This past week, I had the opportunity to attend the annual meeting of the Religion News Association. Religious studies is my academic field, but I work in research administration, which means that I work mostly with scientists. I’ve learned a lot from the research groups I’ve worked with, and I still write and publish in my field, but I don’t get a lot of opportunities to ‘talk shop’ when it comes to my research.
Because it was my first time attending a conference with this particular group, I was pretty nervous going in. I’m mildly introverted, so being thrown into a room full of strangers ranks somewhere between going to the dentist and walking on Legos for me. Plus, I was going in the hopes of meeting some new collaborators and maybe getting some more writing gigs. I would have felt like I wasted my time there if I just went to the sessions and then slunk into the corners and played with my phone like the awkward weirdo I actually am.
In short, I was going there to network, a concept I’ve never really liked. Networking is often presented as the end-all, be-all of career development - particularly when people are transition, or if their career isn’t going the way they want, the inevitable chorus from well-meaning friends and colleagues is “are you networking enough?” However, it can also be really intimidating, especially for all of us who feel slightly awkward meeting new people. It can be particularly challenging in the context of job hunting because it’s difficult to strike the right balance of meeting people who you think could potentially get you a job, but meeting with them in such a way as not directly asking them, “hey, could you get me a job?”
On the flip side, though, as I was reminded this past week, networking can also be really fun! As it turns out, being surrounded by people engaged in work I’m already passionate about is a great way to spend three days. I found myself constantly saying things like “that’s awesome!” or “I want to hear all about this!,” not because I wanted my fellow attendees to think that I was engaged with what’s happening in our field, but because I kept coming across things I found interesting.
I don’t expect that every person I talked to will become a collaborator or that every new connection I made will result in new work, but I’m still really glad that I met them all. I learned more about what’s happening in my field in three days than I would have doing research on my own, and it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. And I think that’s the key for networking - it may be awkward at first, but if it’s never anything but a burden, then you might want to reconsider what you’re getting out of it.