Academic spy networks (and why you need one)

First, a fire update! Thank you SO much for your messages of love and support in response to my last post. Thank you to everyone who donated to our P2 mask appeal: it was wildly successful and is now closed. We gave out an astonishing 3500 masks and donated the excess (some $1500) to our local aboriginal community.

So far I’m pleased to report I have survived the Australian ‘Red Summer’ with home and family intact – so far. It’s been eventful since I last updated you. On the 20th of January, golfball sized hail stones hit the capital and came down particularly hard on our ANU campus:

The 10 minute storm was ferocious almost beyond belief.  It broke car windows, windows and skylights all over campus. 80 out of 120 campus buildings were damaged. Luckily no one in the ACT was killed, but a few people have broken bones from falls.

Seeing disaster movie hail in real life is pretty terrifying, even if it’s only real time social media fragments. I happened to be in New Zealand during #hailmageddon, at a lovely writing retreat run by the famous Helen Sword on Weihake Island. I felt a bit of survivor’s guilt while I contemplated the clear blue skies around me:

The writing break was good and productive, but I came back to reality when I saw our shattered campus. In the end, well over 11,000 cars were totalled in the ACT, a huge number of them in campus ground parking. There are not enough tow trucks in Canberra to cope with a disaster of this size; many cars are still sitting there. Luckily ANU suspended parking fines for the time being or there would have been riots!

It’s a bit like working on the set of Mad Max at the moment – wrecked cars and trees stripped of leaves. Here’s a shot of the car park outside my office last week:

Photo by Ran002 on Reddit

Sadly, just as Australia leaves the front pages of the news in favour of the Corona virus (!), the fires finally hit the Australian Capital Territory. Last week a helicopter landing light started a fire, which has now burnt most of the national park on the south side of the city – fully one quarter of the ACT land area already. Honestly: you can’t make this stuff up! Here’s a rather astonishing (and terrifying) night shot showing the lights of Canberra suburbs being threatened by the glowing red fire in the South:

I live on the north side of town, so the fire does not directly threaten my house, but many friends spent sleepless nights watching it come closer and closer. So far the containment lines have held, but it will burn for at least a month. The unpredictability is new – fires continue to burn in the heart of trees and through root systems, springing up again when the weather gets hot. The danger is not over yet.

I can’t even think about the enormous loss of wildlife and beautiful bushland. It breaks my heart. Australians are terrible at environmental policy (as most of the world now knows), but truly great at fire-fighting. We are a rich country with a lot of resources, so we have coped ok. We will rebuild human infrastructure, but much of our naturally beautiful land won’t ever be the same. The ACT ESA and ANU management have been beacons of calm helpfulness in the chaos. There is a lot to still be thankful for, but I’m not going to lie – it’s been really hard.

Still another month to go…

The only good thing I can say about this summer in Canberra is that it drew us closer together. People who had never met were hugging on the streets and on campus as we shared stories of loss and terror. Helping each other in a crisis is a good way to bond. I have a fresh appreciation for my network of Canberra friendships, which brings me to my topic for this month: connections.

You hear a lot about the importance of connections in academia. One sure way to make the post PhD job hunt easier is to build good networks. Consider this tweet from Chris, which was sent out just after Christmas last year:

Despite sending out 200+ resumes and applying for jobs, Chris reports opportunities came from people in his professional network. As the old saying goes: it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

Don’t let the appearance of ‘fairness’ around academic and government appointments fool you. Connections still matter. All my academic jobs have come via networks. My current job was created for me; the previous two happened because someone recommended me to the hiring manager. Before that, I was a casual academic, relying on academic ‘patrons’ to offer me work semester by semester.

Come to think on it: networks have always been crucial to making a living. My two uni jobs – in a book store and then a record store – happened via personal recommendations; as did every single job in architecture I had over a 10 year period. In fact, other than my very first job at Coles supermarket, I have never successfully applied for a job in the ‘normal’ way. Yet I have been continuously employed since I was 14 years old.

