No need to feel slimy about networking in higher ed

When you think of networking, what do you think of?

Many people conjure an image of a guest at a cocktail party who's trying to shake everyone's hand while thinking about what kind of job referral they can leave with.

But that's not how networking really works, Robin Bernstein, a professor of African and African-American Studies and chair of studies in women, gender, and sexuality at Harvard University, writes for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Bernstein encourages people working in higher education to re-imagine networking as a sincere effort to build long-lasting professional relationships filled with generosity. These are not relationships based purely on how each person can help the other get ahead.

According to Bernstein, there are three ways to make sure your networking falls into the generous and long-lasting category:

1. Think of your colleagues as neighbors

Moving into a new neighborhood might compel you to knock on your neighbor's door to introduce yourself. During that interaction, your only expectation is to make a warm introduction, not to start requesting favors.

You can treat new professional relationships in the same way, Bernstein writes. She recommends approaching people with the intent of only breaking the ice. Then if a situation arises later in which one of you can help the other, it will feel more natural. At the beginning, just do your best to be polite and don't be afraid to make small talk about things outside of higher education, even the weather.

Tips for networking at higher ed conferences

2. Focus on what you can do for others

Generosity is what makes the difference between superficial networking and genuine networking, Bernstein writes. She says even younger or less experienced higher education leaders can make meaningful contributions to the field or to the careers of other people. For example, doctoral students can think of their dissertation as a gift to their field of study. Service on scholarly boards and doing work in the surrounding community are also forms of service that would allow you to meet people in your campus community.

3. Prioritize

Bernstein recommends carefully planning how you spend your networking time. She argues that the best kinds of opportunities are those that let you interact with a diverse range of people in your field, particularly if the group includes people who are more senior than you. This includes, for example, taking on a role with a national organization in your field.

But be careful not to over-commit, Bernstein warns. You may think that sacrificing large amounts of your time to service work is an extreme form of generosity, but it’s often just the opposite, she argues, because it can prevent you from doing more meaningful work. Bernstein recommends focusing on those opportunities where you can make the biggest impact and contribute the most to the field or to your colleagues (Bernstein, Chronicle of Higher Education, 5/30).

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