From the first day I was employed in the university sector I got the impression I was working in a fairly corporatised and business-like environment. There were performance benchmarks, far more conversations about budgets than I expected, and it was clear that exceeding targets could result in a promotion. However, there was also something else.
Excelling in your role could result in career advancement, but you could also use networks to leverage the people you know to help advance your academic career. Networks often produced desirable opportunities that look good on job and promotion applications, such as being invited to submit articles to special issues of journals, contributing book chapters, or speaking on plenary panels.
That networks existed and could make life easier for some in education circles was not unexpected. Having previously worked in the school sector, I knew the easiest way to get a teaching appointment in the school of your choice was to know the right people. What surprised me in universities as I began researching about precariously employed academics and academic career progression, was that so many participants talked about the importance of networks in academia. Networks were seen to be just as valuable and necessary to academic career advancement as getting published and grants success.
This acceptance of networks in my academic workplace and their use made me want to look more closely at what was happening. However, academics’ networking practices have received minimal scholarly attention, most likely due to the difficulty of collecting data and the variety of purposes and compositions an academic network can involve. Most of the research that has been done so far on academic networks have focused on statistical information rather than the opinions that shape academics’ career decisions. So I wanted to look more closely at the human aspect, the lived experience of academics and their use of networks.
My research also examines the personal consequences to career aspirations, planning, and even remaining in academia long term when those within the field know how easily merit-based achievements can be overshadowed by network opportunities.
Networks are important but there are limits
I am not condoning or particularly encouraging the role network connections can play, my study suggests they are here, can make a difference to career progression, and this is how things are… at least for now.
There are also limits to what networks can do, which is evident in most studies of networks and across sectors. Rarely can networks result in unqualified candidates gaining significant advantage. I am not saying it doesn’t happen, but it appears to be exceptionally rare. The focus of network success tends to be that if a group of potential contributing authors exists, or a small group of similarly qualified job candidates have been found – the final choice can be guided by network relationships rather than purely merit-based judgements.
What are academics using networks for? I found that around 10 percent of the participants in my study reported securing full-time, continuing positions because of their networks. At the extreme, some reported doing so without any recruitment or interview process. In my five years in academia I only know of this happening a handful of times, but my research, and feedback from my published paper about it, suggest almost everyone knows of this happening at least a few times. And that is the point – what appears relatively isolated to an individual, is not that rare of an occurrence if everyone knows of their own example.
Many more participants spoke of networks giving them less direct career advantages. Even though the opportunities changed at different levels, the value of networks remained high for all positions from casual tutor to professor. For those starting out in their career, networks resulted in publication opportunities which, as publishing benchmarks and targets are in place in most institutions, were the most desired outcomes, followed by conference invitations. For more senior academics, networks consistently led to publications, but it was networks resulting in being invited onto grant applications that was the most desired outcome.
I found people networking in academia shared similar views to people networking in the business and law sectors. It cannot be ignored that there is a gendered element to networks, where these opportunities heavily favour men. Significantly, male participants used networks primarily for career advantage, while women and marginalised groups tended to use networks for career support.
Networks can also have other less-direct impacts, such as by positioning the academic researcher closer to burgeoning research trends which allows them to work with the most recent data. And interestingly, all members of an academic network seem to help each other as regularly as possible – even if the level of assistance the network member can provide varies due to their seniority and subsequent ability to direct employment or publication selections.
Strong interest in academic networks
The greatest reception to my paper on networks came from groups who want to take advantage of the systematic benefits academic networks can produce. In the short period since the paper was published, I have been contacted by groups from women in STEM, researchers of colour, researchers working not in their home country, researchers with visual impairment (like myself) and other disability groups. Their questions and the discussions have always circled around the same topics. These groups have incredibly strong networks in place that they use to support each other and share their work, but now they want to know more about how to build on their network of support to include network activities that can aid in career advancement.
As a higher education researcher, I see my study’s results and benefits being two-fold moving forward. The first is it has highlighted that there are significant benefits from being involved in well-positioned academic networks. These networks allow academics, and those around them, to grow and build from each other’s achievements and expertise – an aspect of networks that not every group capitalises upon.
The second is that the results demonstrate the need for further research into networks within the university sector because the sector is changing. We, as academics, know that it is changing, but this is not to say that every group within academia is aware of what changes are happening in detail and how these changes may be altering the system within which we work. Subsequently, some groups may be further left behind as the academy continues to follow more corporatised operational models.
Dr Troy Heffernan is Lecturer in Leadership at La Trobe University. His research is centred on higher education with a particular focus on policy, leadership, administration, management, and inequalities within the sector. His current work explores vice-chancellors’ approaches to management, the emotional labour involved in higher education leadership, the consequences of precarious employment, the implication of personal networks in academic promotion and hiring, and understanding the repercussions of higher education’s shift to business models and marketized practices. His work has received numerous awards for research excellence, and he regularly participates in public and invited speaking engagements. Troy is on Twitter @troyheff