Networking for Human(ist)s

By Elizabeth Brake, Ph.D.’13 History
Director of Community Partnerships, Ohio, Venture for America


Elizabeth Brake

Elizabeth Brake

Cultivating a network is essential to successful career development, but networking does not come naturally to many humanities graduate students. Our education teaches us to see connections, but it doesn’t always help us make those connections ourselves. Yet for those of us who decide to pursue nonacademic careers after our humanities graduate training, networking skills are indispensable for getting the jobs we want.

I am a business historian, and I spent ten years at Duke—seven pursuing a Ph.D. in history and three as a postdoctoral associate at the Fuqua School of Business. My graduate research focused on the regulatory state and the institutions that facilitated interactions between the business and government. At Fuqua, I was part of a team studying innovation in established companies, and I taught a course on the history of innovation in the Duke Innovation and Entrepreneurship program.

Through my research and teaching, I learned to evaluate how businesses organize around innovation and how their attempts at innovation always occur within wider social, cultural, and political contexts. Additionally, I had grant-writing skills and could draw upon a variety of experiences I had cobbled together in my post-college life: five years of small-business management, customer-facing work as a Hartman Center graduate fellow in the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, and steady freelance work doing historical research for other professionals.

These were the experiences I had when I embarked on a nonacademic job search, but I didn’t know how to showcase these skills. Furthermore, I had decided to move to Northeast Ohio, but I did so with only personal connections in the region. My personal networks were not likely to help me find the kind of work best suited to my training and interests. I had to build a professional network from scratch, and I ultimately found a job that is well suited to my background and education.

Based on that experience, I offer a few reflections on the process to help other humanists considering a similar path.

1. Networking starts with one

Identify the best-connected person in your existing professional network and tell that person you’d like to explore opportunities in a particular geographical area, or that you want to learn more about a particular field of work. This person does not have to be your adviser, and could even be someone you do not know well.

I identified a colleague at Fuqua whom I didn’t know particularly well but who, by the nature of his job, was deeply embedded in Fuqua’s alumni network. I told him where I planned to move, and he sent me three names and email addresses. I contacted them all. I received a response from one, and through that single response was able to connect to someone else in the region, a professional who in turn made some very high-quality introductions. I know from experience that these connections can be incredibly valuable, but if you need more convincing, check out some of the literature on weak ties.

2. Networking is deliberate

Of course, that one introduction did not open all of the doors. Over the course of about eight months, I approached networking like it was my job. Use all of the technological tools at your disposal—LinkedIn, Twitter, alumni directories, and of course, your favorite search engine.

I organized my search in two concurrent ways. First, I adopted the snowball approach, following one introduction to the next (Pro tip No. 1: Never say no to an offer of an introduction.). Second, I organized my search around a theme each week.

For instance, one week I used all of my social networks to identify public policy consultants in Northeast Ohio. Then I researched the principals of those firms to identify those who had something in common with me (a shared acquaintance, an alma matter, or a subject-matter interest). If I knew someone who could introduce me, I asked for the introduction. If I didn’t, I crafted emails that succinctly explained who I was, identified our common interest or affiliation, and asked for an opportunity to talk about their work and potential opportunities in the area. You’d be surprised how many people said yes. Another week I focused on university corporate relations offices. Another week was marketing and PR firms. You get the picture. Maintain a spread sheet to help you keep track of the people you’ve spoken to, who introduced you to them, and any follow-ups you or they committed to in your meeting (Pro tip No. 2: Always be prepared for a new contact to ask “how do you know [the person who introduced you]?”).

3. Networking is iterative

What roles would I be suited for in a consulting firm, or an economic development nonprofit, or a large corporate insurance provider? I had absolutely no idea. So I asked. Every one of those meetings was an opportunity to explain my professional background to learn how to make the skills I developed as a graduate student and postdoc compelling to a potential employer outside of the academy.

I started out pretty clueless about things that seemed basic to many of my contacts, but six months in, I had a new vocabulary that I could leverage when searching for job openings, writing cover letters, and speaking with hiring managers. I also had a better idea about what roles I wanted, in what kinds of organization, and how to pitch my experience to show my fitness for those opportunities (Pro tip No. 3: Don’t apologize for being an academic. Advocate for the value your training can bring to an organization.).

4. Networking is about relationship building

Career networking should not be merely transactional, and the relationships should not be one-way. Get to know people and treat them as if they could be your boss, coworker, or valuable contact in the future, in whatever job you land. As your network grows, you will come to know people who should know each other but don’t. Perhaps they are working on similar initiatives but in different industries. Make those introductions! Help people get connected to each other and provide others with the leg-up that they need to reach their next goal. You’ll demonstrate your value as a colleague and a community member.

By the time the opportunity for my current job came around, I had developed a network that was of immediate value to my new organization, Venture for America (VFA), where I am the Director of Community Partnerships for Ohio. VFA is a fellowship program that connects startups in cities that have emerging entrepreneurial ecosystems with talented, enterprising recent college graduates. We operate in eighteen cities, including Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Columbus. My role is threefold: 1) support Ohio Fellows through programming and mentoring, 2) identify local startups that offer great opportunities for Fellows and support them through the hiring process, and 3) maintain relationships with regional donors whose gifts and grants make VFA’s work possible.

Through my deliberate networking in the entrepreneurship and economic development community in and around Cleveland, I had already begun to get to know many of VFA’s key partners in the region, and it was one of those people who first told me about the organization and suggested that I look into the opportunity there. When I had my first interview, I was able to discuss the relationships I had already established. I demonstrated my networking skills, without which I would not be able to do my job. Which brings me to my last reflection on networking.

5. Networking is ongoing

Starting my new job was not the end of my networking days. Managing VFA’s community partnerships in Ohio meant building an even bigger network, repeating the process in Columbus and Cincinnati that I had refined in Cleveland. In some ways, it’s easier now. I represent a respected organization, and we provide a service of real value to these communities. Yet in some ways it is more difficult because it is not just my own career at stake, but the reputation and mission of my organization as well, and all of the Fellows we support. Regardless, the practices that served me well as a job seeker remain the very same practices I use every day in my work.

A well-organized approach to cultivating a professional network helped me find an organization with a mission I support and a role that allows me to use my varied skill set. If you are a humanities graduate student considering nonacademic career tracks, networking is essential, and not just because organizations prefer to hire based on referrals. Doing the work of cultivating your professional network helps you focus your job search and identify the roles that are the best fit for your skills. It teaches you to pitch the skills you’ve worked so hard to refine to potential employers who may be unfamiliar with the value a humanities graduate degree can bring to their organization.

Even if you are dedicated to entering the professorate, you can still put these practices to work. Use them at your next conference by identifying senior scholars on panels whom you’d like to meet and arranging coffees ahead of time (Pro tip 4: Don’t expect to just randomly bump into someone in the hallway and hope for the best—plan ahead or you’ll squander an opportunity.). Reach out to members of the outside community—such as public policy makers or managers of NGOs—and ask for a little bit of their time to understand their work and the challenges they face. It will make you a better, more collaborative researcher and likely a more successful mentor for the majority of students who will not pursue academic work.