Which Cats Are in Your Circle?

By Maria LaMonaca Wisdom
Don't hide in familiar confines



This sign showed up on my 7-year-old daughter’s bedroom door a few months ago.

Although I didn’t meet the entrance requirements, the sign delighted me. It brought to mind one of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems: The soul selects her own Society—Then—shuts the Door…

Cats Aloud

Both the thought of my daughter—nestled on her bed with a pile of loveys, soothing our irascible cat—and the Recluse of Amherst evoked similar thoughts of humanities graduate education.

Before I get too far, note that pretty much everything I see now reminds me of humanities graduate education. And I am NOT suggesting, through these associations, that humanities Ph.D. students are socially inept, or even that they’re all introverts. To the contrary, the Duke graduate students I’ve encountered over the past year are among the most charming, affable, and well-adjusted people I’ve had the pleasure to work with.

What I’m talking about is the culture of gatekeeping in academia, the ways in which we, as graduate students and faculty, are complicit in it, and the way in which this culture keeps us from developing our full potential—as scholars, as teachers, as leaders and innovators.

There are many pleasures to working in academia, including being among people who share your passions in very specialized and arcane subjects. This network doesn’t just happen, of course. One must gain admission to just the right graduate program, and then identify the right faculty adviser. Then come the long, grinding years of making a name for yourself in the discipline, so you become known and acknowledged by All the Right People.

This is just how academia in the humanities and humanistic social sciences has worked for a long time, and learning how to network in a very strategic and focused way is a skill that professionals have to develop in every walk of life.

The hyper-specialization of doctoral training, however, can keep the circle of one’s associates especially small and intellectually homogeneous. This happens not only on a disciplinary level, but at specific research institutions. I have known more than a few R1 faculty who reach tenure without ever having a substantial engagement with a colleague outside of their department.

Increasingly, these conditions are not optimal for research, teaching, or professional growth. There is a deep comfort to remaining in a small, safe professional space, but at some point it’s akin to hanging out in your bedroom too long with some stale chocolate chip cookies, a pile of unlaundered socks, and a bored cat.

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Do not become one of those obnoxious conferees who look at your giant MLA or AHA nametag before deigning to speak with you (if at all).

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I’m not singling out one professional path here. Whether you are set on a faculty career, are intrigued by other possibilities, or just wake up perplexed most days, I challenge you to be reflective and vigilant about the social and professional circle you currently inhabit.

If you are a first- or second-year student, find ways to meet students and faculty in other programs who share your interests.

If you are writing a dissertation proposal, consider inviting a faculty member from another discipline onto your committee.

At any stage of your research, remember that interdisciplinary programs such as Bass Connections and Story+ can throw you together with brilliant people who might shape your research or goals in rich and unexpected ways.

When you go to a conference, talk to everyone who looks remotely interesting or friendly. Do not become one of those obnoxious conferees who look at your giant MLA or AHA nametag before deigning to speak with you (if at all).

If you decide to go out on the academic job market, consider doing a few informational interviews with professionals beyond the academy. You’ll have a much better sense of what your options are, and you’ll feel less panicked about the competition you face for academic jobs.

If you decide to forego an academic career, informational interviews—not job applications—will be your path forward.

For many people (myself included), reaching beyond one’s comfort zone presents challenges at all professional stages. Duke Ph.D. students do all sorts of incredibly complex, difficult things. It’s not unusual for me to engage with an advisee who speaks three or four languages, is working on his or her third advanced degree, and runs marathons for fun.

Then we get to the part of the advising session where I tell them to reach out to a complete stranger.

There’s often an abrupt pall in the conversation, during which I can almost hear the mental gears turning: Whoa! Networking! It’s that important? Surely I can find a workaround?

The thought of reaching out may elicit deep discomfort, but this feeling can also be the first symptom of growth and expansion. Having contracted your professional circle in response to the demands of disciplinary credentialing, realize that your future trajectory likely depends upon cultivating expansive, overlapping circles of association.

Building focused and broad networks simultaneously can be challenging, but it is far from impossible. Stay tuned for the next blog post, in which I will offer some concrete advice for expansive, intuitive, and empathic networking. Shortcuts and workarounds Not Aloud.