Being optimistic through academic networks

Sherrie Lee, University of Waikato

I start off this year with several goals, the biggest being completing my PhD. One of the main reasons for doing a PhD was to start an academic career, which I now realise, after several years of PhD-ing, is what James Burford recently referred to as Cruel Optimism (drawing on Lauren Berlant’s 2011 work). Briefly, cruel optimism describes the doctoral aspiration for the academic good life in spite the depressing reality of scarce academic positions and short-term contracts.

Admittedly, I am an optimist, even in the face of the ‘precarious’ academic existence (see this article for example). Job stability is, after all, not a defining characteristic of many contemporary jobs and careers. A friend in an administrative role in New Zealand remarked to me that since graduating about five years ago, she has had five different positions in two different organisations. While she would have liked a more stable job, she has come to accept that positions come and go as companies restructure, chop and change. Her conclusion: Build and maintain your reputation. It was personal recommendations that enabled her to move from one position to the next.

I have taken her advice to heart and my other goal this year is to build and maintain my reputation. But then I start asking myself, what exactly is my reputation about? To answer this question, I turned to recent ‘how-to’ books on being an academic: How to Be An Academic by Inger Mewburn from Australia (aka The Thesis Whisperer), and Optimising your academic career: Advice for early career scholars by Carol Mutch, a New Zealand-based academic. Their advice has affirmed what I’ve been doing to build my reputation as an emerging scholar.

From Mewburn, I learnt about the academic ‘gift economy’ where giving gifts (e.g., sharing a journal article, donating time to a project) has unwritten rules about timing, expectations and reciprocity. So building a reputation could be about building social capital where the giver gets to be recognised as expert/generous/etc., and the receiver gains something valuable/solve a problem/etc. through various social relationships. But what if someone in the lower rungs of the academic hierarchy attempts to give gifts? What kinds of gifts would be appropriate and accepted? What kind of capital can be built through experiences and other relationships? Are the actions of gifting necessarily calculative? And do lower status givers eventually run into the cycle of cruel optimism?

These are questions for one or several PhD topics, but my tentative response is that building relationships come first before getting involved in the gift economy. This was especially so as I had relocated from Singapore to New Zealand for PhD study, and did not have much of a Kiwi social circle to begin with. My experience with academic relationships, or social relationships for that matter, were initially disappointing. It seemed hard to connect with people or get the momentum going for more lasting relationships beyond the friendly ‘hi’s and ‘bye’s. The faculty didn’t seem interested in engaging doctoral students in the wider academic community either, especially with restructuring and staff movement humming in the background. But over the years, having learnt lessons of patience and endurance, I’ve developed positive academic connections, some at the university, but mostly beyond my immediate physical location. As one academic shared with me, it’s unlikely that you meet a whole bunch of like-minded souls in the next room, or next corridor, or even the next building. Networks need to be built outside your immediate affiliations.

I have done the usual route of conferencing, and depending on which conferences, some were more rewarding than others in terms of finding my ‘tribe’. But as Mewburn notes, social media is an underrated and underused resource for building social capital, reputation and relationships. I’ve been a techie of sorts since high school and I embraced social media several years before I started thinking about academia more seriously. While I do not expect any sort of close friendships through social media, various channels have enabled me to build an academic network with relations of varying closeness. Facebook helps me keep in touch with conference buddies, some of whom have become friends. Following various academic-related people and organisations on Twitter has led me to staying in touch with trends and the latest research. ResearchGate, the social media networking site for academics, has done exactly that for me – I follow academics of interest, and participate with everyone else in a mini gift economy: sharing and recommending articles with the wider network.

While going social for academic purposes has its drawbacks such as potential time wasting, privacy issues, risk of having intellectual property ‘stolen’, Ive come to embrace the benefits, mostly because I recognise my limitations. I came into academia relatively late in the game and I do not have an established professional network in New Zealand. Being an outsider and precarious on various levels, social media became for me a more level playing field. Even though there are clearly more established and experienced players in the academic social media space, it seems easier for me to navigate the rules and boundaries within a virtual space than the world of ‘real’. Some of my peers, however, see no immediate benefit in getting involved with multiple social platforms. I agree – the benefits are not immediate, and sometimes not even obvious. I’ve only seen the fruit of my social media ‘investment’ in the past year, after engaging with various academic others in the course of the PhD work of conferencing, publishing and the like. For example, through a conference call going around Facebook, I tested the social waters for interest in doing a symposium. After a few hits and misses along the way, our symposium made it to the 2017 New Zealand Association for Research in Education (NZARE) Annual Conference.

Going social has also helped me shape my academic identity and find my niche, a topic that Mutch devotes a chapter to in her book, Optimising your academic career: Advice for early career scholars. In that chapter, she takes us through a series of questions such as: Why is it we want to do research? What is our passion? What makes us excited? What disciplines and areas does our research relate to? What do we want to be known for? Where do we want to go from here? It’s not an easy task to answer these questions by myself because sometimes the answer is: I don’t really know. But surveying research interests on social media leads to other topics, other strands of thoughts, and sometimes leads me to the answers to Mutch’s questions.

So what can I conclude about my academic networks? Firstly, they are both real and virtual, one reinforcing the other. Sometimes the face-to-face relationships gets reinforced in the virtual, sometimes the virtual appears in the real. Sometimes the virtual will likely stay virtual, but who knows when a conference might change that. Secondly, my networks have grown alongside my PhD journey, again, one feeding the other. My PhD work not only results in the ongoing drafts I have to write, but also reflective blog posts, publications, and conference presentations. These more public endeavours lead me to virtual chats, meeting actual people, and expanding my sources for calls for papers and collaborative projects. Lastly, whether or not we call it social capital or gift economy, there is a sense that networks thrive because of everyone else believing that there is value in networks – the belief that you will find out about important information more readily, that you can throw up topics for quick discussion, and that you might find a gem or two (or a much needed recommendation) among these virtual conversations. And not to mention the sense of belonging to a wider community of scholars interested in the things you are.

While the thought of a difficult and uncertain future after the PhD seems truly cruel, my experiences with social networks tell me that shares, likes and comments, plus longer and deeper conversations elsewhere, go a long way. So I choose hopeful optimism to start this year – and for the years to come.


This post originally appeared on the author’s blog, The Diasporic Academic. It is reproduced by permission.


Sherrie.jpgSherrie Lee is from Singapore and a PhD candidate at the University of Waikato. Her doctoral research uses the concept of brokering to investigate the informal learning practices among international students at a New Zealand university. Using focused ethnography, the research examines participants’ brokering interactions with others. Her research also takes on a reflexive approach in understanding cross-cultural aspects of the research such as translation and representation. Her research portfolio can be found on ResearchGate.

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