Daniel W. Drezner

Trying to make lemonade out of a bad lemon on conference networking

Trying to make lemonade out of a bad lemon on conference networking

Ah, the American Political Science Association annual meetings are coming up.  Which means that political scientists are feverishly emailing each other trying to set up times for coffee/alcohol/food with friends/grad student cohorts/book editors/mooseheads. 

Over at Duck of Minerva, Brian Rathbun tried to offer some useful advice for the relative newcomers to APSA.  Tried.  Unfortunately, Brian wrapped up that advice in, possibly, the worst metaphor ever.  Here’s the cached copy of the post — Brian has taken it down, and explains why here. The reactions of Duck commenters to Rathbun’s initial post has led to additional posts by Dan Nexon and Laura Sjoberg addressing sexual harassment and gender politics in the discipline. 

Lost in the controversy, however, is that once you remove the metaphor, Brian made a salient point that bears repeating (see also Steve Saideman).  Very often, graduate students and new-mint Ph.D.s approach APSA as an opportunity to ingratiate themselves with The Movers and Shakers — i.e., the senior people in the field who are on important editorial boards, prestigious hiring committees, book series, and attend those cocktail parties that everyone thinks are so damn important.   Hell, I certainly approached APSA that way when I was at that stage of professional development back in the 19th century.

In his post, Brian was trying to suggest that there is a better way to network: 

It is almost always the case that the young people are the most creative and the most fun to be around. You will learn more. Young people haven’t settled into their intellectual habits and do not take themselves so seriously…. Ask yourself not, WWLT (“What Would Lake Think?), but rather, who is going to be the David Lake in the next ten to fifteen years? When I was an assistant, I found my exchanges with other assistants and associate professors so much more fun than any awkward exchange with the old farts. Never trust anyone under 40! Well, maybe 45.

As a newly-minted member of old fartdom, I wouldn’t go quite this far.  The key metric here isn’t age per se — it’s the extent to which the person is better known for their past work rather than their current work.  This tends to be correlated with age — but it’s hardly a lock. 

That said, there are the seeds of a sound point here.  More generally, I would recommend that younger scholars realize the following when it comes to networking at APSA: 

1)  The best kind of networking is always — always — to research, write and present really good papers.  Really. 

2)  There is a small arbitrage opportunity to be had with the kind of networking that Rathbun is discussing.  You can try to make the Milners and the Keohanes and the Lakes of the world remember you.  That’s a very crowded market, however, and they are bombarded with people trying to Get to Know Them.  Instead, connect with the people who seem to be writing/presenting the work that you find to be the most interesting.  That’s how you’ll improve your own ideas — and then see (1) above. 

3)  You don’t have to network at all.  It likely helps your professional development a little bit on the margins, but not nearly as much as you would think.  The opportunity costs are small compared to researching and publishing good work.  Pour your manic energy into the latter far more than the former, and don’t fret that you’re missing all the cool parties if you don’t feel like schmoozing. 

Am I missing anything?