Alessandra Link reflects on the importance of seeking professional networks outside of the classic conference circuit.
Heavy rain obstructed my view as I turned off of I-290 on to College Drive, but it didn’t stop the memories from pouring over me: darting from my ramshackle house through the wrought iron gates to campus, a misadventure with a friend in some nearby trees, long hours thumbing through books in the library. I had arrived at my undergraduate alma mater, the College of the Holy Cross, seven years after I’d departed in my graduation robes.
I found myself back in soggy New England—far from my current residence in Colorado—for the annual Organization of American Historians conference, held this year in Providence, Rhode Island. There had been no doubt that I would return to campus (it’s only a short 45-minute drive from Providence), but it wasn’t until my undergraduate advisor suggested I visit in a more formal capacity that I incorporated a talk into my mid-semester sojourn.
I’d envisioned reconnecting with the few faculty who had left their mark on me as an impressionable undergraduate, but ended up meeting a host of academics, new and old, who were chock-full of advice and generous with their time. Unlike larger universities, smaller colleges rarely boast the lecture circuits and outreach programming that brings scholars of all stripes onto campus, making the faculty there that much more eager to engage with one of their “kind,” visiting from a faraway place. It made for lively conversations over lunch, in the storied wood-paneled hallways, and perched in assorted leather armchairs.
After a nostalgia-induced bookstore binge, I left campus and couldn’t help but think that I’d made a mistake in limiting my networking to a handful of academic conferences. In my brief stint at Holy Cross I’d met three new faculty members, each rattling off relevant questions, providing worthwhile book suggestions, and dispensing job advice. I’d spent a concentrated amount of time conversing with scholars, without the interruptions that necessarily punctuate conference gatherings. It was invigorating, and it reminded me that there are thousands of diploma-carrying PhDs out there, many of whom forgo the classic conference circuit. I’d be wise to broaden my networking horizons in the future.
Now that’s not to say that I won’t continue to join the many noble scholars making annual pilgrimages to select conferences. The engaging scholarship, the opportunity to connect with scholars (old and new), and, of course, the book exhibits—these things and more have been dragging graduate students into expensive hotels for quite some time now, and with good reason. But conferences are often busy places, and hurried conversations don’t always bear fruit. Tucked in office buildings, ivy-covered campuses, coffee shops, and small towns across the globe are scholars who tend to avoid conferences. Many of us graduate students would do well to start casting our networking net more widely—and if my experience is of any value, look first to the places that originally inspired you.