Mentoring and Networking

As part of my series on why I’m no longer in academia: mentoring is important. Mentoring includes helping your students network. It doesn’t matter how amazing your students are; if you act like you’ve never met them at a conference, people will think you don’t think highly of them.

I got a fair amount of mentoring as an undergraduate. I wasn’t even in Giles’ program and he still reached out and mentored me. Giles told me about a couple of places to submit compositions for performance. Unfortunately they were for things like undergraduate-organized mini-festivals so that knowledge didn’t generalize well. Giles hooked me up with a composer friend of his who needed someone to make him a MAX patch. Giles took me to conferences and introduced me to people. Then poof, I was in graduate school and all that went away.

Giles saw conferences as an opportunity to network for both himself and his students. Wesley saw conferences as an opportunity to ignore his students and hang out with old friends. This is pretty serious. Most faculty will try to help their students network in situations like this. They know it is important to their students’ employment prospects. If a professor doesn’t do this, it implies that the professor doesn’t think highly of his students. Wesley doesn’t promote anyone, no matter how good he thinks they are. Everyone knows this, but since judgements made from this behavior are unconscious it still hurts his students.

I had a friend, Norm, who dropped out of the program after a few years for precisely this reason. Norm thought Wesley’s public indifference to his students at conferences was sufficiently damning to render it not to be worth following through and getting the degree. Going to conferences with Wesley was uncomfortably like being a new kid in school and getting picked last for the soccer team. It was plain as day to see that all the other students were being shepherded by faculty from their institutions. It was really hard as a newcomer to insert myself into a conversation without that introduction.

If I’m at a conference with Wesley (which never happened, but I see how it works with other people so I can imagine), people think I’m a Wesley student and am therefore worth talking to. If I’m by myself, I’m just nobody. That holds until I’ve got enough of a name for myself that people think of me as me, with no regards to Wesley. And that’s not going to happen for a long while–longer if no one talks to me at conferences because there are so many more people who are demonstrably worth their time on account of being important people or students of important people.

Sure, I can make people at conferences think I’m worth talking to once I give my talk. I can hold my own with anyone who was at my session. But assuming a week long conference, if my talk comes up in the middle of the week and there are multiple sessions, there are a lot of missed networking opportunities. I can feel the difference in how people treat me before and after my talk. And that difference isn’t there when I’m at a conference with someone who is established in their career who takes me under their wing.

It’s not that Wesley didn’t think I was a good student. I think Wesley thinks highly of me as a composer and researcher. He teaches classes about my work. Obviously he thinks it’s solid, or he wouldn’t be teaching it. But often people don’t connect facts and methods to names. I’ve actually described my research to people and had them tell me that it’s been done before because they had someone teach it to them. They don’t connect it to me. This is very frustrating.

I year or two ago, I got an email from a graduate student at Elite Private University where Wesley had been spending his sabbatical year. Wesley had taught a class about my work and the student wanted to know more. The especially galling thing is that I live a fairly short train ride from EPU. Wesley could’ve just invited me down to give a talk. It would have been a chance for Wesley to help me network. It would’ve given me exposure with faculty at EPU and neighboring institutions. It would have given me exposure to independent artists who live near EPU who might have wanted to hire someone to write some software for them.

As it was, I ended up meeting with that student for an hour at the train station because I happened through. It was flattering to have the course taught on my work. And it was flattering to have someone express enough interest in it to want to sit for an hour on the floor of a train station to talk about it over a laptop. But it would have been trivial for Wesley to have turned it into a real professional opportunity. Even if it didn’t help me on the academic job market, any kind of foot in the door would’ve made a big difference.

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