There’s lots of advice to doctoral students about how important conference attendance is for networking, but not everyone finds this easy.
Personally, I’ve never been very good at bouncing up to strangers to introduce myself, or breaking into the tight huddle of buddies chatting during teatime at conferences, so can understand why many find this daunting.
I also used to think that the concept of “networking” was a touch grubby - as if it described the unpleasant schmoozing of people who were being friendly just to see what they could get out of others. Then I realised it meant making an effort to get to know your community, which changed my attitudes completely.
As well as conference attendance, one of the most effective ways I’ve found to network and build longer-term collegial relationships is through editing - by working with others on collections of essays.
It started when I was a postgrad and volunteered on the journal that was published out of my department at that time. I learnt a lot about what to look for as a subeditor or proofreader. Nick Hopwood’s (2010) article on Doctoral students as journal editors does a great job of articulating the value of non-formal learning afforded by this kind of academic work, and Pat Thomson et al. (2010) also develop related ideas in detail.
Over the years, I have also been involved in a number of book-length projects as a co-editor. Yes, it can be quite a bit of work; and yes, this work is rarely acknowledged by the formal university structures that measure output (such as the ERA in Australia).
Editing anthologies or collections of academic papers is usually unpaid, relying on the “gift economy” that remains a significant part of academic life (see, for example, Antal & Richebé, 2009). Yet I continue to do this kind of academic writing work because it brings me other kinds of benefits that feed into the rest of my work that is recognised by the institution.
What I do gain from being involved in such projects is the opportunity to learn a lot about current research, closely reading papers that I otherwise might not come across. It’s also a great way to hone the skills of editing and of peer review.
Noticing and articulating how papers can be strengthened forces the reader to think carefully about the research and the writing. Learning how to do this in a way that keeps authors on board with the project (and without the “protection” of blind review) is quite different from standard journal reviewing or providing feedback on students’ writing as a supervisor.
Through these projects I’ve also learnt much more about how the publishing industry works - how to put together a book proposal, how to market it, and how to target particular audiences.
But what I value most in all of this has been the opportunity to develop collaborative relationships with co-editors and contributing authors along the way. Working alongside others, doing something productive together, has given me a way of networking that builds ongoing relationships.
The people involved in one project may well suggest ideas for the next; others will pass on information about events related to the topic of the book. Gradually, a community of like-minded academics forms and shares knowledge about the discipline.
Of course, there is much that can go wrong in undertaking tasks of editing or co-editing. There’s the risk of offending authors by editorial decisions; of letting others down by not meeting deadlines; of insurmountable differences of opinion about how things should be done.
So far I’ve been lucky, and have perhaps also learnt along the way (or, more accurately, have been taught by my co-editors and authors) how to communicate clearly in order to avoid these sorts of problems.
Nevertheless, I’d encourage doctoral candidates to take up opportunities for volunteering in helping with editing projects, whether they are special issues of journals or edited books. There’s much to be gained from getting involved - a risk worth taking.
Antal, A.B., & Richebé, N. (2009). A passion for giving, a passion for sharing: understanding knowledge sharing as gift exchange in academia. Journal of Management Inquiry, 18(1), 78-95.
Hopwood, N. (2010). Doctoral students as journal editors: non‐formal learning through academic work. Higher Education Research & Development, 29(3), 319-331.
Thomson, P., Byrom, T., Robinson, C. & Russell, L. (2010). Learning about journal publication: the pedagogies of editing a “special issue”. In Aitchison, C., Kamler, B. & Lee, A. (Eds) Publishing pedagogies for the doctorate and beyond. Routledge.