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Networking: the good, the bad, and the tacky
Early-career academics often get some version of this advice:
“Network already! Don’t be worried if it feels distasteful. Just call it “professional friendships.” It’s vital for your career.”
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I’ve been thinking about putting the onus on networking on early-career academics like this. How, if at all, are we to think about informal relationships in academia?
The tacky utilitarian calculus
The blanket advice to network is almost always bad. It doesn’t take into account the very unequal structures under which we’re supposed to be doing this. Some people can count on introductions from their fancy advisors at prestigious schools. Others must do it on their own. We have differences in temperament: some of us are shy and introverted, others are sociable and outgoing. Some of us are first-generation, have had working-class upbringing (like me), and the social decorum of networking activities such as dinners at restaurants feel daunting and alienating when we first engage in them.
The calculus underlying networking (or however you call it) is cold, utilitarian, and often tacky. Here are some common scenarios that I’ve seen or that people talked to me about after they happened:
“The professor began to talk to me during the break at the conference, but then he looked at my name badge and he abruptly stopped, mid-sentence, and left.”
At a garden party in Oxford, hosted by a professor who lived there, a postdoc talked to an Oxford don, and he introduced himself. The don asked, “so you’re a postdoc,” and the postdoc replied, “yes at [European, non-UK] university.” Upon which the Oxonian philosopher abruptly turned away and went to talk to others.
An early-career philosopher attended a small-scale workshop with mostly tenured very senior philosophers and there were only a few slots for non-invited contributions, “Almost nobody talked to me during those two and a half days. I tried to initiate some conversations, but nobody seemed interested to talk.”
In the days of in-person interviews and the big reception (the “Smoker”) at the APA, I would see large groups of people throng around the faculty of the most prestigious American departments, whereas some other people were mostly standing by themselves, holding a drink, not having anyone to talk to. They could’ve talked to each other, but they did not, presumably hoping to network “upward” as they had been advised to do.
The unequal playing field and the cold networking calculus are sides of the same coin. You’re incentivized to consider: who is worth spending time with? How can I optimize my time at this conference by networking with important people who might further my career?
It’s no surprise that a name badge with a non-prestigious affiliation or things that signal “graduate student” or “contingent faculty “can become a sufficient reason to break a conversation off mid-sentence, unhindered by any sense of decorum.
Who benefits from informal networking at conferences?
I think some of our conferences ought to be virtual in light of the climate crisis, passport inequality, accessibility, and other concerns. Individual action to reduce our carbon footprint is good, but collective action is even better. Normalizing virtual conferences is a vital way to do this. The Philosophers for Sustainability have successfully campaigned for the APA to implement this, and now, as a result these efforts, I’ve been asked to chair the APA 2025 Central, the first of a three year “experiment” (in the APA’s terms) of virtual conferences.
I’ve begun to discuss the format of various social activities online, with colleagues, philosophers in the St Louis area, and various academics on Twitter (I refuse to call the dying platform X). Some people are skeptical that this would work, they say things like “To me the informal aspects of conferencing, going to dinner, making connections, are the most important.” They doubt that an online conference could be able to replicate these dynamics.
The in-person conference has now become a premier venue for informal networking as much as it is a venue for sharing research. However, frequent academic flying is a phenomenon of the past decades (as you can read in this recent edited volume, Academic flying and the means of communication). Conferencing sidelines lots of people from the global south for whom visa requirements and costs are prohibitive. It also advantages academics who have no care responsibilities or could delegate them, and people with travel and research budgets. It thus helps to worsen inequalities in academia.
I am reading a lot of 17th and 18th century philosophy now, and many of these philosophers (Descartes, Leibniz, Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia, Sophie de Grouchy) kept their scholarly network alive through letters. Descartes wrote hundreds of letters, Leibniz thousands. These letters were not purely private (as now) but they were often shared, copied, and read aloud. Leibniz would initiate correspondence with philosophers or scientists whose work he wanted to learn more about. So, it is certainly theoretically possible to have other means of informal scholarly connection (I’m not suggesting we all go back to writing beautiful long letters…or am I?)
Purely anecdotally (I didn’t research this extensively so maybe I am wrong) the people who are most positive about the informal networking aspect of conferencing tend to be already very advantaged in the profession. They are often professors with tenure at research-intensive institutions. And, conversely, the dynamics at conferences for early-career, contingent, or faculty at unprestigious universities are not quite as auspicious. When some senior folk want to "pick the brain" (ah that phrase) of a minority scholar, it's basically often asking for free advice with little in the way of credit or reciprocity.
Precisely because it is so unstructured, unequal dynamics that already exist in the profession can be exacerbated. Virtual conferencing affords us an opportunity to try something different, maybe something semi-structured, such as virtual “office hours” of more senior philosophers. The APA has an ad hoc committee on virtual conferencing, and so has the Philosophers for Sustainability, so we will think more about this collectively in the months to come.
On being part of a scholarly community
Informal or less formally structured relationships are a vital part of academic communities. I think the hamfisted advice to network gets at this, imperfectly. You could interpret it charitably as advice to recognize those informal dynamics in the profession and to play into them. Such relationships offer valuable goods: friendship, advice, information about the profession, maybe indeed even the difference between a job and no job.
I think it’s a mistake to equate networking with friendships in academia, though. Not all people you have some informal connection with are friends. Some are people you might want to keep at arm’s length but you'll still need to work together in some fashion, or you meet them at conferences.
Regardless, there is a genuine opportunity for friendship, and I think the cold utilitarian calculus stands in the way of this. Being a philosopher is wonderful and privileged, but it can also be very lonely, and a long-term project can sometimes feel like an endless slog. That’s where connection is vital. Peers are often people who can give you the best advice, because they are in relevantly similar situations.
Rather than talking about networking that individual scholars (should) do to further their career, I like to think of philosophy as a scholarly community. In our scholarly community, the onus should not be solely on early-career researchers to put themselves out there and network. It’s also up to us tenured folk, to help create structures and opportunities for them to do so. In doing so, we can be graded in our benevolence; it’s understandable that, e.g., an advisor would want to help her own grad students foremost. But, to continue this Confucian analysis, we should not only look to benefit those near and dear to us. We should try to create structures and opportunities in which everyone can thrive.
If we only benefit our friends, then cronyism lurks around the corner. Networks become closed, impenetrable, even citation networks where citing someone becomes a favor rather than just being part of normal scholarly practice. There’s a risk that some people are being shut out of scholarly networks altogether, because everyone prioritizes their friends and relations. It’s impossible for relatively isolated individuals to network themselves out of this. No matter how pleasant and interesting you are as a conversation partner, if people do not lift you up into their networks, it’s not going to happen.
Next to cronyism, our scholarly communities are mired by gender, sexual, and other forms of harassment. These are still swept under the carpet, though the situation is improving, and create a minefield for people to navigate, especially for women, racial minorities, trans people and other minorities in philosophy. Precisely because informal connection matters so much and is such a source of solace, it is very important to not put extra obstacles in their way. We want to create an environment that is safe and welcoming.
In our philosophical community, we should be looking for non-zero-sum opportunities of collaboration and connection. This is vital because the humanities are under assault in many countries. We should stick together, rather than be mired in senseless prestige games. We should help each other and help philosophy thrive and flourish within the broader context of modern life, that is, our departments, the university sector, academia, the public sphere and other domains.
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