Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Academic Job Search II - Networking

For the other posts in this series:
Beginning a search  First Interview       On Campus Interview      Contract       Rejections
In the general workplace, the standard job-seeking adage is: "It's not what you know, it's who you know."  That doesn't really work in academia because it IS, in part, what you know (or how you think?).  One of the standard adages in the academic job search is, instead,: "You get your first job because of your advisor's work; you get your second because of the work you do."  In other words, the network of people your advisor knows is really important for that first job; you, as a beginning graduate student, are presumed to have not much of a network.

This is a holdover from the days when previous generations of scholars really did rely heavily on their advisors for their jobs.  Indeed, I think many academics in the past could get away with not networking in the sense we might mean today. A phone call was often all that was needed to land a job somewhere and if one wanted to progress, a well-placed article in a top journal could do the trick.  The network functioned much differently than it does today, for the most part. (Philosophy PhD Husband claims that his field still does kind of operate in this way.)

I wonder how true this is anymore.  OF COURSE,  letters of recommendation are extremely important and in general I suspect that having a letter from a more well-known professor is a boon for an applicant. (Though it may also be a hindrance - students of Stanley Hauerwas have long suspected that they get jobs in certain places because of their advisor's work, while not even getting a second glance in other places, because of their advisor's work.  Is this true?  We shall never find out.  The academic job search is not known for transparency.)

On the other hand, there are schools (often smaller liberal arts schools) that tend NOT to hire those from big name schools or with big name advisors because they're worried about the Attrition Effect.  That is, there's a sneaking suspicion among academics that everyone wants a job "up the ladder" and everyone wants to be at an R1 (research school with low teaching requirement) university.  Students from big name schools, it is presumed, are the ones that especially can break into R1 atmospheres, and so they're the first ones to leave smaller schools.  So why not short-circuit THAT eventuality by hiring someone who is from a less-well known school and less hireable by R1s?

It's a cultural assumption and it's not clear to me how true that is. It's just not clear to me how much of a "ladder" really exists in academia.  It seems to me that it's more about figuring out what balance of teaching, research, and service works for you, and that the R1 hankering is more of a false desire instilled in graduate school because so many PhD programs are at R1s.  Plenty of PhDs have their fill of R1 academic life in graduate school and have decided it's just not for them because they love teaching more.  Plenty of PhDs at liberal arts colleges have found ways of doing good research even while having a high teaching load - and dare I say, even do better research than some at R1s because they've had to make time to do it and stick to it more than those who have perhaps a bit too much time on their hands.  (Which is to say: when you're applying, don't preclude community college jobs or high teaching load liberal arts colleges just because the prevailing attitude in graduate school is that an R1 is the best place to be.  Community college listings, by the way, do not tend to be listed in the national conference journals.)

All of the above ought to demonstrate what I pointed out at the end of "Academic Job Search I" - so much of the job search is NOT about you.  There's an "academic voodoo" at work that will leave you scratching your head wondering, "Why NOT me? Why didn't I get that interview/job/book contract?

So instead, let's focus on the things you can worry about when it comes to networking...

1. Do rely on your advisor, but not overly so.   Definitely get your advisor's advice but don't leave it there.  Do some networking yourself.

2. Network at national conferences - Most conferences now allow graduate students to be members - use that to your advantage.  Submit a paper proposal but even if you don't get one accepted, try to get to the conference anyway.  (NB: hostels and sleeping on floors are cheap housing options.)  Publishers flock to these things.  Use the time to browse the books of various publishers to see which ones publish in your area(s).  Perhaps even talk to an editor about your project and see what the result is.  Go to publishers' cocktail parties.  Introduce yourself to speakers at panel presentations and say what/how/why their work interests you, along with mentioning that you are a graduate student at such-and-such school and might be looking for a job in the near future.

3. Network at regional and institutional conferences - Be one of the people to volunteer to pick up people from the airport, or attend dinners with guests.   Paper acceptances are often easier here; use that to your advantage because you never know where that random conversation you have after your paper session will get you.

