It’s not who you know, it’s whom you know…

… blogger runs for cover…

According to Professor in Training, the chances of junior scientists to establish themselves as successful, respected members of the community, consequently securing a reasonably steady stream of funds to sustain their research efforts, are at least as much a function of their personal connections as they are of their investigative ability.
Is it really true ?

I do not have data, so I can only speak from personal experience and “gut feeling”, but that personal connections are important, in the scientific enterprise just as in any other human activity, is almost a truism. It seems difficult to dispute that being known by first name, enjoying a one-to-one dialogue, a relationship beyond “Dear Colleague” with those in charge of crucial decisions (e.g., funding), can have a significant impact on one’s career, especially at an early stage.

Now, does that mean that one should make a concerted effort aimed at forming such relationships ? Does it mean that one should make a point of attending conferences, or even social functions, mainly to introduce him/herself to individuals that are prominent in one’s field of research, even in the absence of any compelling scientific reason ?
That, I am not so sure.

My impression is that the personal connections that are really effective are established very early on — as early as in graduate school. The ones which I have in mind, are with one’s major professor, or one’s postdoctoral advisor, his/her close friends and colleagues, as well as fellow graduate students and postdocs (yes, even these ones, in fact they may well be the most important of all in the long run). These are born primarily out of serendipity, unplanned circumstances; the choice of a particular university, department, advisor, research group, as a venue to conduct one’s graduate or postdoctoral studies, proves instrumental in establishing them, and very often such a choice takes place (almost) randomly [0]. The kind of relationship that an advisor establishes with his own doctoral students and (to a lesser degree) his postdocs, is deep and long lasting. It is difficult to create anything similar just by meeting someone occasionally, or even corresponding regularly.

That is not to say that one should not try to keep a high profile, go to conferences, present one’s work and try and elicit the attention of as many colleagues as possible. But simply trying to pursue personal ties for the sake of promoting one’s career, in my opinion, aside from the insincerity of it all, does not really work in the end.

Notes

[0] OK, my case may be a bit extreme, but I actually took a postdoc at a place where I had not even applied.

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18 Responses to “It’s not who you know, it’s whom you know…”

  1. Schlupp Says:

    Great title.

    As for the substance of your post, I don’t know… I’m kind of a poster child for contacts other than one’s advisor being important.* I don’t think PiT meant that kissing to random asses is the most important thing, but whenever one presents one’s work at a conference, one also presents oneself in a way. Finally, inviting oneself for a talk at a fancy institution seems to work pretty well.

    *) You once wrote that graduate students should spend some time in other groups, if possible. There are of course two opinions on this subject, the one that they should and the wrong one.

  2. Schlupp Says:

    Oh, and I forgot: I met a guy who wants to “generate more visibility” in order to get a professorship. I was insincere and just nodded instead of saying what I thought, namely that a good way to “generate visibility” might be to author some of these things called “peer-reviewed publications”.

    (That said, he got a visiting position at quite a good place.)

  3. Massimo Says:

    I was specifically talking about personal contacts, and I think they are important but they happen as a consequence of you being in a specific place and working with those people. In general, if people get to know you in person when they already know of you it’s good.

    • Schlupp Says:

      Your post was a comment on PiT’s, who talked about “mentors” and “trusted colleagues”, which she’d been in contact with “for years”, which to me sounded like a fairly close contact. I don’t think that there are all that many personal contacts much closer than “mentor” and “trusted colleague” except (if everything works out as it should) advisers, so I concluded that your definition of a personal contact must be pretty restrictive. But granted, it can definitely be that it is my understanding of the terms “mentor” and “trusted colleague” that is too restrictive.

      • Massimo Says:

        Oh no, I know, you are right, I got the idea from PiT’s post, but actually I was taking it in a somewhat different direction, namely: if it is all about personal contacts, should one make an effort and/or adopt a specific strategy to establish as many personal connections as possible ? That would include approaching someone for the sole purpose of introducing myself, even without any scientific reason to do it.
        Some people think it is a good idea, I personally do not, even aside from what I might think of the sincerity or morality of it all.

      • Schlupp Says:

        OK, now I understand a bit better! I was a bit puzzled because I didn’t get that the not-so-personal-after-all connections in the third paragraph were not PiT’s. I do know people who select their postdoc place *exclusively* by affiliation and then try to forge some scientific link, and it certainly seems to work. It’s not exactly “no scientific reason at all”, but pretty close.

        Oh, and I took my current job at a place where I did not even apply and got it via a guy I had only met at two conferences.

  4. Arlenna Says:

    For myself, those conference-related personal connections are more about maintaining the ones I’ve made previously. So, if I met somebody at an interview, or a workshop, or some other kind of small group/one-on-one thing, then seeing them at a conference helps to solidify and maintain the relationship. It’s really helpful for making sure people remember me and don’t go “Uhhh, who?” if someone else asks them about me (which will be very helpful for tenure letter writing, which mentors can’t do for you as far as I know).

