By Gabrielle Slowey.
At a recent conference on Science-Diplomacy in the Arctic hosted at Dartmouth College where I as a visitor (2016-2017), Ed Alexander from the Gwich’in Council International asked the audience: “How many of you have come up and introduced yourself to me? How many of you have given me your card?” Only a few hands went up. Ed went on to explain to the audience the intricacies of the power of networking. As he put it, the most important meetings don’t take place when you are sitting in a conference room listening to speakers. Rather, he told the audience that they take place out in the hallway during the break and over coffee or lunch. His message to the students in the room was to recognize the need to be proactive and make the first move. He also urged them to find a connection. As he said (to paraphrase), “so you are a scientist, so what? Tell me why you are a great scientist and how your work could serve my community. Tell me what makes your work different and interesting.” The room was silent. This was not the lecture they expected. But this was the lecture they needed. No one is coming to you. If you sit in the corner and expect people to be aware of your brilliance and your expertise then you will be sitting there for a long time because- that’s just not how it’s done!
One of my most memorable and fortuitous encounters eventually led to one of my most favourite research projects. As a graduate student, I was advised to apply to any and all conferences- especially the ones that paid you to go! Taking this advice seriously, I applied to the inaugural meeting of the Forum of Federations. This event took place at Tremblant and included leaders like former PM Chretien and Presidents Bill Clinton and Vincente Fox. A few graduate students studying federalism were invited to participate in this forum. At a lunch hosted by the Assembly of First Nations, I sat down at a table across from a gentleman who appeared to be eating alone. Soon two plainclothes RCMP joined us. Anyhow, I introduced myself and it turned out the gentleman was Joe Linklater, the Chief of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation in Old Crow in the Yukon. Over lunch I asked Joe: So, you folks have been self-governing for almost 10 years. What’s changed? His answer: Why don’t you come up and find out! So, I applied for a SSHRC Northern Research Grant and with the funds I was able to travel to Old Crow and learn about the community. We are still collaborating and my work in the Yukon endures. Some people dismiss this type of encounter as simply good luck and timing. However, to say this ultimately undermines the time and energy it takes to get out there and meet people and the effort it takes to build and maintain relationships. But this is exactly what can be the difference between a successful and a less successful researcher.
In preparation for this blog post I did some online research about networking and this piece of advice stood out to me:
“True networking occurs when there’s an understanding that everyone in the room has equal value. In its purest form, it’s about people enjoying other people, communicating passions and connecting with others who share those passions. It’s about listening, figuring out what others need and connecting them with people you think can help, without any designs for personal gain. The most successful networkers build genuine relationships and give more than they receive. They go beyond thinking, “What’s in it for me?” to ask “How can I help?”
Being open to new adventures and possibilities and experiences is really the beauty of networking. But as this quote points out- it is important to identify what you can give and not just what you want when you engage in networking. Most of what I have learned about Indigenous governance has not been through textbooks but through lived experience which provides rich foundation for my academic work but also grounds me in the reality that what I do has to have meaning for the people with whom I interact.
At the end of the day, being an academic can be a lonely and isolating experience. It requires you to sit and write and engage with critics of your work. It can be demoralizing and discouraging at the best of times. Networking, to me, is the time when we come together at conferences to discuss our work or when we go into the field to engage in research. These are the times to learn from one another and not just from what we read online or in books. I cherish the wonderful experiences that being an academic exposes us to. So figure out what you have to offer and get out there and see what you too can achieve. Good luck!
Gabrielle Slowey is Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies at York University. From 2016-2017, she was the inaugural Fulbright Chair in Arctic Studies at Dartmouth College.