Maybe I write shitty application letters or don’t interview well, but I don’t think so.  As my research interest in employability has grown, I’ve discovered that many (white) people have similar experiences. A strong recommendation behind the scenes can get you on the short list; even push you to the top. And yes – I put the ‘white’ in brackets there to remind everyone that white people tend to mostly have white friends – and white friends are very helpful in academia, because, well – it is still very white (more on this later)

Advice on networking in academia (plenty of which I have handed out myself) tends to focus on introducing and ‘selling yourself’ to strangers. In reality, as I’m sure you’ve worked out yourself, the networking thing is much more complicated than saying hello to a new colleague at the conference tea table. ‘Professional networking’ is quite a clinical term which doesn’t really capture the kind of relationships I’m talking about. I’m going to sum it up my own approach to academic networking in a sentence:

Good networking is about making friends who can help you in your career.

Does that sentence feel a bit … wrong? Maybe the reason people talk about networking as meeting new people is because talking about what your friends can do for you makes you feel a bit … squeamish? In Australia it’s almost taboo to talk this way (I’ll be interested to hear what people in other places say), but my friendships are, and continue to be, extremely important professionally as well as personally. In fact, there’s no distinction in many cases: it’s a happy mash up of the two.

Blogging has resulted in a huge network of contacts all over the world. If I want to get something done or need an opinion on an idea, I can usually drop an email to someone who is an expert in that area, which is an amazing privilege. But I rely heavily on those in my closest friends in the #circleofniceness for more than just information or resources. I  know they will help me if I ask – and I will do the same for them.  I care about what happens to my friends and want to help them with their goals. I’ll give them early information on opportunities and trouble heading over the horizon; I rely on them to do the same for me. We share what we know about others so we can make decisions about who to trust – and who to avoid.

You could call this kind of talk ‘gossip’, but I think that’s a poor characterisation of a rich social tapestry. For many (particularly women, people dealing with chronic health conditions and anyone who identifies as a minority) so called ‘gossip’ is actually vital social information that can help you survive in a hierarchical, competitive profession. When I was being bullied in my previous job, my friends were a lifeline and the only way I got through each day with heart and soul intact. I’ve seen people who do not have friends to debrief and guide them suffer greatly at the hands of others, which is why I try to be a lifeline myself.

So I keep my friends close – but where does friendship stop and nepotism begin? This is complex social territory to navigate, which is why most workshops tend to ignore the friendship aspects of networking, but let’s be brave and go there.

It’s important to realise that not all social networks are the same. People have studied the kind of friendship networks that tend to bring you more ‘luck’ on the job market and the results are interesting. I want thank my dear friend Geraldine for bringing my attention to a famous paper called ‘The strength of weak ties’, by Mark Granovetter. The paper, from way back in 1973, is one of the earliest to use social network analysis to understand how small scale interactions between people result in larger scale social patterns.

According to Granovetter, a strong social tie has an emotional intensity, built in part by practices of mutual confiding. Think about the people you will talk to when something bad happens: those people will probably call you when bad stuff happens in their life too. Confiding in each other builds intimacy. If the people you confide in also know each other, this can build strong friendship circles. This is the #circleofniceness in essence. Friendship circles tend to form into larger ‘clusters’, where people from each circle know and trust each other, to a greater or lesser extent. You might have closer contact with some than others, but your friendship cluster are all people who would be genuinely sad at your funeral.

Although your good friends can help you in the job market, weak ties are often more useful. Weak ties are connections you have into friendship clusters beyond your own: people who know and trust the people you know, but who are not your friends. Let’s call them ‘friends in law’. Although you might have met these people at an event or gathering, your mutual friend is your only real connection to each other. These are the people who will hear about your funeral later, from your mutual friend. They will express sympathy, but not be really sad because they might know you, but they don’t know you. If you know what I mean.

Why are weak ties valuable on the job market? They are your spy network.

