Group Dynamics–Creating Your Academic Network

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There was something magical, for me anyway, about graduate school. I was surrounded by smart, engaged people who were interested in things I was interested in (or at least open to); every week brought new encounters and ideas; every semester required me to step up and deliver something unique and, if I was lucky, compelling. Seminars with my peers guaranteed that I got immediate feedback on half-baked and brilliant ideas. The insights of my peers pushed me to re-orient my own thinking. It felt rigorous AND communal.

If you miss that intensity, or the knowledge that you are not working on your projects alone, maybe it’s time to re-invigorate your professional network. OR, if you’re getting ready to leave the ready-made community of graduate school for the wider world of academic and post-academic work, it’s REALLY time to activate your personal and professional network.

Networking. Yep, I said it. And I’ll say it again! You know that studies show that senior citizens who have robust social networks live longer and happier lives, right? Well, I think the same goes for academics: those who have robust professional networks have happier careers and more professional impact than those who toil away in obscurity.

Networking smacks of the business world and of exchanging business cards and maybe even being smarmy. Fear not! Networking can actually help you create magical moments and inspired connections. Investing in relationships is like investing in any other type of learning–what you put into it is what you’ll get out of it.

The networking mindset:

  • Networking is not about introducing yourself to people so that they can help you get a job or a grant or a promotion. Thing of networking conversations as sowing seeds.
  • Networking is sharing of yourself. What are you excited about? What’s your next project, your next move?
  • Networking is personal. Stay in touch with your professional and personal contacts. You don’t have to limit yourself to sharing huge, momentous stuff. Share brief updates and be curious about what they’re up to.
  • Think of the people who resonate with you or whom you admire. Do they know you’re a fan? Make sure they do.

The networking to-do list:

  • Keep track. Those people doing interesting stuff that excites you, make sure you don’t lose track of them. You can set aside a few hours each month to write emails or catch up on the blogs or journal output in your network, or even the twitter feeds of people whose work you admire.
  • Know what you need. Whether it is collaboration or support, have an idea of who is in a position to help you do your best work. How can you support them? Share.
  • Leave your office corridor. Not all potential contacts or collaborators are in your field. Be open to serendipity and synergy at campus and community events.
  • Follow up on the energy and ideas that conference attendance generates. Don’t let that great conversation with a colleague from another institution fizzle out.

It takes effort to build a robust professional and intellectual community that can support, encourage, and even push you to reach your goals–and your potential. It can be hard to find time or energy to reach out, uncertain of what the concrete point is or how you’ll come across. The effort is worth it, though.


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