One view on how to do the contrived activity known as academic networking

Social networks is the buzz term of the day.  In academia, the networking kicks into high gear during academic conferences, but how do you do academic socializing and networking?  As Brian Rathbun blogging at Duck of Minerva (h/t Frank Thames) writes:

APSA  [the American Political Science Association annual convention] is around the corner and young academics should think about setting up meetings with people who it would be good to know.  Personal contacts are much more important than they really should be in a business where it is supposed to be the ideas that matter.  

Great.  So how do you do it?  Do you stalk big name professors in your field and try to follow them around the conference?  Do you try to set up meetings with Professor-Big-Name via email before the conference to meet them face to face?  Rathbun reported limited degrees of success using that strategy. 

His advice is instead of trying to track down the most well known professors in your field, try to get to know younger scholars.  Rathbun says, "[T]he younger, the better. It is almost always the case that the young people are the most creative and the most fun to be around. You will learn more. Young people haven’t settled into their intellectual habits and do not take themselves so seriously. "

I agree with Rathbun's advice, but would put it a bit differently.  Remember that networks should be built not only upward and vertically, but also horizontally and downward, with people coming up the ranks behind you, including graduate students.  You cannot ask Professor-Biggest-Name-in-Your-Field to read drafts of your papers (well you could, but they'd likely ignore you), but you can ask your fellow Assistant and Associate Professors as well as the close friends you made in graduate school. 

Some advice from my own experience.

1) Build contacts with people who are your peers and those coming up the ranks behind you.  There are smart people at all levels of the profession and who graduate from all kinds of schools, not just marquee institutions.  Seek out those, regardless of their rank or pedigree, who you think are smart and with whom you are simpatico with regard not just to subject matter and methodology, but also temperament and sense of humor (or lack thereof).  Don't be a snob.  It's a tough business. You need fellow travelers to laugh and commiserate with you through the trials and tribulations--not just to help you climb the career ladder.

The networks should not only be used for yourself.  More than once I have tapped my networks not to benefit myself, but to help one of my students get into a graduate program or an Assistant Professor with tenure by helping them select the list of external reviewers.  It's not that I was going to lobby my contacts for my Assistant Professor friend, it's that I knew these people to be conscientious, and tough but fair readers because they had taken my work seriously when I was (and still am) unknown.  Like Nancy Pelosi reputedly does, keep a mental rolodex in your head of the people you have done favors for so you can tap them on someone else's behalf later.  Strong networks are built through mutual respect and mutual obligations.  Interdependence is not a bad thing!

2) People who you assume will help you, may not.  Others who you least expect to help, might.  This was a tough and surprising lesson I had to learn.  Having come from the very generous University of Texas at Austin where as a Ph.D. student I had access to their highly ranked law school resources and faculty, I naively assumed that's how it would be everywhere. 

When I was an Assistant Professor at a different university with a law school, I asked if I could have access to the law school version of Lexis/Nexis.  I was denied.  I asked if I could get a courtesy joint appointment in name only (I had no wish to go to their holiday party or go in their fancy faculty lounge) so I could get access to that resource.  "No, that's not possible at all," was the answer.  I completed my research including my first book and a law review article by having to do wide workarounds the law school resources I was barred access to on my own campus.  University of Texas Law's view seemed to be that if anyone uses their resources and publishes something, then it is a tide that lifts all boats; these other guys didn't see it that way.

On the flip side, I emailed two very prominent law professors, rockstars in the legal academy, for help with one of my book manuscript chapters.  Yes, it took multiple follow up emails and months, but both eventually graciously read my chapters, gave me feedback, and provided invaluable confirmation from a senior scholar that my research was on the right track.  On the same book project, another senior political scientist also read multiple chapters for me.  I had never even met two of them in person until months after they helped me.  I was a young and completely unknown Assistant Professor at a non-fancy university and these much more established people helped me.  I was so grateful and humbled.

3)  Be gracious.  Totally true story.  One of the senior law professors who helped me with my chapter got quite a surprise several years later.  He was interviewing with a member of the Obama Administration transition team for a high level position in the immigration bureaucracy.  The interviewer said, "Oh, Professor, I am such a big fan of your work and I understand we have a mutual friend in common."  The Professor was expecting the name of a U.S. Senator or federal judge to drop from her lips.  Instead the interviewer said, "You know, Anna Law?"  Professor Big Deal, in a moment of candor, asked, "Anna WHO?"  And the interviewer said, "Anna Law has told me how helpful and generous you were with her book project."  The man nearly fell off his chair.  The DC staffer is married to one of my colleagues.

When people make a reasonable request of you, be gracious.  If you cannot help them because you are swamped, tell them so and perhaps advise them of a better time (3 months from now?) when you might be able to help, or help them in a more limited way ("I can't read your whole chapter, but maybe we can talk in the phone and you walk me through your argument and I'll give you some feedback" or "Is there a particular section of the paper you'd like me to read and comment on since I can't read the whole thing?").  Don't just blow off the request or dismiss them because you think they are small potatoes.  A few kind words costs you nothing.

4)  Keep trying.  As many senior scholars and otherwise good people who have helped me along the way there are, there have been an equal number who have ignored my requests for help completely, said dismissive or demeaning things to me, or were just plain mean.  There will be those people.  But just like applying for fellowships and grants, you have to keep trying and keep asking for help.  Not everyone will dismiss you and there are nice people out there.

5)  Pay it forward. No one makes it solely on their own in this business.  If you received help from someone in the past, help someone else coming up the ranks behind you.  You were once that graduate student, adjunct, and Assistant Professor. 

There's not only one way to do it.  I found a strategy that worked with my introverted personality and I have been enormously blessed with many mentors.  Good luck, all!