Your spy network knows stuff that you don’t know, especially about upcoming opportunities. People you are weakly connected to have their own friendship clusters. They have intimate, trusting contact with people you don’t know at all. If you let all your social network know when you are looking for a job, your name might reach people who are looking to hire via these networks. When your name appears in a list of resumes, your friends in law are more likely to short list you because they kind of know you – at least by reputation. Sometimes this is just enough to give you the edge over someone else who is equally qualified.

The more weak ties you have, the more the effect is multiplied – which is why it’s advantageous to have a lot of social contacts with people who don’t know each other. The recommendations that flow through the weak ties in your networks are powerful because they ‘borrow trust’ from the strong social ties they pass through.

For example, I got my previous job, initially a pregnancy replacement position, in part at least, because my masters supervisor (who was a friend before she supervised me) was best friends with the woman going on leave. As it happens, my other supervisor was the husband of the woman going on leave, so the pregnant colleague had information about me and my capacities from two people she trusted. The hiring manager was not the woman going on leave, but the recommendation of my supervisors was passed on to him by her. The ‘borrowed trust’ in this network definitely worked in my favour. I later found out that five people interviewed for that maternity leave job and I was the only one without a PhD (a desired criteria – I didn’t even have my masters degree awarded at the time). The hiring manager probably shouldn’t have hired me, certainly not on my qualifications alone, but he was well disposed to find me impressive and apparantly I did interview well, sealing the deal.

At the time, I saw this chain of events as luck, but maybe it’s better to see it as the intersection of privilege, preparation and opportunity; supercharged by network relations. The recommendation would never have worked if I had not visibly demonstrated my capability to the network  in the first place. The social knowledge that people have about you is built every day, in every small interaction. that’s why I call it a spy network: it is always watching you, at a distance.

Many people have pointed out that your social network is a form of ‘capital’, like money in the bank. And this is where the racism comes in.

White people have had positions of power and influence for a long time in Australia and many other countries. If your friendship network is very white, you are likely to have more ‘friends in law’ who can help you. One way to push against this kind of structural disadvantage is to conciously work on building a diverse and strong friendship network. It shouldn’t be left to people who aren’t white to do all this work: having a more diverse network of friends is good for everyone and mitigates these bullshit inequities.

A diverse range of professional friends is going to be beneficial on so many fronts. Don’t sit back and wait for friends to emerge; seek out potential friends actively. There are a number of strategies you can employ.

You will automatically be part of a peer to peer network in your school or department. Peer networks are great for emotional support right now, but the friends you make when you are studying will become more than emotional support as time goes on. 10 years ago, the people I did my PhD with were struggling on the job market, now many are well established in their careers. I will ask them for recommendations when I have a position open in my team – and they will ask me.

You grow your peer to peer networks by simply going to the social events in your faculty and talking to people – so go! This is not time away from work: this is the work.

You will suffer disadvantage if you are not able to attend school or faculty events because of family obligations, work or distance. But it is easy to maintain a ‘light touch’ friendship online. Seize any opportunity you get to meet people in your department or faculty by attending what social events you can and use technology to do the rest. Online friendships can be surprisingly powerful; some of my best friends were made through ongoing contact on Twitter.

Watch out for the tendency to seek people similar to yourself – this means reaching out consciously to new people and people who seem ‘shy’. Some people might not feel comfortable and avoid social situations where they are clearly in a minority and I think it’s incumbent on those in the majority to make these people feel more welcome. In Australia, cultural divides are made worse by alcohol. Not all cultures drink – or drink to the level that is common in Australia. The Australian booze culture is not always experienced as ‘friendly’. It can feel weird and embarrassing to be in a room full of drunk people. We stopped having any alcohol at our events a couple of years ago and it made a huge difference; people who used to quietly melt away stayed on to talk much longer.

Your knowledge networks are important too. These are the networks of people studying in related fields or with similar interests. You meet these people at conferences and professional meetings – or you are introduced to them by your supervisors and peers. These networks are characterised by strong ‘horizontal’ and ‘vertical’ ties. You will be connected with people of all ages and stages by your knowledge networks. The weak ties in these networks are rich with opportunity. The best way to cultivate friendships within your knowledge networks is through going to conferences, but attending can be expensive. You can also explore how to become more involved with a research society or group. Editing or peer-reviewing a society journal, volunteering on the board or helping to organise a conference can be a good way to bond with people in your research community.

