Relational Networking

Relational Networking

professional networking
Today, along with over 400 grad students, academics and alt- and post-acs in various stages of their career transition, I attended Beyond the Professoriate online conference. It’s a conference for people trying to do just that–get beyond the professoriate. Some of us are former graduate students, some of us are adjuncting, some of us are in tenure-track positions or used to be or tried to be or want to be… In short, we’re a pretty varied bunch. But we all have in common the desire to “make it,” to leverage our academic experience(s) in this wild west world of job searching.

I was fortunate to have gotten some tiny glimpses behind the scenes of this conference, because I assist Jen Polk (who along with Maren Wood, is one of the co-founders of the conference) part-time on, helping with social media and storifying. So I’ve been seeing second-hand the excitement, planning, stress, anticipation building up to this third year of BeyondProf. It’s a little contagious!

I wasn’t sure what to expect–I had never attended a non-academic conference before (let alone an online one!) and I only recently joined Twitter, in part to see what this whole “live tweeting” business was. (Confession: although I’ve attended a few webinars in the past, I still spent the first few minutes of all the conference sessions stock still and in utter silence, until I’m sure that the e-conference software didn’t somehow get messed up and fail to block my sound or webcam. I don’t even know if this is possible, but it’s still a fear!)

Thank goodness the tech side of things–and every other side of things, as far as I’m concerned–went smoothly, because it shaped up to be quite a wonderful two days.

One of the biggest take-home points for me came late today, the second and final day of the conference. It was a point that Michelle Erickson (founder of PhDs at Work) raised in her talk on building a robust professional network. She said that networking is relational–begging, by contrast, is transactional.

I have heard this before… But it never really clicked in the same way it did today.

I realized I’d be a much better networker if the term “Networking” didn’t exist in the business or job-seeking lexicon. There’s too much insecurity and officiality and awkwardness surrounding that term. What if, on the other hand, we spoke of Relationship Building? Ultimately, I enjoy meeting people and having them in my life. I thrive on collaboration and making connections–between people and ideas. I like sharing thoughts and strategies, and learning from others. This all comes more or less naturally to me–in fact, I crave relationship building, despite being a pretty definite introvert. It’s probably one reason why academia and I never fully clicked–it was so lonely there!

With editing and the other freelance work that I do, I still get to work with academics. But that’s just it–I get to work with them, partner with them to polish their writing and ideas. I no longer have to sit in a dusty library corner and muse in solitude.

Plop me down in the middle of coffee with someone else, and I’ll be fine. But as soon as we call it networking, I feel like I have to be “getting something” or “pushing something” in every interaction. A product. A client. A lead. ​

Frankly, I’ve never been able to function in that kind of framework. Some of it, I’m sure, stems from my (limited) experience as a sales associate. For a short stint in college, I worked a job in retail, at a baby clothes store. Even then, wearing a uniform and being invested in the job of selling, I couldn’t push a product on my customers. My boss urged me at the checkout to ask every customer if they wanted to add an extra bandana or baby hat or water bottle to their purchase. But I couldn’t care less about those products, which no one ever took me up on anyway. I wanted to know about my customers’ lives, why they’d come into the store, whose baby they were buying for. If they asked about the product, I’d tell them–but usually, they didn’t. Not surprisingly, I was pulled from the sales staff within a week or two and asked to work inventory.Technically, that experience was in sales, not networking. But all I can remember are all the sober lectures in my boss’ office. “Talk to the customers!” She’d rail. What she meant was “Get them to buy something else!”

When I’m in a networking scenario, I still hear my boss. “Talk to the people!”

As a result, “networking” to me has always felt pushy. Vaguely dishonest somehow.

But relating? sharing? giving? That’s not corporate, that’s human.

That’s a networking I can do.

Special thanks to Jen Polk, Maren Wood and all the speakers at BeyondProf for making this conference such a helpful experience! 

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