4. Devise a graduate student conference at your institution (with help from friends) -  Getting to know graduate students in your field is an excellent way to network.  That grad student you meet this year may be on a hiring committee at an institution in a year or two. Invite a non-grad student scholar to give a keynote.  A) It can go on your CV and B) it's another person you've gotten to know.

5. Research Assistantships - Take advantage of the work your professors give you to make connections with other scholars, if those opportunities come up.  Copy editing, organizing conferences, and the like are all helpful ways to network.

6. Others?  Any one else have good networking tips for graduate students or even faculty members?

Special Tips for Women and Moms: Women, I hate to say this (I really do) but it is still the case, I think, that women are expected to "know" something about feminist theory in relation to their fields.  While I think it need not be the case that you must write a dissertation on feminism, I think it is very likely that a school will presume "feminist theory" and ask you a question about gender.  So it's a good idea at least to have familiarity with gender questions in your field and to have read some books.  Take a class if you can; otherwise attend some feminist theory sessions at conferences (or attend a feminist theory conference) and do some networking there.  Women, too, have a network - it isn't just about the "old boys' network" anymore.

[NB: Men, I think it's often seen as something uniquely good if you, too, can contribute intelligently to gender conversations.]

At the same time, a caveat: women and especially moms, may find themselves gravitating toward precisely gender related topics that they're experiencing in their lives.  I'm currently on maternity leave and find myself suddenly interested in The Moral Life of Babies.  Other topics might include the history of motherhood or marriage, the biological mothering drive, the psychology of children, et cetera.  I think it's excellent to think about these topics.  I also think you'll want to consider carefully how wedded you want to be to "traditional women's issues."  Some people end up making that their focus; others end up feeling stuck there.


  1. Regarding identity politics: I say up front, "Brian Madison is a theologian who is black; Brian Madison is not a 'black theologian' - he does the intersection of theology and natural science."

  2. That's the general way I introduce myself, too - "I do theological ethics, currently technology and theology." But n my view it still doesn't do much to mitigate the sense that one "needs to know" feminist theology. Tto what extent do you feel the need to "know" black theology? Or do you think it's not necessary? Maybe I'm making more of this than there needs to be...

  3. This is very helpful, Jana, and I agree with you on the woman = feminism.

    This topic--well, sort of this topic--recently came up in my knitting/academics group, and I was surprised to hear some push-back from the female scholars on networking.

    E.g.: "No, you shouldn't call someone on the search committee, even if you know them personally, because they will be annoyed. I would think very poorly of an applicant who called me to talk to me about the application process."

    "I don't do the whole glad-handing routine, and I'm proud of myself for it."

    "You need to invent a plausible and legitimate excuse to call so-and-so, because otherwise he'll feel like you're just grubbing for a job."

    That might be another "special tip for women/moms": networking is not cheating. It's expected and normal.

  4. Good stuff. In response to SS's friends: I actually thought it was strange when people I knew pretty well didn't mention to me that they were applying for a job posting at my institution. I think there needs to be some sort of understanding that sometimes what can be called negatively "schmoozing" and neutrally "networking" is sometimes strangely akin to something like "collegiality" or perhaps even "friendship." The trick is to maintain some sense of the nuances and learn how to be real in those connections.

  5. I feel NO need to know black theology. I don't know any black theology that any of my theologian colleagues don't know. I can name some important names, important themes, explain the importance of black liberation theology, but I have never read the entirety of any major work by Cone, West, or even Dubois. Do I want to some time? Absolutely. Do I feel it is any more necessary for me to do so than it is necessary for any of my non-African American collegues? Not in the least. What MAY be more important is that I am attentive to the importance of the concerns of black liberation theology because students and colleagues may "naturally" gravitate toward me in asking such. I will then direct them to the proper resources to dig deeply for themselves.

    In point of fact, I am personally MUCH MORE interested in feminist and womanist theologies.