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Sometimes It Is Whom You Know

Academics are notoriously bad at what other professionals call “networking.”

That’s partly because we tend to be loners and introverts by nature. The whole idea behind networking—meeting people just to say that we’ve met them, cultivating relationships based on self-interest rather than on mutual interests, making “contacts” instead of actual friends—is foreign to those of us who have spent our lives in libraries or laboratories, working alone or in small groups.

But we also fail at networking in part because—let’s be honest—we tend to regard the whole business with distaste. Getting to know people just so that one day they can help us out—and then calling on them when we need their help—strikes us as calculating, undignified, perhaps even unethical.

Having spent all our lives in a supposed meritocracy, we prefer to rely on more empirical measures of ability and preparedness, such as degrees earned, years of experience, and professional activities. The idea that getting a job may come down to whom you know and not what you know offends us.

Perhaps we forget, or decline to acknowledge, that there’s a human factor in the hiring equation, and that human beings are social animals. Simply put, sometimes it is whom you know.

A few months ago, I learned that a very good friend of mine had applied for a teaching post at my institution, yet he hadn’t listed me as a reference or even mentioned to me that he was applying. When I asked him why he hadn’t used my name, he replied, “I didn’t want to bother you.”

As it turns out, the person who chaired that search committee was a colleague with whom I have an excellent working relationship. I would have been happy to call that person and put in a good word for my friend.

Unfortunately, he did not get invited for an interview. But if he hadn’t been so hesitant to use a strong asset in regard to that job—a relationship with someone who already worked there—he might have been.

I’m not suggesting that, at your next conference, you start glad-handing folks you hardly know like some sleazy politician. But I would recommend that you break out of your shell long enough to meet a few people with whom you seem to have some common interests.

And in the meantime, how about those friends from graduate school whom you’ve lost contact with? Do you know where they are now? What about some of the younger professors? Are they still there at the same institution, or have they moved on? If you’re looking for actions you can take right now to improve your chances of landing a full-time job the next time around, reconnecting with some of those folks would be a good place to start.

After all, you never know when one of them might be in a position to put in a good word for you. And if you find out that’s the case, for goodness’ sake, don’t hesitate to ask.

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