Who you know really matters


People say that it can be important to go to conferences once in a while because “networking” is important.

I wouldn’t put it that way. I would say that, for junior scientists, attending a conference regularly is critical because knowing people in your field is necessary for academic success. This is particularly true if you don’t have prestigious connections.

It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. It’s a cliché, but it’s one I’ve seen affirmed time and again.

The people with lots of social capital don’t openly talk about how important social capital is. That would be uncouth. Nonetheless, your social capital is hugely important to moving ahead in science. People who have major influence make things happen for the people in their midst. If you don’t have influential institutions behind you, and don’t have influential people pushing for you — sometimes without you being aware of it — you’ll have a lot less luck.

I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the importance of social connections in academic success.  The way things are done in this business, it’s all about who you know.

You could be the most amazing person ever, and have some of the most remarkable accomplishments. But if nobody is aware of you as a person and a human being, then you’re going to experience some huge setbacks.

Likewise, if you’re not the most amazing person ever, but if people know you personally and like you, then you’ll find that things could really cut your way more often than you might expect.

When you’re shopping for a postdoc, your reputation will precede you. Even if you aren’t known, the identity of people writing your letters will matter. If the person reading the letter is buddies with the person writing the letter — or even just a casual conference acquaintance — that letter probably will carry a lot more weight. The same thing is true for getting into grad school, I’ve seen. The lab that you come from as an undergraduate might matter more than your own capacity for success as a grad student. Social capital is the grease that lubricates the machine.

Opportunities in academia typically emerge  from happenstance, by being in the right place at the right time, and from people who know one another reaching out when the need arises. Who you know helps you get invited for stuff, and to hear about opportunities when they emerge.

(There is also a positive feedback effect of being well-connected. People who know you are more likely to mention you in conversation. Knowing people results in you meeting every more people.)

So how do you meet people when you don’t already know them? How do you get to be known to the important people in your field when they don’t know you? I’m not a fan of “networking” to directly get in the face of influential people. This is not only annoying annoying and superficial, it also probably isn’t effective either.

When I go to meetings, I’m there to visit with people I already know, learn cool science, and get to know new people too. (I guess that’s what “networking,” is, as used by people who use the term without quotation marks.) Since I’ve been sciencing for a while, when I go to a conference, it’s kind of like a reunion where I see people from prior good times. I’ve worked to actively contribute to my professional societies, so I know people from that route. As a no-longer-junior person, I make a point to get to know junior people. (Chatting with grad students about their work is usually really fun because they’re so excited and well-informed about what they’re doing.) So “networking” for me is just making a point to be gregarious when I have the opportunity.

If I think back to how I handled conferences in grad school, how did I get by? My advisor made a point to introduce me around. And there were senior grad students in my lab who did the same thing. And many of the people who I met at conferences twenty years ago, I’m still seeing at conferences. When I met other grad students, I asked them what they worked on. When I saw a talk that I thought was great, if I bumped into the person later I’d make a point to tell them so. After a few years, people know you and you know people.

As I’ve aged into mid-career in academia, it’s only normal that there some folks who know pretty well (friends and/or collaborate and/or close colleagues) have become famous-ish or rock-star-ish. They’re highly regarded among the very small number of people who do similar things. (Academic fame is not real fame of course. Some of their close friends outside their field probably don’t even know that they’re kind-of-a-big-deal in academic circles.) How did it end up that I sometimes am pallin’ around with people who, on the basis of academic affiliation, are playing in a different league than I am? I just make a point to get to know people, especially grad students. Some people end up becoming a Big Deal. So I guess I’ve gotten “well-connected” in the sense that people consider success in “networking.” But this didn’t happen because I wanted to be well-connected. I just wanted to get to know people, year after year. If you start talking to a person about who they are and what they do, it usually gets interesting really quickly. If you bump into me at a conference, odds are I’ll be chatting up old friends or grad students that I’m just getting to know. (Or old friends who are grad students.) I’m not trying to invest into guessing who the future rockstars are, I just want to get to know people and their science.

