Jenny Baker
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Academics’ Forum: On Creating Effective Professional and Personal Networks

Cindy Maupin, Binghamton University

As a networks researcher, I find myself constantly thinking about how patterns of social relationships impact our everyday lives, including our lives as junior academics! Just like other industries and career paths, our networks—both professional and personal—can matter a lot for our success and well-being. But what makes an effective network? How can academics build effective networks for both their professional and personal lives?

The great news is there is a ton of research we can use to help answer this question. In particular, a fantastic networks scholar (and a great mentor of mine!) Kristin Cullen-Lester and her colleagues (2016) tackled this issue and found that effective networks are those that are open, diverse, and deep. An open network is one where an individual’s contacts are not well-connected to one another, allowing unique information to spread across the network and reducing echo chambers. Meanwhile, a diverse network is one in which your contacts are from different backgrounds, life experiences, industries, demographics, and more, which helps you to challenge your own assumptions and better understand the perspectives of others. Last, deep networks are ones where you have strong connections with your contacts so that you can ask for help and support, professionally and/or personally. In considering these important network characteristics, I have put together a road map for junior academics to follow in order to build effective networks that facilitate success in both their professional and personal lives.

1. How can I create an open network?

One of the key ways to create an open network is by expanding your contacts to include people from different social and professional groups that are outside of your comfort zone. Although it can sometimes be tempting to stick to our familiar, closed networks that we developed during graduate school (i.e., those that are very cohesive where “everyone knows everyone else”), we risk missing out on unique perspectives and ideas when we only talk to people who are receiving the same information and advice that we are. Instead, making friends and/or initiating collaborations with people who were trained in different graduate programs, who have different areas of research, and/or who are academics at different institutions can be incredibly helpful. One of the best ways to initiate the process of opening up your network is to connect with—and maintain contact with—other junior academics at professional conferences. I was fortunate to have met a group of amazing junior scholars through a Junior Faculty Workshop at the most recent Academy of Management conference, and we continue to meet up virtually every few months so we can discuss our successes and challenges and offer advice for overcoming those challenges. I’ve learned so much from this group already, and I know they will continue to be a great sounding board as we all progress through the tenure process and beyond!

2. How can I create a diverse network?

Creating a diverse network starts with critically evaluating your current network of contacts to identify areas of substantial homogeneity. For instance, are the majority of your contacts from one discipline or area of expertise? Do they identify with the same demographic groups that you do? Have they had the same life experiences as you have had? By considering these questions (and also adding your own!) you can identify where your network is overly saturated and what perspectives might be missing. For instance, to improve your ability to come up with innovative research ideas, it helps to have contacts not only in other areas of research expertise within your discipline but also to build connections with those from other disciplines. To do so, you can begin building friendships and collaborations with other junior faculty in your department who are similarly motivated to publish innovative work. Perhaps these cross-disciplinary collaborations could even turn into successful grant proposals at major funding agencies too! Diverse networks can lead to enhanced intellectual curiosity and more innovative teaching practices, both of which can have major positive impacts on your academic career.

3. How can I create a deep network?

The key to developing a deep network is building strong relationships with your network contacts. When you have a strong relationship with someone in your network, you can begin to mutually benefit from helping and supporting one another. Professionally, that might look like collaborating or giving friendly reviews on each other’s manuscripts. Personally, that might mean having someone who you can go to for family advice or who you can hang out with socially to decompress from work. Deeper connections can be built through sharing experiences, helping your contacts, and investing time and energy to show care and concern about their professional and personal well-being. Take the extra few minutes in the hallway to ask someone about how their weekend was. Share that new brilliant piece of advice that made a difference for you with your fellow junior faculty friends. Being an academic can come with lots of ups and downs, but continually building deep connections with those around you can make all of the difference in your success and happiness.

In sum, junior academics need to focus on ensuring that both their professional and personal networks are open, diverse, and deep. Through mindfully evaluating and managing your network over time, you can continue to harness the benefits of your social connections!

Reference

Cullen-Lester, K. L., Woehler, M. L., & Willburn, P. (2016). Network-based leadership development: A guiding framework and resources for management educators. Journal of Management Education40(3), 321–358.

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