The Tangibility of a Social Network

One of the questions we asked in our surveys of adjuncts and post-adjuncts was about the nature of post-graduation support from one’s mentor and alma mater. I wondered whether any advisers cut former advisees off at some point; i.e. would anyone cut a student off from letters of recommendation after a few unsuccessful years on the job market? And, along opposite lines, I wondered if any institutions gave alumni more than letters of recommendation.

The long and short of it is that no, no one in our pool of respondents had encountered committee members who cut them off from letters of recommendation. But for most alumni, that’s about all they can count on. A few respondents reported being able to adjunct to greater or lesser degrees in their home departments; one respondent claimed that his or her dissertation advisers bought him or her a new car (free cars would really increase the value of a Ph.D.!). And there also seems to be a lot of commiserating and emotional support for the jobless. But that doesn’t seem to get anyone very far.

In this vein, one of Karen Kelsky’s recommendations that I think needs to be unpacked is her advice around working with faculty with high placement rates for their advisees. In a Chronicle of Higher Education summary of her professionalization philosophy, she suggests that ‘Before committing to an adviser, find out how many Ph.D.’s that potential mentor has placed in tenure-track positions in recent years.’ ‘Placement’ here is really misleading, and it’s highly unlikely that it’s entirely reducible to one’s adviser or to one’s alma mater. But those things surely matter. Instead, I would suggest that what pays off more than who you work with on your dissertation committee is your social network more broadly conceived.

There’s no denying that social networks do a lot of work. And the social network that you establish with faculty and graduate students at your degree granting institution consists of some of the strongest connections you’ll make – and with good reason. There’s often a shared intellectual foundation based on coursework and departmental expectations. There’s also a diversity of topical and theoretical interests – the breadth and depth of which is rarely captured so neatly in one place later in one’s career. And there’s also the sort of bonding that occurs through any shared institution – a sense that people from that place approach the world in a particular way and have particular strengths. Which can result in exceptionalism, and can also lead to nepotism.

That all being said, what do social networks actually do? Maybe it’s better to first say what they don’t do: it’s unlikely that one day there will be someone on the other side of a job search committee that you know in some intimate way who will be able to convince his or her colleagues that you’re the right person for the job. Yes, that’s probably happened, but it’s more rare than the mythology of social networks would seem to point to. In fact, the power of social networks is simultaneously much more diffuse and direct.

Social networks: help you arrange conference panels, put together special issues of journals and edited collections, serve as peer reviewers for article and book manuscripts, recommend you to others for publishing and teaching opportunities, review grant and fellowship applications, and eventually review tenure files. They might not directly get you a job, but they do the work that can lead to you getting a job, namely serving as peer reviewers for article manuscripts (that’s what the ‘recommended reviewer’ slots are for, after all). And throughout all this social activity, colleagues should be helping you generate and refine ideas – which is why a diverse social network (across institutions and topical and theoretical areas) is important to foster. And the larger the network, the more you can benefit from it.

I recommend that graduate students start working on their social networks early, and that they take seriously this part of the profession – in no small part because it can pay off in the long run. One of the exercises I encourage graduate students to do is to imagine who they could ask to review their tenure file (or who they would want to do so). They need more senior people than themselves, and they also need a mix of people who can speak to their topical and theoretical contributions. Generating that list of 6-8 names gives you a sense of who you want in your social network, and might also give you a sense of how to get them (e.g. organizing conference panels together).

To get back to where I started, selecting an adviser and dissertation committee is part of this project of developing a social network. Consider the placement issue that Kelsky raises, but also consider why placement has been high or low. Past success (or failure) isn’t necessarily predictive of future success (or failure).

Projects in anthropology – and especially in cultural anthropology – can be dramatically different in their topic, theoretical contributions, and disciplinary relevance. Which is to say that the success of any individual dissertation in catching the attention of search committees or editors is fairly idiosyncratic. Sometimes a dissertation adviser or committee just lends legitimacy to a project with their letters of recommendation; other times their contributions can be more profound. So are placements high or low because of the projects that people have done? Or is it because of the people they worked with? These are questions that you can ask current and past advisees.

How active are the people you’re thinking about working with? If they’re late in their careers, they might not be circulating quite as much as they used to be. And many of their social contacts might also be late in their careers – the longevity of the social connectivity they’ll provide (not to be unduly morbid) might be comparatively short-lived. But it’s worth taking a look at people’s social networks: where did they graduate from, what professional societies they participate in at the leadership level, whether or not they currently or previously edited journals, whether or not they still show up to professional conferences – all of which can usually be found in someone’s CV. Usually the best faculty in this respect are late associates and early full professors – tenure is long behind them, they might have a couple of books under their belts, they have a reputation in the field, and they should be active for another 15-20 years.

It’s also worth mentioning that interpersonal relations should be a big part of anyone’s committee selections: if the people who have a lot of success in placing students are also difficult to get along with, absent much of the time, or overcommitted and have little time for deep engagement, they might not be the best people to work with – at least not as a primary adviser.

Like an institutional name, advisers and committee members can associate you with a particular ‘brand’ – and sometimes the strength of that brand can overpower the product. The best way to utilize this brand is in association with other social network benefits – that is, using it as a means to get your foot in other doors. Relying on one’s committee and alma mater just isn’t enough these days – even if they can provide you letters of recommendation in perpetuity.

2 thoughts on “The Tangibility of a Social Network

  1. Perhaps it’s also important to mentor students from the beginning (as in undergraduate programs) to do network. It’s a skill that varies by profession and by class. As someone who came from the working class, I can attest that this is a sociocultural context, networking is an alien practice to some of us. Kinship and neighbors make up our relevant social milieu. Some students may benefit from a bit of mentoring in the ways and means of social networking as academics. As a former military spouse and a former business school graduate, academic networking is its own specialized practice.
    It’s not completely generalizable.

    And some students may be juggling more demands on their time and finances than in the past so that finding the time to network may itself be a huge challenge.

  2. As my committee chair I chose an assistant professor who had never graduated a student before. Maybe this was (for multiple reasons) a mistake. I guess somebody’s got to go first, right?

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