I’ve been writing regularly for Vitae, the careers section of The Chronicle of Higher Education. This piece was published there a couple weeks ago. I’m reprinting it here:
Conferences are a wonderful time to see old friends and colleagues. That is, if you’re an old-timer.
If you’re not, the experience can be isolating and intimidating. And even if you do have friends at a meeting, the prospect of expanding your network can be daunting. If my own conversations with grad students in the biological sciences are representative of the broader population of junior scholars, then this is a widespread sentiment.
It’s unfortunate, but true, that who you know really matters for success in academia. As a corollary, successful networking really matters, too.
If you’re on the market for your first or second teaching job, you may approach conferences with trepidation, because this is supposed to be the place where you build connections that will lead to your next position. Introducing yourself to more senior academics can be intimidating.
Even getting to know peers on a casual basis is an exhausting task for introverts. When you show up at a conference and don’t know many people, it can be difficult when you see folks in active conversation with people they clearly know and work with. Conferences can feel like the birthday party of a friend-of-a-friend — when your friend didn’t even show up. If you’re not an overtly gregarious person, then it’s possible to go through a whole conference without having any real human interactions.
The culture of an academic conference varies widely. I’m a semi-regular at a few meetings, which range in size from a couple hundred people to several thousand. In my experience, the bigger the conference, the less welcoming it is for newcomers.
I recently attended a conference outside my field, where I knew almost nobody. I had a great time, learned a lot, and began an unanticipated friendship. I also spent a lot of time alone. I struck up a variety of conversations, and people were friendly. To my surprise, some geochemists were particularly interested in learning from an ecologist. So even when you’re in a different field, folks might be very interested in getting to know you. However difficult it is for you to network, just keep in mind: There are a lot of nice people out there.
Bookstores dedicate shelves to networking. The progenitor of the genre, published 80 years ago, might be its best: How to Win Friends and Influence People. Dale Carnegie must have realized that the title sounded creepy and manipulative. Nonetheless, its central message is not so creepy: To have people like you do and do nice things for you, you need to make them think that you’re a good person who cares about them.
How do you do that? Carnegie recommends that we should actually be good people who genuinely care. That’s the trick. To be well liked, by people, you need to genuinely like other people.
Sociopaths get ahead in life by tricking people into thinking that they’re generous and warm. The rest of us won’t benefit from their approach. Generosity and warmth is its own reward, and genuine collegiality and friendship is typically reciprocated. The first rule of networking is the golden rule: Treat others as you would like to be treated.
There are some academics who get ahead by crushing other people in their vicinity, but I don’t think that is the best approach. Most of the Important People in my fields are generous with their time, go to great lengths to support their colleagues and trainees, and are collegial to the extreme. They succeed because they are talented. And everybody around them wants them to succeed because they are well-loved.
If you network with the proximal goal of schmoozing powerful people to make useful connections, most people — including the targets of attention — will see through you and dismiss you as an opportunist. On the other hand, if you genuinely endeavor to build connections, establish friendships, and discuss topics with an open mind, then people will be more likely to be interested in connecting with you — and connecting you with others.
When I show up to a meeting, I am excited to spend time with academic kindred. There will be room after room full of people who are excited about the stuff that excites me. I will find people who are thinking deeply about ideas, in a way that is probably different from the way I am thinking deeply. It’s fun and rewarding to get to know people — especially graduate students — who are particularly excited and well-read about their interests.
Attend a conference for a few consecutive years, and then you’ll be a regular, too. Meeting new people might not be easy, but conferences don’t need to be more daunting than other arenas, if you’re treating people as colleagues and friends, rather than opportunities for personal gain.