Social is Successful?

I was sitting in on a conversation with a group of ECRs this week, all sharing their anxieties and concerns about their research careers. I could relate to all those worries and what ifs, and it felt like only yesterday I was at the coal face of life as a postdoc. 


One question posed by an ambitious and earnest ECR has had me thinking about the issue of whether being highly sociable is critical to academic success. He asked: ‘One of my senior colleagues regularly tells me that I should be networking and getting out and meeting as many people as I can, as this will ensure my success in my career. Is that true?’


After mulling it over these last few days, my response is: ‘it depends’. Here’s why: 


1. Academic life involves both introversion and extroversion. 

It’s important to know which cycle or phase you’re in so you don’t expect the wrong things from yourself at the wrong times. If you’re writing up a chapter or a paper that’s overdue to the Editor, or you’re trying to get a grant proposal or a book manuscript finished, it’s not the time to be a social butterfly. But the pendulum swings – once those big investments of quiet/solo time are done, your chapter or paper or book is out in the world, it makes sense to schedule meetings, meet new people, and talk about your latest work. And the cycle needn’t be that black and white either; you could spend your morning working on a writing project while your brain is fresh, and then in the afternoon arrange meetings to get to know people or catch up with colleagues in your department or lab to hear what they’re working on and so on. 


2. Personality matters!

Academics are, typically, highly introverted but some more so than others (and some not at all). Some people love a big group of strangers and throw themselves into walking around introducing themselves to people and seeing where the conversation leads. However, if being out there in the world meeting new people, engaging in small talk leaves your more quiet or reserved nature feeling stone cold, then forcing yourself to do so will only exhaust and frustrate you. Susan Cain, author of ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’ and ‘Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverts’, writes on the topic of introversion and introverts to raise public awareness about their value in society, and their needs. She also offers practical suggestions for introverts dealing in an extrovert’s world who struggle to be valued and heard in the workplace (and other spheres of life). 


3. Finally, and arguably most importantly, what does ‘successful’ mean to you? 

If your vision of academic success is getting promoted within your University’s organisational structure, then success at that will require an understanding that 

  1. a) universities operate through informal structures (networking and training sessions,  working group discussions, post-meeting conversations, the office ‘grapevine’ or ‘talk’) as well as formal ones (such as policies, procedures, guidelines, organisational charts, strategic plans etc), and hence
  2. b) you will need to work those informal structures to do well within the organisational structure (eg being promoted to Associate Dean or Dean, Director of a School, Committee Chair etc)


Being heavily involved in the administrative, or often-called ‘service’, side of your current University may also impact on your research output, as everyone knows that Committee meetings and advisory or assessment panels can eat up most, if not all, of your days and weeks. This is where your definition of success matters; being less prolific compared to your peers may matter less to you IF you’re realising your goal/vision of making a significant contribution to your wider organisation/employer. Just take care to exercise discretion in the service commitments you accept – not all opportunities are created equal in terms of career advancement!


If, however, your vision of career success is being outstanding and prolific within your scholarly discipline, which transcends the organisation at which you’re an employee, then what matters is working your scholarly networks and fora, so that you learn about who is Editor of which journal, who has a special issue coming up that you might contribute to, or a large international project that you could collaborate on for funding etc. This may, over time, build your track record and deliver you acclaim within your disciplinary community, but will not necessarily translate into influence within your organisation unless, as mentioned, you have been building in parallel the networks, contacts and deep understanding of the ‘talk’ of your University’s organisational community. 


In short, whether you prioritise connecting or networking with a wide range of people inside and outside your University really comes down to what you’re trying to achieve in your career; whether your priority work at any given time is supportive of, or incompatible with, getting out there and having (networking) meeting after meeting; and whether becoming well connected and networked is something you feel comfortable with ‘in the doing’. 


That said, with respect to your research career, it’s important to remember that with the ever-growing demand for interdisciplinary and collaborative research, meeting and getting to know a range of people in diverse networks is important and strategic in the longer-term. You’re also not an island! Building work relationships and networks needn’t be onerous – but it does need to be consistent. So, if you’re conscious that you know very few people in either your disciplinary community or your organisational structure, and both actually matter to you, start out small: come up with a list of people you’d like to meet (or ask your senior colleagues whom they know in your field whom you should connect with), and just start working through (and adding to) the list, ‘meeting’ one per week (or per fortnight or per month) for a one-on-one coffee or a Skype call to talk about each other’s work and see where synergies lie. Over time, this small but regular investment of time will help you build the informal and social basis of your career success, whether within the administrative ranks and/or the disciplinary field.

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