NETWORKING ON THE NETWORK
Department of Information Studies University of California, Los Angeles Los Angeles, California 90095-1520 USA
This is the version of 16 December 2001.
The most recent version can be found on my home page.
Copyright 1993-2001 by Phil Agre. You are welcome to forward this article to anyone for any non-commercial purpose. For more copyright information, see http://dlis.gseis.ucla.edu/people/pagre/copyright.html Please send me any comments that might improve future versions, particularly if you have tried putting my advice into practice.
"Networking on the Network" includes good advice accumulated from dozens of people over many years, and I want to get it into the
hands of every PhD student in the world. If you could help me out with this goal, I would much appreciate it.
Several million people employ electronic mail for some significant portion of their professional communications. Yet in my experience few people have figured out how to use the net productively. A great deal of effort is going into technical means for finding information on the net, but hardly anybody has been helping newcomers figure out where the net fits in the larger picture of their own careers. These notes are a first attempt to fill that gap, building on the most successful practices I've observed in my twenty years on the net. I will focus on the use of electronic communication in research communities, but the underlying principles will be applicable to many other communities as well.
Some cautions. Everyone's life is different, cultures and disciplines have their own conventions, and it's all just my opinion anyway. Don't interpret my advice as absolute rules of etiquette or morality, but rather as a resource in figuring out your own personal way of getting around in your particular professional world.
Section 2 introduces the rationale behind professional networking and explains why it is not just
"politics". Section 3 provides a simple six-step model of the networking process without reference to electronic media. Section 4 introduces the use of electronic media for building a professional identity, with particular attention to some common mistakes. Section 5 then revisits the six steps of networking and explains how electronic media can (and cannot) assist with them. It also explains how to network when you cannot raise the funds to travel adequately. Section 6 considers several advanced topics: noticing emerging themes in your area, using consultation to organize things, ensuring that you get proper credit for your contributions, learning to engage professionally with people from different disciplinary and cultural backgrounds, and deciding where to publish your work. Section 7 describes the relationship between your professional network and your dissertation. Both of them pertain to the process of knitting yourself and your work into a set of professional relationships. Section 8 reveals the mysteries of academic language. Section 9 explains how to get an academic job, building on the networking you've done and on the concepts that underlie networking. Section 10 assumes that you have established yourself in the research community and introduces the topic of advising others. Section 11 presents a more advanced theory of networking, including the process by which research fields become institutionalized.
Section 12 then examines the moral issues that the process can raise. An appendix provides an annotated bibliography of books and articles on the topic of professional networking.
2 Networking: What and Why
The first thing to realize is that Internet-world is part of reality. The people you correspond with on the network are real people with lives and careers and habits and feelings of their own. Things you say on the net can make you friends or enemies, famous or notorious, included or ostracized. You need to take the electronic part of your life seriously. In particular, you need to think about and consciously choose how you wish to use the network. Regard electronic mail as part of a larger ecology of communication media and genres -- telephone conversations, archival journals and newsletters, professional meetings, paper mail, voice mail, chatting in the hallway, lectures and colloquia, job interviews, visits to other research sites, and so forth -- each with its own attributes and strengths. The relationships among media will probably change and new genres will probably emerge as the technologies evolve, but make sure that you don't harbor the all-too-common fantasy that someday we will live our lives entirely through electronic channels. It's not true.
One might engage in many forms of communication on the net -- one-to-one electronic correspondence, network discussion groups, Web publishing, and so forth. And these interactions might be employed as part of a wide variety of professional activities: sharing raw data, arguing about technical standards, collaborating on research projects, chasing down references, commenting on drafts of papers, editing journals, planning meetings and trips, and so on.
Underlying all of these disparate activities, though, is the activity of building and maintaining professional relationships. Electronic communication is wasted unless we use it to seek out, cultivate, and nurture relationships with other human beings. Unfortunately the existing mechanisms for electronic interactions, by reducing people to abstract codes (like
"email@example.com"), make it difficult to keep this deeper dimension of interaction in mind.
Still, there's no escaping it: if you aren't consciously building relationships, you're probably getting lost.
At the most fundamental level, then, most of my advice has nothing intrinsically to do with electronic communication at all. My real topic is not (technological) networks but (professional) networking. Therefore I'll discuss networking in a general way before describing how electronic mail can accelerate it.
