I am re-reading “Networking on the Network” by Phil Agre. Various versions are floating around the internet and the most recent one I managed to find is the one from 14 August 2005. The subtitle is “A Guide to Professional Skills for PhD Students”, but it actually is full of useful advice for researchers at any stage. The first sentence sets the tone for the rest of the document:
As a graduate student preparing for a career in research, you have two jobs: (1) do some good research, and (2) build a community around your research topic. […] you are in charge of your career, and the best way that you can take charge of your career is to build a community around your research.
I previously linked to similar advice in Austin Kleon’s “Steal like an Artist” post: “6. The secret: do good work and put it where people can see it.” Agre presents two principles at the heart of building a community: you need to “articulate commonalities” and fill a “structural hole”.
A structural hole, intuitively speaking, is a bunch of people who don’t know each other but ought to. Your research topic almost certainly defines a structural hole, and you occupy that hole precisely by building relationships with all of the people whose research is related to your topic in several different directions. The different directions are crucial: you want relationships with people from diverse communities. The intuition, again, is that these people ought to know one another, and you will be providing a public service by serving as the go-between.
Think of it metaphorically as intellectual arbitrage. Agre uses a “hub and spokes” analogy for networks. Articulating commonalities serves first to connect everyone to you (as spokes to a hub), but secondly also to connect everyone together (into a wheel) and form a coherent group. As this was written before the mainstream breakthrough of the various social networks (e.g. Facebook opened to the general public only in 2006, ResearchGate and Academia.edu followed two years later), Agre concentrates on rolling your own site:
Your home page is a projection of your professional persona — a way for people to know who you are as a member of the profession. […] It is especially important to put your publications on your Web site.
Remember Kleon? “Do good work and put it where people can see it.”
It’s a two step process.
Step one, “do good work,” is incredibly hard. There are no shortcuts. Make stuff every day. Fail. Get better.
Step two, “put it where people can see it,” was really hard up until about 10 years ago. Now, it’s very simple: “put your stuff on the internet.”
I feel that any and all efforts toward these two goals, building a community and making my work available on-line, will improve my future career prospects. And I’ve only barely scratched the surface of “Networking on the Network” here.