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Networking in Academia

2009 April 3
by Richard N. Landers
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I am currently at the 24th annual conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychologists (SIOP).  I think most non-academics think of conferences as something like a roving wedding or auto show, but the reality is something much more sinister.

You see, academics rely on networking and connection-making just as much as business-people.  As much as we in the ivory tower like to think that business is something altogether different (and dirty), it’s really in many ways quite similar.  In order to collaborate across institutions, programs, or areas (to get a wider perspective or gather additional resources to tackle any particular research question), you have to know people, and networking is how that happens.

I have only once made a concentrated effort at SIOP to network, and it didn’t go terribly well.  I was trying to make a connection with a researcher from Japan that one of the Minnesota faculty happened to know, and after several rounds of phone tag and much worrying on my part, no connection was ever made.

Image courtesy businessweek.com

Networking = a lot of these... Image courtesy businessweek.com

So you can imagine my surprise when this year, quite suddenly, I realized that I had a network.  I have connections to practitioners and academics.  I have connections for potential jobs for future graduate students.  My wife was even approached about a potential job by a friend of a friend, and she’s not even an I/O psychologist.  Stepping onto the registration floor of the conference hotel, we stopped about every 30 feet or so as we got pulled into conversation after conversation for about half an hour.

Now, admittedly my network is pretty small in the grand scheme of things, and (hopefully) will expand as my career continues.  But the fact that this network grew without my conscious effort has told me that before, I was going about this incorrectly.  Making networking into a task that needed to be completed, at least for me, was the wrong approach.  It’s stressful and unproductive.  Perhaps a new goal: be who I am and let the connections come to me.  If there isn’t a connection to be made, a connection won’t be made.  If there is, one will.  Allowing serendipity to take its course – taking advantage of opportunities as they present themselves instead of seeking them out – seems to be the much wiser (and less stressful) path.

But even as I write this, I think – perhaps that’s naive.  Don’t I really need to make the effort?  Isn’t that what I’ve been told in high school, college, and grad school – connections only happen with concentrated, machiavellian effort?  Seek people, use people, move up in the world?  Something about that just doesn’t feel right to me, but it’s hard to let go…

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  1. kristie permalink
    April 3, 2009

    Richard, I am having the same thoughts about networking this weekend! In early grad school, I always saw networking as difficult because to me, it seems opportunistic– you are only talking to people to get something for yourself. For some reason, something shifted for me this time– I have connections that have just “happened,” but I am also recognizing a willingness to mentor in this community. It’s amazing the response you get by just telling someone you respect their work, and that you think you could learn a lot with them (of course, it helps if you have an awesome sample or theory to offer them in return). And frankly, if they can’t be bothered to follow up with you, or if they turn up their nose at collaboration, do you really want to work with them anyway? I seem to remember some sort of saying about past behavior and future behavior…

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