On the third day of MLA, I was supposed to try to meet up with another grad school friend. This friend is also not in a tenure-track position, and this friend has been on the market pretty solidly for what is now four or five years. I never ended up being able to meet up with the friend, as he was staying outside the city and not at the convention and I'm a social butterfly who made plans with about 47,000 people and so this friend slipped through the cracks, but we did talk on the phone that night when I returned back to my hotel. He also had one interview this year.
Now, I don't bring up these examples to be uncool to these people whom I know from grad school, but I suppose both - in conjunction with a conversation I had with Bitch, Ph.D. in which she talked about the difference between her previous MLA conventions and this one where she was in kind of an "in crowd" - got me thinking about insiders and outsiders at MLA and how the social aspects of the profession play into the material and, well, professional aspects of it.
People talk a lot about "networking" and its importance in the World of Business, and people do mention it in an academic context, too, but I think that the idea that networking is crucial to one's ability to make a success of oneself in the profession is a dirty little secret. We're all supposed to be brilliant, right? Academia is a meritocracy, right? It's not playing fair to use connections to get ahead, right? I think that is what many would say, as if this profession is somehow above such things. I also think that all of those sorts of responses are multiplied because many academics can be somewhat introverted people and they make a ready alibi for those who feel uncomfortable with networking - they can say that they just choose not to sully themselves by networking, when really the thought of it makes them miserable.
I think it's a mistake to look at networking as some sort of optional activity in this profession. I think it is crucial to be "in the network" instead of on the fringes (at MLA, at other conferences, etc.) in this profession. And the only way that I know how to talk about that is to talk about my own experiences in this regard.
I was lucky. I had an undergraduate thesis adviser who threw me into the network before I even knew what the network was. I was 21, it was my first ever conference (a small one, to which my adviser had encouraged me to send an abstract), and somehow I found myself (because I was following my adviser around like a puppy) inside an "in-crowd." I surely didn't belong in this crowd, but somehow I did become lasting acquaintances with a handful of generous people who also just so happen to be pretty important contacts in this tiny little subfield within my field of specialization. So how did I do it? Again, part of it is luck. I was in the right place (a Holiday Inn bar) at the right time (the last night of the conference). But the other part of it is capitalizing on opportunities, which is not luck but rather something that one has to learn to do and something that one gets better at the more that one does it. I was so naive and wide-eyed at this first conference of mine that when people asked me what I was working on or what I was interested in, I told them. I didn't worry about how I appeared because I felt so out of my league already that I figured I could say anything and it wouldn't matter. Because that was my first experience, and because it worked out so well, I pretty much continued in that fashion, and that is where you see me at the present day. So luck, yes, and my own personality, yes, but also the willingness to use situations for professional gain, which may sound crass, but it's what we're all trying to do at the end of the day, so let's just call it what it is and be done with it.
I don't think that this is the experience for most people who enter graduate school and attend their first conferences. I think what happens to most graduate students is that they hang around with other graduate students, which, to put it bluntly, isn't going to get you anywhere. Now, at my first conference, none of the graduate students would talk to me because I was not yet a grad student myself, and so I ended up talking to all of the "important" people. Once I became a grad student, I did end up in the "grad student group" at a number of conferences, and while I did make some friends out of that experience, I've got to tell you: kvetching with other grad students is not going to get you publications, it's not going to get you a job, it's not going to get you, well, anything other than some pals that you kvetch with for a few days, and you probably won't even keep in touch with the great majority of them afterward. Hanging out exclusively with grad students from your grad program (or grad school friends if you're out)? The dumbest thing that you possibly could do.
Sure, it's more comfortable. It's really anxiety-producing to talk to strangers (yes, even for Dr. Crazy, depending on the situation), but if you don't, then you have no engagement with your profession. It matters if you know somebody who knows somebody else. It matters that you don't waste your time at conferences like they're summer camp or a vacation - they are a professional activity, and what you do at them (and which ones you choose to attend) can make a huge difference in your reputation in your field.
(Aside: I do have friends in my peer group within my field - I'm not totally careerist in developing relationships with people - but I'm trying to drive home the point that as a junior person, one has to be aware that any time one spends with other junior people may mean that you're not having a conversation with a senior person who can help you right now with your career.)