In the past, the only ways to learn networking -- not just being part of a social network, but having the skills for systematically seeking out and becoming acquainted with new people in the service of professional goals -- were to be born to a socially well-connected family or to apprentice yourself to a master of the art. And even though the term "networking" became fashionable during the 1980's, it is only recently that really useful books on the subject have begun to appear. (Some of these are listed in the appendix.) Many people resist the idea of networking because they associate it with "playing the career game", "knowing the right people", "kissing up to the powerful",
"cynicism", or "politics", or because networking supposedly takes time away from "getting real work done". Some people grew up being told the dangerous half-truth that "if you do good work then you will be rewarded", as if rewards magically appear whether anybody knows about your good work or not. Others are allergic to the Machiavellian overtones of "How to Win Friends and Influence People". Indeed, people will accuse you of all sorts of terrible things if you admit to having worked-out ideas about networking. Many people, watching the real networking experts in action, assume that they must know some dark, inaccessible secrets that make it all easy (they don't). This is all terribly unfortunate, not least because it helps to stratify the world of research:
networking is about community, not hierarchy, and people who don't learn to network are less likely to succeed.
The truth is that the world is made of people. People out of communities are like fish out of water or plants out of soil. Research of all kinds depends critically on intensive and continually evolving communication among people engaged in related projects. Networking cannot substitute for good research, but good research cannot substitute for networking either. You can't get a job or a grant or any recognition for your accomplishments unless you keep up to date with the people in your community. Establishing professional relationships with particular people and involving yourself in particular professional communities will change you: not only will you internalize a variety of interesting points of view, but you will become more comfortable in your writing and speaking because you will be engaged in an ongoing conversation with people you know. And if no community is waiting for you, you will have to go out and build one -- one person at a time. This
"overhead" can be a nuisance at first, but none of it is terribly difficult once you get some practice and really convince yourself that you cannot sustain your professional life without devoting about a day per week to it.
3 The Basic Steps
Here, then, are some of the fundamentals of professional networking. They will sound cumbersome and abstract. You'll be able to skip some of the steps as you get established in your
field (or if, unlike most of us, you can charm rooms full of strangers in twenty minutes), but if you're starting from zero then the process really is this complicated.
(1) Know your goals.
Getting tenure? Being invited to conferences overseas? Filling your life with intelligent conversation? Developing leadership skills? Supporting worthwhile initiatives on exciting topics?
Getting and keeping the resources to do the work you choose without artificial constraints? Clear goals will help you maintain focus. And, in planning your research career, know what you care about. Don't follow fashion. Don't imagine that the world compels you to work on certain topics or talk a certain way. First things first: once you can explain what you care about, then you can build a community of people who also care about that. That's what networking is for.
(2) Identify some relevant people.
Awful as it sounds, "relevance" here is reckoned in functional terms: given how your particular professional world operates, with whom do you have a mutual interest in making contact? In the world of research, mutual interest is almost always defined through the content of your research:
you wish to contact people whose research bears some important relationship to your own. Your network will thus consist, more or less, of the people whose work you cite, at least the ones who are still alive. And when you cite someone's work, you should form the intention of adding him or her to your network. But how do you identify these people? Most of the methods are wholly mundane: asking people with good networks, chance mentions of people in conversation, and the habitual scanning of bibliographies, abstracts, and conference proceedings. Get used to these mundane practices before you explore anything fancier.
Here is a way to think about it. Let us say that your research involves ethnographic study of grade- school teachers' strategies for including computers in their lessons. While you must certainly identify any other people who conduct research on that exact same topic, you should also cast your net more widely. Start by chopping your research interest into pieces; the pieces might be
"ethnographic research in classrooms", "research on teachers adopting computers", "strategies for including computers in lessons", "ethnographic research on people adopting computers", "grade- school teachers' work strategies", "new technology in schools", and so on. Take those pieces to the library and locate the existing literature in each area. This will feel strange at first: if you've only worked with ethnographers, then the non-ethnographic work on your topic will seem foreign; if you've only worked with education people, then the work of business people or sociologists will seem foreign; and if you've only worked with people who study teachers' strategies, then the work on students' strategies will seem foreign. The vocabulary and research agendas may well be different, and it may take some effort to figure out what constitutes good research in a different literature. But find the relevant literature anyway, photocopy it, read it, get your head around its issues and worldview, highlight salient passages, take notes, write full citations in your notebook, and look particularly for the authors whose work you respect and whose values you share.
