I just came back from giving an all-day series of workshops on the job market at University of Alaska-Fairbanks, and one of the workshops was dedicated to networking. We delved into academic networking, and then we delved into the world of postac/non-ac networking. I was at pains in both of them to point out that networking is NOT just ‘sucking up to important people.’ Rather, it’s building relationships with a wide variety of people who occupy a variety of positions in your area of professional interest. As such, it’s not just vertical or hierarchical; rather, think of it as spherical. Networking includes building relationships with people who occupy a whole range of positions in your various social systems, and not only the powerful movers and shakers. It really is thinking more in terms of a rich and engaging “web” of connections. The uncertainty principle that I talk about in the academic job search applies here too, although differently: in this case, you really NEVER KNOW which of your many connections might ultimately be the conduit to that line on a new position, “in” with the interviewer, or insight into a new professional field. Be open, and cast your net widely.
By Dr. Karen Cardozo
You’ve been caught in the sticky web of academia. Now you need to spin your own web (like Charlotte, you can incorporate your own words and maybe save a life besides). While making new connections is readily aided and abetted by social media, you shouldn’t underestimate talking to people in real places in real time to find out “what’s out there” and how you can lure it in.
Above all, one thing bears emphasizing:
This process is the antithesis of the academic search! In few other sectors are job descriptions posted a year in advance of the start date and candidates so expensively, painstakingly, and time-consumingly selected by committee. While there is plenty of cronyism in academe, typically, faculty hiring is not done unilaterally but through an arduous process designed to solicit (or pretend to solicit) communal input. The rest of the world operates largely on autocratic and just-in time hiring as well as “right place, right time, right connection” dynamics to slot candidates into positions. Yes, academe is increasingly a just-in-time operation as well, so networking doesn’t hurt there either, but you take my point: the academic search process (including conference interviews) is not the norm in the wider world of work.
As a result, networking looms particularly large on the Alt/Post-Ac market. You need to think of “it” as a regular activity, like eating, sleeping, or working out (hmm – have you not done much of those lately either? Remember, taking care of yourself WILL help you perform better on the job market, as well as maintain some perspective). Being engaged in a robust networking practice means you have your ear to the ground, and are steadily increasing your exposure to others whose ears are also to the ground. With all those ears on so much square footage (I wish I were a gifted cartoonist right now), someone will eventually respond when you announce your availability and describe your capabilities and interests. So, let’s get started with Web Spinning 101 (sounds nicer than networking doesn’t it?).
Who and Where
Selecting your “targets” is often a misunderstood aspect of networking. For many, the dreaded term conjures up suits and fancy business functions, or hours spent loitering near elevators till you just “happen” to bump into the CEO. By all means, don’t ignore large, important or relevant gatherings where you can meet up with those who have leadership or hiring influence [obvious contenders: trade association meetings; conferences (even academic ones); civic events in the region you want to work].
For such events, yes: dress appropriately, carry business cards (you can get simple ones fairly cheaply online with your name and contact info, perhaps including a website with more information) and prepare an “elevator pitch” using one of your major transferable skills: distillation. You’ve written a dissertation abstract for god’s sake. You can sum up your life and career goals in 30 seconds, no problem!
However, as the selectivity of FaceBook friends or Linked In connections demonstrates, networking is most effective when someone who knows you well, is invested in seeing you do well, and/or simply wishes you well* is willing to endorse you for a job, meet with you to share advice or information, circulate your resume, or use their own influence to get you in the door.
*Sorry if the tripartite criteria eliminates most of your academic department!
This means that some of the most useful networking is really going to happen in THESE kinds of places and situations: walking your kid/dog/pet tarantula around town, dinners and parties, coffee shops, the gym, the childcare center, PTO meetings, book club, religious services, weddings, or family and college reunions. Don’t neglect your alumni network either (a concept that makes more sense in U.S. educational contexts than in countries with nationalized public higher education): whether or not YOU feel the bond, the idea that you are somehow kin to those with whom you went to school can be a relatively easy means of finding people who work in fields or places of interest; some alumni or campus career offices will even help you find them. Especially if you are relatively introverted, THIS is the way network – with people you already know and around whom you are reasonably comfortable.