So I guess what I’m saying is that — at least in my experience — successful “networking” strategy is to not intentionally network to get to know the people who you feel like you need to know. It’s okay to get to know the people you want to get to know who are also interested in talking to you, and if you do this year after year with a single evolving cohort of scientists, then you will have built your own social capital. The cult of personality is huge in academia — more in some fields than others — and in my book, doing your own thing with people who want to spend time with is preferable to playing satellite to people you’re trying to impress.

I imagine this comes as an unfortunate fact for people who are introverted and find it difficult to get out there and interact with people they haven’t met yet. I don’t have anything constructive to say about this matter other than to note that it seems to be a genuine problem. I’d like to note that I’m not saying the world should be this way, of course. I’m not writing this post as advice, but merely as a set of observations. Hopefully some helpful comments might shed more light.

11 thoughts on “Who you know really matters

  1. Terry, I agree 100% with everything here. Including your closing note that this is unfortunate for people who are introverted, and who therefore find the social part of conferences difficult. I’m one of those people. I don’t have a perfect fix for this, but over the years I’ve come to an agreement with myself. I just know I can’t be socially “on” for an entire 5-day conference, but if I do a decent job of wearing my “extroverted costume” most of the time, then I’ll allow myself a meal alone in my hotel room or a couple hours off to go hit a museum by myself. The good news is that the social dimension gets easier from conference to conference, because (as you note) people you’ve met before become a pleasure to see and talk to again.

    You’re avoiding advice, but I’ll try some. If you’re an introvert, do whatever you can to pretend otherwise, at least in spurts. Take advantage of anyone who will introduce you around, and of events that introduce you to people as a byproduct (workshops, field trips, etc.) And if you’re a little less introverted, or a little more senior, take every opportunity to introduce person A to person B. Odds are good that either A or B, or even both, will be glad of it.

  2. Great post! A friend once pointed out that “networking” is 1000% more fun and easy once you no longer are the ‘needy’ one (need a postdoc, need a job, need a grant, need a tenure letter…) In academia it feels like we’re ‘needy’ for a lot longer than in other realms (I’m sure someone, somewhere, is thinking about ‘needing’ to get in to the National Academy), but in meeting new people, I think it helps to ask yourself how you would feel about networking if you weren’t worried about your next career stage and were just enjoying meeting new people and hearing about cool science.

  3. Just to be clear: advice is great in the comments! I love it! I just try to avoid generalized advice in my own posts.

  4. “So I guess what I’m saying is that — at least in my experience — successful “networking” strategy is to not intentionally network to get to know the people who you feel like you need to know. It’s okay to get to know the people you want to get to know who are also interested in talking to you, and if you do this year after year with a single evolving cohort of scientists, then you will have built your own social capital. ”


    Shameless self-promotion alert: my old posts on why and how to network at conferences. The “why” post is a briefer and less effective version of what Terry said above:


  5. Great post, I completely agree and follow the same ideas. I also find conferences are about good science, meeting friends you’ve made through your stages and making new ones.

    For introverts, I read some helpful advice which highlighted there will be many other introverts at the same event and suggested you go and talk to them (improving your day and theirs). I’ve had some fascinating conversations with the most shy ( / highly observant / good listener) looking individuals not yet speaking to someone else.

    Additionally, I find speaking to those not in your field can also yield very exciting topics and give you both food-for-thought.

  6. Best advice I ever received on this topic:

    Network at conferences with PEERS. If you’re a grad student, meet other grad students (poster sessions are great for this). If you’re a postdoc, try to meet other postdocs. Do so without regard to their advisor or institution. It doesn’t matter. The point is that this is far less intimidating than striking up a conversation with a senior researcher.

    If the opportunity arises, allow them to introduce you to their advisor and/or other members of their group. If at all possible, do the same for them.

    Don’t lie or try to bullshit your way through a conversation. If you’re not familiar with someone’s area of expertise, say so. Let them teach you. However, if you ARE familiar with someone’s work, it’s also fine to say so.

    In the course of just my grad school years, I wound up meeting two Nobel Laureates and a future Nobel Laureate this way. 20 years later, I still exchange emails with some of the grad students I met (some are in industry, some are now full professors, some have changed careers). And for the record, I’m an introvert.

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