If this seems like a lot of work, think of it as shopping: the library is a giant department store, and you are shopping for professional colleagues. Accumulate a "long list" of potential colleagues.
Study their work and learn from it. Figure out what pieces your work has in common with theirs.
Then practice explaining your research in a way that puts those pieces in the foreground and the other pieces in the background. The general formula is "I'm interested in [elements you have in common with the person you're talking to], and to this end I'm studying [elements that you don't have in common with them]". For example, "I'm interested in how teachers adopt computers, and to this end I'm conducting an ethnographic study of some grade-school teachers' strategies for including computers in their lessons", or "I'm doing ethnographic research on people adopting computers, and my fieldwork concerns grade-school teachers ...". Now you are ready to build a community for yourself that includes relevant people from several different research areas. These people will be like spokes in a wheel, of which you are the hub.
I am taking a strong stand here about the nature of networking, and so let me explain the point another way. Many students ask themselves, "which network should I join?", and they worry that they will make the wrong choice. After all, your social network defines your career in a profound way, and if you choose an unfriendly network then you can make your life miserable. But this is the wrong way to think about it. You are not choosing which network to join; rather, you are creating a new network of your own. Your network is made out of individuals -- the individuals whose research and outlook are related to your own. These individuals' own networks will overlap to some extent, but they will not be identical. Most of them will attend several different conferences, publish in several different journals, and so on. You should do the same. Don't spread yourself too thin by trying to cultivate everyone who could possibly be relevant. But don't confine yourself to existing boundaries either.
(3) Court these people individually.
The right way to do this is not entirely obvious. Unless you are already well known in the person's field, you should NOT simply approach them and say, "hey, I hear you're interested in ...". The reason for this is profound, viz, whereas ordinary social life calls on you to simply be yourself, professional life calls on you to construct and maintain a complex professional persona that is composed largely of your research, writing, and professional activities.
Therefore, in approaching possible professional contacts, you should let your research articles be your emissaries. (If you haven't written anything yet, let your networking wait until you have.
Unpublished articles, conference papers, and research reports are all okay. In writing your first articles, you will want to lean heavily on your local system of advisors, mentors, and peers; the skills involved in this process are a subject for another time.)
Here is the procedure: (a) choose someone you wish to approach and read their work with some care; (b) make sure that your article cites their work in some substantial way (in addition to all your other citations); (c) mail the person a copy of your article; and (d) include a low-key, one-page cover letter that says something intelligent about their work. If your work and theirs could be seen to overlap, include a concise statement of the relationship you see between them. The tone of this letter counts. Project ordinary, calm self-confidence. Refrain from praising or fawning or self-
deprecation or cuteness or making a big deal out of it -- you're not subordinating yourself to this person; you're just passing along your paper. Don't sound like you're presupposing or demanding that you'll get a response. Try a formula such as, "If you should happen to have any comments, I would be most interested to hear them". A good final sentiment for your letter is, "Will you be at such-and-such conference?".
Don't drop dead if you don't get a response right away. Anybody who isn't egotistical will appreciate your taking the trouble to write them. Most people are thrilled to learn that someone understands what they're saying. If they don't reply, that's regrettable but it just means they're busy.
The deep principle is that network-building takes time. It's a long-term investment. You have to get your name out there. Keep taking the actions that I am describing, and trust that your community will come together when it needs to. The lack of an immediate response does not mean that nothing was accomplished, and you should not read any meaning into it.
In some countries, custom places great emphasis on "being introduced" to someone. That is, if you wish to meet with person X, you must first convince a professional peer of X, let us say Y, to formally introduce you at some professional gathering, or at least write you some kind of letter of introduction. While this procedure is harmless enough in itself as a substitute for the kind of letter I described above (provided that you have written a relevant paper along the lines I also described above), I think it is most unfortunate when customs actually *require* introductions. The effect is to reproduce social inequalities by making it difficult for anybody new to break into the existing circle of professional contacts. The procedure I advocate may sound embarrassingly American, but it is also relatively egalitarian.
A few comments about the paper itself.