Don’t presume you know who’s “worth” talking to, either. While what you know about someone may make it appear that they are not perfectly positioned for your interests, each person has their own friends, family members, and employers, as do their friends, family members and employers! So just talk. And then talk some more. [Also, take good notes and keep good records.] Thus does your web begin to take form….
Don’t get me wrong: I continue to be impressed by the kindness of strangers. As Wandering Scientist suggests, most people like to talk about themselves, and are genuinely sympathetic about how tough the job market is. So don’t neglect to reach out to a stranger or pursue something of deep interest because your personal network doesn’t align with it. Just know that you may have to crank up your creativity and persistence to get seen and heard in such “cold calling” cases. A higher percentage networking practice involves working outward from your closest personal connections.
What to Say
Your main messages: 1) I am looking for a job—not in a bitter failed-academic way, but in a ready-to-make-an-exciting-change kind of way (fake it till you make it!), 2) I am a good and trustworthy person (i.e. vouching for me will not soil your reputation); 2) I am sensible, smart and versatile: my academic skills along with a, b, and c experiences have left me well-situated to do x, y and z.
Your main questions: 1) Have you heard about any job openings? 2) Can you think of anything that might fit my background in particular? 3) How did YOU get into your job/field? 4) Whom else should I talk to?
SIDEBAR TIP: Unless your contact knows you are unemployed (if you are), it’s always best to present yourself as someone in one work situation looking for a better fit. Here’s where academe’s baffling inner workings can provide some cover. You may be thinking, “I only have two months to finish this damn dissertation, and I don’t have a job … AAAGHHH!” But you can say: “I’m at the University focusing on my research right now, but I’d love to apply what I’ve learned to the nonprofit world.”
Besides communicating the above, the end game is simple: don’t leave without another lead – a contact name, a tip about a job opening, a suggestion about where to get more information. If you’re in a limited field or regional search, you will feel the 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon effect pretty soon. You’ll know you’re doing a thorough job when the same information begins to resurface in different settings. At that point just stay on the radar and keep that ear to the ground. For anyone willing to entertain a broader search (by function or field or region), networking can be engaged to infinity and beyond. But hopefully you will land a job before you have to go there!
How and When
No time is “off limits” for networking, so spin your web at every opportunity. But be sensitive to what can be accomplished when. You may wish to adjust your tone and approach for, say, a funeral (which suggests—a little gallows humor here—that a job may have just opened up). Bumping into someone in the grocery store might require a follow-up coffee date or informational interview** rather than forcing your potential mentor to watch their ice-cream melt while you run down your list of attributes.
Always accommodate others as much as possible; be willing to go on their dog walk if that’s when they’re available. Don’t become the person that they will eventually pretend not to see in the grocery store! Always, always, say thank you and express your genuine appreciation for the time and support others have given. And: pay it forward. Responding to others’ networking inquiries – in addition to being decent – is also an organic way of expanding your own web.
I think you know.
** An informational interview (“I’d love to take you to coffee and learn more about your company/job/career path” or “Could we set up a time for me to come by your office and discuss this a bit more?”) is a great way to accomplish the goals of getting someone on board with your potential job candidacy while gaining information you need.. Both parties tend to have a more genuine exchange when there isn’t a specific job on the line.
However, never think that informational interviews aren’t “real” interviews – they CAN lead to a job if people are impressed by and remember meeting you. So remember: whatever the circumstances, you are always ON when you are networking . While you can’t control the time frame in which results happen, you CAN ensure that you’re “out there” in sufficient measure and appear attractively ripe for the plucking when the right time comes along.