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Banish the Smarm

Written by: Robin Bernstein
Published on: May 30, 2017

When I was in graduate school, I found the thought of networking distasteful, even terrifying. That’s because, like many students, I perceived networking to be a slimy nightmare that went something like this:

You enter a cocktail party, quickly size it up, and start working the room. You walk up to your first target, deliver your pitch, and hand over your business card. You ask about the target’s work so you can figure out if this person can help you get ahead — or not. You limit the conversation and keep moving because you have to meet as many people as possible. You don’t want to waste time on nobodies when there might be someone who could do you some good.

In that vision, networking is selfish, superficial, and insincere. You are acting interested in people only to get what you want out of them. I found that image so repellent that at one point I thought, “If that’s what it takes to succeed in academe, maybe I don’t want this career.”

Fortunately, before I took drastic measures, I learned that my nightmare was entirely inaccurate. Networking should not be selfish, superficial, or insincere. In fact, the best networking is radically sincere, deep, and generous.

Imagine that you have moved into a new neighborhood, where you intend to live for the next decade. You might knock on your neighbor’s front door and introduce yourself. At that moment, what do you want? You don’t want your neighbor to lend you tools or feed your cat when you’re out of town — although you may want such things someday. For now your only goal is to establish a friendly relationship with a person you expect will be in your life for a long time. When you ring the doorbell, all you want is for your neighbor to respond in kind.

In academe, your discipline is your neighborhood. “Networking” means connecting with other members of your discipline — people you will very likely know for decades to come. When you network with other scholars, your real message is, “Hello. We’re members of the same community. Let’s get to know each other.” All you need, at that moment, is for the other person to say, “Yes, I’d like that.”

Sure, in the back of your mind, you may be aware of your eventual need for recommendations, jobs, publishing opportunities, or 100 other things your fellow scholars may be able to provide, just as you know you will someday want to borrow a tool from a neighbor. But while you’re networking, you should focus instead on forging simple human connections.

That’s the key to effective networking, and it’s what I mean by “radical sincerity.” You are one human being connecting with another. Nothing could be more genuine or decent.

When networking is grounded in this most basic human interaction, it is not superficial but deep, even if the topic of conversation is light. To explain that apparent contradiction, let’s return to the neighbor metaphor.

On the day you introduce yourself to your neighbor, the content of your first conversation isn’t particularly weighty. Perhaps you talk about the weather or the local trash pickup. But in that moment, you are laying the groundwork for a future relationship. The conversation seems superficial only if you look at it in a superficial way. So if you meet another scholar at an academic conference and all you talk about is airline delays or where to find a good sandwich, congratulations, you are successfully networking.

For graduate students and other untenured scholars, one of the biggest impediments to networking is a sense of neediness. They need many things: grants, mentorship, research opportunities, recommendations, jobs, the list goes on and on. It can feel overwhelming. Because the needs are so urgent and inescapable, graduate students and contingent faculty members can feel like perpetual supplicants, begging for favors. Networking for them may acquire a desperate edge that feels awful and derails the whole process.

If you are in that situation, the solution is to focus on generosity — your own, not anyone else’s. Today you may need many things (jobs, grants, etc.) that you are unable to offer others. But in the long term, you can give far more than you receive. Hold this big picture in mind and commit to it. Generosity is the difference between superficial networking and the radically sincere model I’m advocating.

You don’t have to wait to be generous, either. All academics can — indeed, must — participate throughout their careers in two forms of generosity: scholarship and service.

At every stage of your career, but especially early on, your most important act of generosity is to give the gift that you alone can give: your scholarship. If you are a doctoral student, your primary act of generosity to your discipline is to write your dissertation. Stop thinking of your dissertation as a stone around your neck. Start thinking of it as a gift that your field needs, and which only you can supply.

Scholarship is also the most important form of networking because it literally connects you with other members of your profession. Every time you cite scholars, you are weaving their work into yours. Every time you share your research — at conferences, in publications, or simply in your completed and deposited dissertation — you are integrating yourself into large-scale scholarly conversations. That is networking at its deepest level.

In the slimy version of networking, one connects with others in order to gain opportunities to publish or otherwise disseminate one’s scholarship. A model based on sincerity, depth, and generosity, however, inverts that logic. Networking doesn’t enable scholarly achievement; instead, scholarship itself is the most important form of academic conversation — i.e., networking.

The second act of generosity that every scholar can engage in is service. As academics, we perform a tremendous amount of unpaid labor. We serve on the boards of scholarly organizations and journals, review manuscripts and grants, work on committees. We do this labor because our profession would collapse without it. But we also do it to contribute meaningfully to our scholarly communities.

Graduate students and other untenured scholars should carefully select service opportunities. Be discerning. The ideal service gig provides a structure that puts you into meaningful engagement with scholars you respect, preferably from diverse institutions and levels of seniority. That way you meet different kinds of people in your “neighborhood.”

An example of a desirable service role is to be a member at large or a graduate-student representative on the board of a national scholarly organization. In such positions, you work with diverse scholars, including those senior to you, and get comfortable seeing yourself as a generously contributing member of a community. Less ideal forms of service — such as a leadership role in a graduate-student organization — help you develop useful skills but connect you with only one category of neighbor. The least desirable gigs — for example, being an unpaid proofreader of a scholarly newsletter — do not help you grow as a scholar and connect you with, at most, only a handful of people.

As you pursue meaningful academic service, you must simultaneously resist exploitation — including self-exploitation. You may think that sacrificing gross amounts of your time to service work is an extreme form of generosity, but it’s often just the opposite. Self-exploitation is self-flattering and egocentric. It’s you telling yourself, “I’m so important! This organization/department/conference/newsletter would crumble without me!”

Being exploited depletes you and, in the long term, limits the gifts you can give. Self-exploitation is, therefore, deeply selfish.

Remember, your primary act of generosity is to produce original scholarship and to share it meaningfully with others. Anyone who threatens that priority — including you — is being ungenerous. Your goal is to serve your scholarly community in ways that enhance rather than compete with your original scholarship.

Let’s banish the repellent image of networking and replace it with one based on sincerity, depth, and generosity. In this new vision, you’re not at a cocktail party, sucking up to a senior scholar who has something you need. You’re at a professional gathering, working with diverse scholars toward goals you all care about. And even as you perform that service, you remain focused on your most important contribution to your field: your dissertation or other scholarship.

That is true, effective networking — and it never leaves you feeling slimy.

Robin Bernstein a professor of African and African-American studies and chair of studies in women, gender, and sexuality at Harvard University.