Make sure you include full contact information on the front page. That includes your mailing address, phone number, e-mail address, and home page URL. Be sure to mark the paper as a
"draft" unless it has been formally published, and put a date on it to distinguish different versions.
Write a good abstract. A bad abstract just announces a question ("topic X is important and I will say something about it"), but a good abstract also answers the question by clearly stating the substance of your new idea or discovery. You may resist putting the bottom line of your paper right there in the abstract; it feels like you're making the paper redundant. But don't worry; it only feels that way because you know how the conclusion is arrived at.
Do not use citations as a form of flattery. This sort of thing fools nobody. Instead, think of a research paper as a kind of open letter, with the people you cite included among its addressees. The research literature is a conversation, and your paper is a way of starting new conversations with people in your area. When in doubt, get advice.
(4) Meet this person face-to-face at a professional meeting.
Research people normally go to great lengths to attend conferences and other professional meetings, and computer networks are unlikely to change this. So submit papers to conferences.
Once you're at a conference, by all means attend the talks that interest you. But spend most of your time tracking particular people down and talking to them. If your target is scheduled to speak, attend the talk and then introduce yourself as the crowd is breaking up, or in the break or reception time afterward. The person's talk will provide conversation topics, and most people are more relaxed after their talk is over anyway. You shouldn't introduce yourself out of the blue by saying,
"I wrote you a letter, remember?", but you can gently refresh their memory a moment or two into the discussion. Unless you really know what you're doing, you should keep the conversation to safe, professional topics. Ask questions about their work that you genuinely want answered. Ask them about the people they work with. Figure out who you know (that is, professionally) in common. Say things like, "I hear that your school has started a new such-and-such program; is that something you were involved in?", or "So-and-so from your group joined our faculty recently; nice person, interesting work". If other people, projects, or laboratories come up in the conversation, say whatever positive things you honestly have to say about them -- avoid criticism and negativity.
The most important project, once the discussion turns to matters of professional and intellectual substance, is the articulation of shared values, for example, "we both believe in using research to change the world", or "we both believe in using both qualitative and quantitative methods judiciously, without any a priori bias against either". Shared values make for stronger professional bonds than shared ideas or shared interests alone. Don't rush into this, but do keep the conversation focused on the concrete professional topics that will provide raw materials for it. On the other hand, if the conversation doesn't seem to be going anywhere, that's not your fault. Don't force it.
Don't set enormous expectations for a single conversation. It's a long-term process. Just say "nice chatting with you" in a pleasant way and let it go. If the interaction went well, you can end the conversation by saying, "do you have a business card?" in a mildly enthusiastic way (assuming you have one yourself); if they don't have a card then shrug and let it go. If the interaction leaves you feeling bad, go get some fresh air, acknowledge the feelings, and be nice to yourself. Talk it out with someone if you need to. Then carry on.
If the person you wish to approach is significantly more powerful than you then the prospect of conversing with him or her will probably make you uneasy. That's okay. Concentrate on meeting people who intimidate you less and your courage will grow. Your single most important audience is actually not the power-holders of your field anyway, but rather the best people of your own professional cohort, especially other graduate students and others who are a few years further along than you. These people share your situation and will usually be happy to talk to you.
Notwithstanding all of this strategy, you should give respectful attention to anybody who approaches you, no matter how junior or marginal they might be. If you find yourself talking to someone who is aggressive or confused, have compassion. It's up to you which relationships to pursue in depth, but everyone you meet shapes your reputation. You should conduct your professional activities ethically -- and not just within the bounds of a legalistic interpretation of ethical principles, but with an active and creative solicitude for the well-being of the individuals and communities around you. You don't have to be shy or let people walk on you, and there's nothing wrong with being first in line if you've earned it. But if you get ahead at the expense of others then it will catch up with you -- in your heart if not immediately in your paycheck.
(5) Exchange drafts.
Having made initial contacts with people, I'm afraid that the next step depends on the hierarchy. If someone is much more senior than you, your goal is simply to get on their radar screen -- one chat per year is plenty. (That's mostly because they already have a full network and have begun to reckon relevance differently from you.) If someone you have met is more or less equal to you in the hierarchy, and if they still strike you as relevant, worthwhile, and trustworthy, it will probably be time to exchange pre-publication drafts of new articles. Again, keep it low-key: pass along a draft that you're ready to circulate and invite "any comments you might have". (Make sure you've run your draft through a spelling checker first.)
