Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Gregory Ward and Lauren Hall-Lew on Networking

Posted by Neal on January 18, 2011

After coming back from last year’s LSA conference, I wrote a post about a panel discussion that I found particularly useful on how to publish a scholarly paper. This year, there were two
more panels about aspects of an academic career, and again, I found myself taking more notes in these talks than in most of the other ones I attended, combined. Though they were aimed at graduate students, I would think a lot of the information these panels provided is useful for undergraduates, postdocs, and even fully employed professors, so once again, I’m turning my notes into a blog post. Or more accurately this time, blog posts. One of the panels was on “Skills for Academic Success,” and covered several topics, so unlike the whole discussion on academic publishing, the discussions in this panel can be separated into shorter posts.

Gregory Ward

Lauren Hall-Lew

Gregory Ward of Northwestern University, and Lauren Hall-Lew of the University of Edinburgh, teamed up to talk about networking.

Why network? At a conference like this one, everyone you meet is a potential future colleague, or future collaborator (in research, teaching and advising, or maybe event planning). In fact, even outside academic settings, you never know who you’ll meet. And networking isn’t just for getting a job. There are a lot of things that get done by turning first to the people you know: getting advice for teaching an unfamiliar course, helping students who have interests outside your own, finding reviewers and inviting speakers for a mini-conference, finding subjects for an online experiment or survey (there was laughter in the audience at this one, for a reason I’ll explain later), finding external examiners for your student’s work.

How to network? Ward began with a caution: If a person is not interested in talking or corresponding with you (a good indication is if you find yourself having to “pin them down” to talk with them), don’t bother trying to put them into your network. No good will come of that. Having discussed how notto network, Ward continued on to how to network. He recast the topic as getting yourself known, and broke that topic down into getting seen, getting heard, and getting read.

Regarding getting seen: attend conferences, institutes, talks… even if you’re not presenting anything! Even if you’re not interested in the subject! People can at least see you there and associate a face with your name, and that’s what you want. Of the jobs that he’s had to hire people for, the short list has always ended up filled with resumes with names that he or other search committee members can put a face to: “Oh, I’ve met this guy…”

Getting heard: Make presentations at conferences. Ask questions at other people’s conference talks—but make sure they’re intelligent questions, not stuff like, “What’s this word on page 2?” He had some other advice concerning conferences, but I’ll merge that a little later with what his co-presenter said. [UPDATE, Jan. 24, 2011: Fellow attendee Hui-wen Cheng caught a detail I’d missed: “[H]e emphasized the importance of attending talks held in your own institution. You will get more chances to talk to the invited speakers, because they are in a less familiar environment, and they want to talk to people.” Thanks, Hui-wen!]

Getting read: Well, of course there is getting papers published, whether they’re in journals, conference proceedings, or working papers. List them on your website, and keep your website updated! (In fact, this same advice came from the consultants in a students’ coffee lounge who were giving advice on academic
websites. First advice: Get one! Soon after: Keep that CV updated, and put the date you did so on it. That way, shame will force you to update it every few months.)

Next, send your stuff to people who would be interested. Sure, it’s self-promotion, but if you’re targeting the people who are researching the same kinds of topics as you are, they’ll be interested in hearing from a fellow researcher. More on this in the paragraph about conference follow-ups.

“Now that they know you…” Ward’s next slide began, and he recommended having the famous “elevator pitch”. For those who somehow haven’t come across this jargon yet, it’s a speech that you could conceivably deliver in the interval of an elevator ride if you happened to find yourself riding with someone who would be interested in your work). Fellow panelist Cathy O’Connor seconded this, and recommended actually practicing it. Ward agreed, and added having the 30-second version, the
5-minute version for those who are interested after hearing your 30-second version, and a ten-minute one for those still interested at that point.

Ward then yielded the floor to Lauren Hall-Lew, who called her segment Networking 2.0, and launched into the benefits of online social media for networking, including blogging, the site, Twitter and Facebook. She singled out Twitter for special attention, and said, without equivocation, that if you’re not on Twitter, get on there now! You can have lots of conversations with other linguists, she said, and pointed out that if you were on Twitter and searched for “#LSA2011,” you’d find a steady stream of messages from other linguists, some of them in this room right now (they waved). (It was true: At least half the people I met at this conference I met (directly or indirectly) because of my own Twitter account. I have Erin McKean to thank for prompting me to set up an @LiteralMinded account.) The laughter at Hall-Lew’s earlier comment about online experiments was
due to the fact that a few weeks earlier, she had tweeted a request for people to come take her online listening test involving /l/ vocalization. Hall-Lew was so sincere and emphatic about Twitter that several audience members took her advice and started Twitter accounts that very afternoon.

[UPDATE, Jan. 18, 2011: In an earlier version of this post, I wrote that Hall-Lew’s “Twitter feed also got her a visiting professor position, followed by the permanent position she has now”. That was an oversimplification, which may have given the impression that she just got a tweet one day, asking, “Hey, want to work for us?” That’s certainly not the case; Hall-Lew went through the usual reviews, interviews, presentations, and other parts in the process of landing a job in academia. (More on that when I summarize the panel discussion from the previous night, on academic job searches.) What did happen was that she received an invitation via Twitter to give a talk; that talk led to meeting other linguists; it was one more thing to put on her CV; etc. In her own words (via direct message on Twitter!), “Twitter is the new way to network. It can lead to things that build your CV, and building a CV is one of the things that helps in getting a job.”]

Ward and Hall-Lew each had some particular thoughts about networking as it pertained to academic conferences. First of all, don’t spend all your time
hanging out with people from your own institution, whom you’re just going to see again back home come Monday. Make a point of introducing yourself (or getting yourself introduced, if you’re shy) to people whose work you admire, or at least whose work relates to yours. And don’t stop there. Meet people you wouldn’t
ordinarily be talking to on other days. You never know who they might know. After a talk, go up and talk to a speaker if you are interested in what they said. “Great talk!” is not so impressive, but if you can offer something useful or interesting that shows you actually listened to the talk, or read the speaker’s work, that can leave a favorable impression, provided you do it without being a suck-up. (They didn’t elaborate on how to identify this threshold, unfortunately.)

Afterward the conference, talk to or email speakers that you have something else to say to. In particular, email them it if you’ve said you would. But use the interval between conference and email to check out the person’s website if you haven’t already. Respect their time by not sending long rambling emails, and not expecting an immediate reply back. Reintroduce yourself in the email, and always provide your contact information.

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