Next week, I will be speaking at a career development workshop for female Oxford graduate and masters students. One of the things I want to focus on is the importance of building out a broad, strong, supportive professional network.
Academia is built on trust and personal relationships. Rarely are people invited as speakers at conferences, workshops etc purely on the basis of merit. Merit is an important consideration, but people want additional information (e.g., is she a good speaker, will she turn up?) that they can acquire through their network, either by directly knowing the potential invitee, or by knowing others who know her. People from one’s network can alert one to opportunities, including job opportunities. Without a professional network, one has no letter writers (except the advisor and readers of the dissertation), one is excluded from many aspects of academic life that thrive on trust and personal relationships, such as being a keynote speaker or contributing to an edited volume. Moreover, people from one’s network provide opportunities for mentoring, friendship and mutual support in the very competitive environment that is academia. If one has to move state or country and has to leave friends and family behind, the ability to be able to fall back on a network of professional comrades for support and friendship is very valuable. Therefore, I will advise the students to work on their networks early on, and to nurture them.
But there are problematic aspects to networking. Ned Dobos has argued that career networking is ‘an immoral attempt to gain an illegitimate advantage over others’. He makes clear that he doesn’t target emotional networking - plain old socialising - but specifically career networking, networking in the context of advancing one’s career, especially, but not uniquely, one’s job prospects.
It does not seem clear to me, however, whether we can make a clean separation between career networking and emotional networking, especially in academia, where (for reasons I outlined above) the people in one’s professional network and one’s emotional (friend) network overlap to some extent. Dobos offers several arguments against the legitimacy of career networking. Insofar as the search process is meritocratic, career networking is morally objectionable because it attempts to distort the meritocratic allocation of positions, in a process analogous to bribery, or to ‘earwigging’ attempting to persuade judges outside of the formal process. In both cases, the career networker obtains an unfair advantage. Is it possible to engage in ethical career networking?