Upon receiving such a draft yourself, take the trouble to write out a set of comments on it. Make sure your comments are intelligent, thoughtful, constructive, and useful. And legible. Good comments include "so-and-so's work might be relevant here because ...", "I can imagine a so-and-so arguing that you're wrong here because ...", "I didn't understand what you meant by such-and-such;
do you mean X, or Y, or what?", "a possible counterexample here is ...", "another question that might be interesting to discuss here is ...", "you could take this analysis even further by talking about ...", "this point could probably use more explanation because ...", "I found the transition here to be jarring", "would it be correct to say that you're arguing that ...?".
If you are uncomfortable writing critical comments, frame them with positive comments ("this is obviously an important topic and you've made some valuable observations"), develop a lexicon of hedges ("I'm not clear on ...", "maybe"), emphasize what's possible instead of what's wrong ("maybe you can build on this by ...", "perhaps you can further clarify this by ..."), own your feelings and judgements ("my sense is that ...", "I had trouble with ...", "I couldn't figure out whether you meant X or Y", "I'm worried about the assumption that ...", "I think I disagree with this argument because ..."), emphasize the audience ("I'm concerned that this particular audience will perceive this as ...", "I think these readers might interpret you as saying ..."), turn shortcomings into opportunities ("a topic for future research here might be ..."), and keep to specifics ("how does this step follow?" as opposed to "woolly and vague"). These rhetorical devices may seem baroque at first; their purpose is to let you express yourself honestly without fear of giving offense. Indeed, once you get used to these devices you may realize that you've spent your whole professional life saying what you think you're supposed to say instead of asking yourself what you really think and feel. The point, of course, is not to use the precise words I'm offering, but rather to find words that work for you while serving the same general purpose.
Most of your comments will respond to local issues in the author's paper. When you get done with these local comments, but while the issues are still fresh in your mind, it's good to take a step back.
Ask yourself, "what is the really outstanding paper that's in here trying to get out?". Then explain to the author what this really outstanding paper is like, without of course implying that the paper isn't already really outstanding. On a more mundane level, you might take a moment to think of relevant references that the author hasn't cited.
When you get someone else's comments on your draft, you should take them seriously without regarding them as nonnegotiable demands. When they suggest that you change something, distinguish clearly in your mind between the problem the commenter was having and the solution
they suggested. If they saw a problem (grammar, logic, fogginess, etc) then a problem probably does exist and you should probably fix it in some way. But their particular solution might not be the best one, and you should not feel bound to adopt it. In fact, the most common error in using such comments is to follow them superficially, making the changes that entail the least possible effort, without honestly asking yourself what the underlying problem (if any) might be. For example, it will sometimes be clear that the reader misunderstood something you wrote. Their misconstrual will usually be offensively absurd, and you may feel frustrated. The solution to this problem is not to send the commenter a message to set them straight, but rather to figure out how a reasonable person, operating from a particular background of assumptions, might misconstrue what you wrote in that way -- and revise accordingly. When you're revising a paper based on such comments, try to formulate particular rules or themes or slogans to define an agenda for improving your writing. Identifying such an agenda will make you more aware of potential problems in the future, as well as motivating you to take some action about them, for example by rereading Strunk and White's "Elements of Style" or Claire Kehrwald Cook's fabulous and little-known copyediting book "Line by Line" one more time.
The ritual of meeting people and exchanging drafts is tremendously important. It's a shame, therefore, that nobody ever seems to teach you how it's done. When in doubt, ask for help. And if somebody comments a draft for you, thank them, include them in the paper's acknowledgements, and be willing to reciprocate. (You don't need to make an explicit offer of reciprocation, though, any more than you need to express your willingness to pass the salt -- it's understood.) Doing so, even once, will almost certainly cement a long-term professional relationship -- a new member of your network. What is more, having thoughtfully reflected on others' comments on your work will help you to internalize their voices. That way, their voices will keep on talking to you during later projects. You will be smarter as a result, and you will have a clearer and more realistic sense of who your audience is and how they will react to your writing.
(6) Follow up.
Keep coming up with simple ways to be useful to the people in your network. A few times a year is plenty. Pass things along to them. Mention their work to other people. Plug them in your talks.