Cultivating friendships outside the academic community is critical for people who plan to leave at the end of their PhD – it’s almost too late to build these networks when you finish. We built the PostAc app to help you find the right industries to target. Even people who plan to stay can’t neglect industry connections. The tactics and behaviours that you need to be successful at ‘cold call’ professional networking are complex, but the skills are well worth developing. If you’re looking for more advice, the best book I’ve ever read on this topic is ‘Navigating the path to Industry’ by MR Nelson, which is currently $2.79 on Amazon: less than a coffee.

As I said before, talking about networking as friendship is a bit tricky because friendship is not a commodity. If you only take from your friends, they wont last long. And you can’t fake a friendship either; although I am sure some people do.

Genuine friendships – even light touch ones where you don’t see each other often – need reciprocity to survive. My friend Tseen Khoo over on the Research Whisperer writes sensitively about The care and feeding of critical friends, which is well worth a read. I agree with Tseen on every point: if you concentrate on the giving side of the friendship equation, the rest will work out.

I’m interested in what you think. Do you have a valuable academic spy network? Has it helped you get jobs in the past? What sort of structural barriers have you faced in making friends in academia and what have you done to try to address them? I’d be very interested to hear about successful strategies in the comments.

Related posts

Academic assholes and the #circleofniceness

How to make academic friends and influence people

The care and feeding of critical friends (on the Research Whisperer)


Information about PostAc

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5 thoughts on “Academic spy networks (and why you need one)

  1. Kate McKeon says:

    Well said about Weak Ties!

    I support 20somethings who hope to step into very big roles within Industry or family legacy (not academia). After a significant amount of professional bullying spanning sexual harassment to gaslighting (which one may never discover), I ended up working solo and quite isolated from humans by choice. It has afforded me the opportunity to see a path forward for helping others build more of these weak ties through interaction – where no one need know your skin color, gender or socioeconomic status – a merit-based weak tie builder.

    My private students have “all the bells and whistles” in terms of privilege (i teach remotely). They have far fewer opportunities to expand weak ties down the socioeconomic chain because there’s no obvious need. But when they interact with someone who puts together a strong argument a weak bond can be forged. In my private practice this has led to loads of jobs. I think I’ve finally cracked the nut on how to scale the weak tie builder among people not obviously looking.

    Just wanted to send a thumbs up and thank you for reiterating the notion.

  2. M J Curry says:

    A very important topic and the point is clearly made that ‘networking’ in a professional context is not the sleazy working the room kind of networking many of us would run away from in horror! Theresa Lillis and I have published on the role played by academic research networks in a couple of articles and a chapter in our publications including our 2010 book Academic Writing in a Global Context. I’m happy to share our 2010 article ‘Academic Research Networks: Accessing resources for English-medium publishing, published in English for Specific Purposes, if anyone contacts me directly.

  3. Shari Walsh - Resilient Researcher says:

    Great post Inger. Our strong and weak connections are valuable in our careers as well as personal life. The success of your mask campaign would have been assisted by many weak connections who may not have a strong relationship with you but can offer support when needed.

    Being authentic in interactions and being a giver rather than a taker is important. Many postgraduates tell me that they don’t feel they have anything to offer. I disagree – they have their interest in the other person, information to share and also the ability to assist when needed.

  4. stevewalton2014 says:

    Thanks for a stimulating post, Inger—and I mean both parts. The “fire and rain” section (to echo James Taylor) is amazing—I am impressed by the resilience of Aussies in handling this, while horrified at what global warming is doing. The second part is fascinating, and helpful. I like your emphasis on being intentional but not mercenary in developing friendships—in my case my previous job came through a friend of a friend’s recommendation, and my present one came through me approaching a friend.

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