  5. Counterfly Says:

    As a student or a postdoc, if you like to carouse/party/drink, find out who carouses/parties/drinks. Connections made while out on the town or at student/postdoc parties I’ve found are among the strongest I’ve ever had.

    Also, having total control of one’s web presence is important. When people google your name, what do they get? Work to get rid of anything unflattering. Do you have a web page that links to your publications so their google-rank is affected?

    Networking and reputation outside your refereed publication list is absolutely important to getting a good faculty job….but everybody knows “that guy” who tries too hard at it….

  6. Anonymous Says:

    Unless one is a very skilled communicator, I fail to see how approaching some superstar and just saying something along the lines of “I’m such-and-such and I did this-and-that” would impress the superstar enough to produce any tangible benefits (say, favorable letters of recommendation and the like). Would someone enlighten me as to how people manage to get something out of these “cold” approaches (cf. “cold calls” in sales), especially in the case described by Massimo (making “a point of attending conferences, or even social functions, mainly to introduce him/herself to individuals that are prominent in one’s field of research”) when the superstar is not interested in one’s research?

    • Massimo Says:

      Let me just say, you would be surprised at what people do… πŸ™‚

      • Anonymous Says:

        I do appreciate your humour but any hints would be appreciated even more πŸ™‚ You have just piqued my curiosity :)) It looks like I am either attending the wrong conferences or I just always am in “wrong” times and places but I haven’t seen anything like the “cold” approaches of the kind that we discuss… So many thanks in advance for further input πŸ™‚

      • Massimo Says:

        I am not saying “everyone” does it, just that I see people do it all the time. For example, I was once talking to a big shot, trying to figure out why he had made some vitriolic comments about my paper (he was right of course), and in a matter of maybe ten minutes we were interrupted three times by people who wanted to introduce themselves to the big shot for no apparent purpose, or for reasons that sounded like lame excuses to me.

  7. Professor in Training Says:

    Haha – I was all ready to argue that you had taken my post out of context but I see from the comments that you didn’t πŸ™‚ The people I referred to were previous and current mentors, one of whom I’ve known for several years. I’ve never been one to seek out people based on their status and, as a pathological introvert, I find it very difficult (ie impossible) to just introduce myself to the bigwigs at meetings (I also find it impossible to kiss arse just for the sake of kissing arse). I’ve just been very fortunate that the people I’ve worked with have transitioned into being bigwigs themselves and/or have collaborated with bigwigs which then brings me into contact with heavy hitters.

  8. Calvin Says:

    Sorry to be late for the party.

    But I do think that networking makes a difference. It helps to be known in the community. I don’t think going up to people at conferences helps. Instead, at some point in your career, it is extremely helpful to be at an institution where lots of people pass through. (For me that was the University of Washington, Caltech, and Los Alamos.) This way you get to meet many if not most of the people in the field. And when you are known, you are invited to small workshops, to serve on review panels, and then you know more people, and so on.

    Where does this help? Not so much in getting a job, I think. But it really helps in getting grants. Because, assuming you have some talent and some work ethic, you will be more than just a name to the anonymous reviewers who determine your fate. And getting a grant will help you support students, maybe a postdoc, travel to meetings, all of which will allow you to get tenure and keep that job you just got.

    There are no rigid rules in academia, in case you haven’t figured that out yet, no secret to getting a job or to getting grants. There are always exceptions to the rule. But I certainly notice that, again assuming a certain base level of competence, grants going more readily to those well known and who have been at high-visibility institutions, than to those of equal ability but with less networking. I am sure that getting early exposure through many people in my field has helped me with funding. But this was being at key institutions, not foisting one’s self on others at a conference.

    • Massimo Says:

      Hi Calvin, great to hear from you.
      As you can see I suck as a blogger — essentially all commenters thought that in my post I was dismissing the importance of personal contacts, which instead I appreciate and understand (I think). What I was taking issue with, is the notion that one should actively seek to establish them, for example by trying to attend specific meetings, or even social functions, for the sole purpose of running into so-and-so and introducing oneself to that person. I know you know what I am talking about (and we both know real life examples πŸ˜‰ ).
      If personal contacts are just a natural outcome of scientific interaction, they are indeed very valuable — otherwise I do not think that they are (aside from the difficulty and awkwardness of the process of establishing them for reasons other than scientific).

      • Calvin Says:

        Yeah, and I suck at carefully reading blog posts because I was away this week at Ohio University and got up at 3 am this morning and am tired and should not write a response in that situation.

        But, germane to this post, I know quite a few faculty at OU: CB, who I knew when I was a postdoc at Caltech (and he was a grad student), CE who I met when we both were on an NSF review panel, GP who I knew when I was faculty at LSU and she was a grad student there, and SG and AS who became interested in some work I did which was originally suggested to me by a colleague at Livermore (whom I also knew from Caltech). Exactly as you describe in your blog post, I knew them from normal scientific activities. But that’s exactly how networking should work.

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