I feel like a pompous ass for writing this post, but the people I cited at the beginning clearly didn't get the memo about this stuff. I'm astonished by the fact that I got the memo, but I think I did because I was always more confident in my ability to chat people up than in my ability to wow strangers with the brilliance of my mind. Also, I'm an academic whore and I have no problem with the idea that the quality of my ideas isn't necessarily the only thing that's going to get me where I want to go in the profession. What that means now is that I'm an officer in one professional society and active in two more. I've organized and/or chaired panels for conferences including MLA. I've been invited to publish things.
Those things all matter in this profession, and they mattered on my CV when it came to the job market this time around. Who knows whether I'll get further in the job search process, but I'll tell you what: I had more interviews, having sent out far fewer applications, than a lot of the people to whom I spoke who finished their Ph.D.s around the same time as me. I've got to think that being Miss Congeniality and networking to my advantage has played some role in that success.
So what did my MLA look like?
- Arrived in Philadelphia, met a colleague on the shuttle and planned to have lunch on Friday
- Ran into friend from Grad School and hung out with him for about an hour
- Prepped for interviews
- Attended a panel
- Prepped for interviews
- Blogging panel
- Lunch with stranger, who it turns out submitted an article at a journal whose editor I know, so I took her card so I could pass along a good word
- Went shopping for wine and cheese for one of my societies
- Went to grad school party
- Went to society party #1
- Went to society party #2
- Thought I was going to stay in, but ended up at Blogger Meet-up #1 late-night
- Slept in (as I was very hung over and tired)
- Lunch with colleague from Wednesday
- Popped in at the end of a panel to say hello to professor from grad school who is no longer at grad school; also to get directions to society party #3
- Went to society party #3
- Went for a drink with friend from society party #3
- Met up with many bloggers and had dinner
- Went to a meeting for MLA allied societies
- Went to blogger panel
- Went for coffee with bloggers
- Went to airport and collapsed from exhaustion
Now, people, that's what a strong networking MLA looks like. It doesn't look like attending a ton of panels (although sometimes attending a panel can be good networking, but my point is that many times it's not and it really depends on the panel), and it doesn't look like yucking it up only with people you knew from grad school. And yes, meeting up with bloggers totally counts as networking. It's not that one needs to be mercenary about making connections, but being alert to the fact that it's a good thing to do never hurt anybody. And you don't need to be a nametag gazer to get this done - because I'm really quite an oblivious person and I never end up meeting people because I've scoped them out and so I fail miserably at the nametag gazing thing - you just need to be active in your specialization, and particularly in the tiny subspecializations within that broader field. If you show up enough, you're bound to get sucked into the network, you know?
You won't, however, get sucked into the network if you don't belong to any societies, if you don't go to any parties, and if you don't talk to random people at lunch or on the airport shuttle or whatever. If you don't hang out alone. That's the way it goes. And being in the network matters, I've got to think, in terms of one's ability to get jobs. Most of us just aren't brilliant enough to manage that on smarts alone.
Again, I apologize for being so absolute and arrogant sounding in this post. I think part of that comes out of frustration. I hate looking at my friends who've been slogging away at this year after year, who've been utterly beaten down by this profession, and feeling like I want to shake them because they're not doing some things that I think might help them. I also hate feeling like my friends resent me because of the successes that I've had - I got a job my first year on the market, ABD, so yes, it can happen - like they think I'm a fraud and have succeeded as I have only because I'm such a social butterfly, rather than realizing that one has nothing to do with the other. I may or may not be a fraud, but the social butterfly stuff helps even those who are not frauds, if that makes sense. I don't know. I just wish that this networking stuff wasn't so mystified, that in smaller professional organizations there was more of an effort to bring junior people and grad students into the network (and there is in some - but notably not in others), and that there was more emphasis on this part of things as part of grad student training. Sure, your "ideas" matter, but there are so many parts of this profession that have nothing to do with the quality of one's ideas.
Ok, I think I've run out of steam. Maybe people can comment about their own experiences with networking and about their experiences with making professional connections? Or about why they opt out of being in the network? I feel like this would be a good discussion to have, and might be of use to grad student readers especially.