meet with them whenever possible. The savvy ones will use the opportunity to get to know junior scholars. I’ve certainly identified potential candidates for our program through having had impressive interactions with students in other departments.

    Be open to interactions at meetings. That is, instead of losing yourself in the ASA program, look around and look approachable. You can start up random conversations with people around you and who knows where that might lead.

    Submit your work to award competitions. Even if you don’t win, people will read your work and if it’s good then this should leave a positive impression.

    Be friendly and nice even in social situations with graduate student peers. They are your future colleagues and reviewers.


  16. CD: OW was trying to speak to a general point and was not saying anything about you personally. This is an explicitly “general advice” thread, so presumably comments would be especially prone to going from one person’s particular example to another person drawing general points that might not fit the particular example in its details.


  17. CD I am sorry for it sounding personal as of course it wasn’t about you or even suggestions about you. Your comment triggered memories of awkward situations when young people tried to “impress” me. I should also say that it triggered equally bad memories of when I was young and trying to impress senior people and did some of the things I advised against. I do cringe often at memories my younger self.

    I would build on your suggestion: not only “be friendly and nice in social situations even with your graduate student peers.” Also be friendly and nice even with older people. Oh wow, train of thought brought back another memory, of going out to dinner with another young woman, two young men, and a very senior very distinguished older man who was old enough that his theories were now considered wrong by the new generation. The two young men loudly dominated the conversation with stories whose point was how smart they were and how stupid everyone else was, and basically refused to let the rest of us talk. They were even gossiping meanly about people; senior man at one point was moved so far as to say, “She is a very good colleague,” but even that did not give them the hint. (My woman friend, who knew the object of their vitrol, said they had the facts wrong.) At one point, the senior man winked at my friend to let her know that we all understood the situation, that we were being held hostage by barbarians. Neither of those men has done particularly well professionally compared, say, to the other woman and I, and I’m sure they think it is because everyone else is stupid and fails to appreciate their brilliance. Oh, wait, no. I’m sure they think it is because affirmative action means that white men are discriminated against.


  18. At one point, the senior man winked at my friend to let her know that we all understood the situation

    This comment reminds me of something else that may be a bit off topic, but still relevant for understanding others and especially navigating job talks.

    It may be that there is a person in the audience who asks a crazy question. It is wrong to assume that everybody else in the audience agrees with the crazy perspective. That is, while you as a speaker may be rolling your eyes about the question, it may well be that the person’s colleagues are also rolling their eyes. Of course, you still have to answer politely, but don’t assume that people are necessarily more critical of you in the exchange than they are of the person asking the question. This also suggests that it’s not worth spending too much time on any one question if only one person is interested in it. If it holds more general appeal, others will steer the conversation back to it.


  19. CD @18 yes, definitely. Being able to stay collected and pleasant in response to hostile or idiotic questions is a real plus as a skill. Also a necessary skill in teaching, as an unguarded response to a hostile or stupid student can alienate a whole class, as I have learned to my dismay on more than one occasion.


  20. No one has yet addressed the “cold call” (cold email?)…which might contain some probative, informed questions about some colleague’s recent work…or the opportunities that research trips or conferences might provide to ingratiate yourself to local colleagues.

    Would a faculty member to Tufts be put off if a visiting scholar made an appointment for coffee on Monday, after the ASAs? Vanderbilt has quite a nice television news archive, and I’ve had sociologists who are gathering data there email an introduction and suggest coffee during their visit.

    These might be the most intimidating forms of sociability for us, but they might be the most rewarding for both parties…you know, since you’re not fighting to get a $5 bottle of water and the last cold hors d’ouvre at the Political Sociology Section reception, along with 1,000 others.


  21. Since no one’s mentioned it (though I think I saw a reference in another post), Phil Agre’s “Networking on the Network: A Guide to Professional Skills for PhD Students” is incredibly useful. It’s not really about the internet so much as about how to build a professional academic network. I wish I had found it much earlier.

    Of course, now that I’ve suggested it, I can’t seem to find a live link to it.


  22. @ jlena in 20: Funny you should say Tufts. When I moved to within driving distance of Tufts, I emailed a “star” in my area to ask if I could come visit her. I did, it went very well, we’ve kept in touch.

    Not that this answers your question about anyone at Tufts, of course; but it’s another network-building tactic I’ve had success with.


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