Networking, part I

You’re a graduate student due to finish soon. Or perhaps you’ve just started your first postdoc appointment, or your first tenure-track position. You’ve heard many times that networking is important for your career. Unfortunately, you’ve gotten very little specific advice on how exactly you’re supposed to do it: who to approach, how to write letters, how to attract attention to your work, what to do at conferences.

I’m planning to write a few posts about networking – its goals, its mechanics, its traps. (Especially its traps. It’s a rather entertaining subject.) Please keep in mind that this is not A Mathematician’s Complete Guide To Networking. I’m not qualified to write one, and besides, there are plenty of complete guides on networking, habits of effective people, and so on at your local bookstore. What you’ll find here is a variety of things that I wish someone had told me way back when.

We’ll start with an excerpt from Zahir by Paulo Coelho, which I read last summer. I’m not sure that I buy the somewhat questionable metaphysics therein, given how much of it runs contrary to my own life experience. However, Coelho’s social observations tend to be right on the spot. Some, such as this description of the crowd at a literary award ceremony, are absolutely priceless:

I draw up a catalogue of the kind of people who attend events like this. Ten percent are Members, the decision makers, who came out tonight because of some debt they owe to the Favor Bank, but who always have an eye open for anything that might be of benefit to their work […] They can soon tell whether or not the event is going to prove profitable or not, and they are always the first to leave the party; they never waste their time.

Two percent are the Talents, who really do have a promising future; they have already managed to ford a few rivers […]; they have important services to offer, but are not as yet in a position to make decisions. They are nice to everyone because they don’t know who exactly they are are talking to, and they are more open than Members, because, for them, any road might lead anywhere.

Three percent are what I call the Tupamaros – in homage to the former Uruguayan guerilla group. They have managed to infiltrate this party and are mad for any kind of contact; they’re not sure whether to stay or to go on to another party that is taking place at the same time; they are anxious; they want to show how talented they are, but they weren’t invited, they haven’t scaled the first mountains, and as soon as the other guests figure this out, they immediately withdraw any attention they have been paying them.

The last eighty-five percent are the Trays. I call them this because, just as no party can exist without that particular utensil, so no event can exist without these guests. The Trays don’t really know what’s going on, but they know that it’s important to be there; they are on the guest list drawn up by the promoters because the success of something like this also depends on the number of people who come.

Something to think about next time you attend a conference banquet or a departmental social event.

There’s a whole lot that could be said here, but I will keep it down to two things. One is that you should not mistake social popularity for a professional reputation. Mingling with people can be fun, and free food and drinks are always good, but the bottom line is that your professional reputation is based on your work and not on your interest in mingling. In other words, networking works much better once you have something to offer, because then people start to see you differently. A person with better social skills will be able to get a better deal selling their work, but if you have no work to sell, then social skills will get you a free sandwich and a cookie.

Second – according to Coelho’s statistics, most of us are Trays most of the time. Did I mention already that there is nothing wrong with free food and drinks? But before you go, you might want to think about whether the event has any other purpose than socializing and, if so, whether you support that purpose. Your presence can count as a vote. It’s a good idea to be aware of this.

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