Include them in things. Get your department or laboratory to invite them to speak. Put them up when they come to town. Write reviews of their books. And invent other helpful things to do.
None of this is mandatory, of course, but it helps. And I can't repeat this often enough: keep it low- key. Never, ever pressure anybody into anything. Don't say "please" or "I know you must be very busy", which can sound like emotional manipulation. Don't heap so much unsolicited help on someone that they feel crowded or obligated. Don't complain. Don't approach the whole business as a matter of supplication and begging, but rather as ordinary cooperation among equals.
Likewise, make sure you're exchanging these favors out of courtesy and respect, and not as phony politicking -- everyone hates that stuff. Build relationships with personal friends outside of work so you won't be unconsciously trying to get professional contacts to play roles in your personal life (for example, the role of sounding board for your troubles). If you don't hear from someone for a while, let it ride. If you feel yourself getting obsessive about the process, go talk it out with someone you regard as wise.
This step-by-step procedure is obviously oversimplified and rigid. And it omits many topics, such as the claims that effective networking makes on numerous other activities: teaching, giving talks, mixing at receptions, formulating research results, working with people at your home institution, and so forth. Nonetheless, some basic points about the networking process should be clear enough:
* It takes time -- you have to be patient and let it happen.
* It focuses on particular individuals and particular relationships.
* It produces bonds of reciprocal obligation through the exchange of favors.
* It calls for a significant but manageable up-front investment.
* It requires you to cultivate a realistic awareness of power.
* It involves a variety of communication media.
* It forces you to develop communication skills in each of these media.
None of this is etched in stone. You should keep reflecting on your professional life as you go along, continually trying to come up with a better way of explaining it to yourself. No doubt I've left out some important dimensions of the process. When you figure them out, please let me know.
4 Electronic Media: Some Cautions
Having surveyed the basics of networking and professional relationships, it's time to consider the role that electronic communication can play. The most important thing is to employ electronic media consciously and deliberately as part of a larger strategy for your career. It's okay to use the net in other parts of your life: hunting for people to correspond with, organizing political movements, joining discussions about sex and child-rearing, and so forth. But so long as you have your professional hat on, every message you exchange on the network should be part of the process of finding, building, and maintaining professional relationships. I cannot emphasize this strongly enough, because electronic mail seems to provide endless temptations to the contrary. I succumb to these temptations all the time, and I always regret it. They include:
The temptation to react.
Most on-line discussion groups consist largely of people reacting to things they've seen, acting on impulse without thinking through their own agenda in the situation. (One kind of reacting is called
"flaming", but many other kinds of reacting are equally insidious.) E-mail encourages this kind of reactive behavior by making it easy to respond to a discussion with only a few rapid keystrokes.
Keep your cool. The more impulsive you are, the more you're using the network to find friends as opposed to colleagues, and the greater your unmet needs for affirmation and attention, the more
you will be led into reaction. One slip-up will not bring your career to a halt, but you should definitely be aware of the phenomenon.
If someone abuses you in an e-mail discussion, hang back. Unless you're really sure that you've gotten the anger out of your system, go sleep on it overnight. Talk it out with someone. Decide whether you should respond at all. If you do respond, go ahead and reveal your anger ("I felt angry when I read your message"), but then take care to paraphrase your interpretation ("I took you to be accusing me of trampling on your area of expertise"), admit the (usually very real) possibility of misinterpretation ("Perhaps I wasn't clear, or perhaps I've misinterpreted your response"), outline the facts as you see them ("My understanding is that ..."), and politely invite a response ("I'd greatly appreciate hearing your perspective. Thank you."). Part of you may be howling for revenge the whole time you're typing this stuff, and the howling will be all the louder because you're sitting alone in a room with just a computer terminal to inhibit you. But definitely resist the howling and you'll be surprised how often you can rescue a bad situation. Few people in net-land are really as awful as all that.
The temptation to treat people like machines.
One seeming consequence of the intangibility of e-mail is that basic politeness often erodes. I find it takes real work to remind myself that the person behind the e-mail message is an actual human being and not, say, another name to add to my network. You can help keep network interactions on a human level by taking special care about the basics of politeness. If you send someone a message, address them by name. And if somebody on the net helps you out (for example by providing some information in response to a query on a discussion group), say "Thank you" and perhaps give a brief account of how their help was helpful. If their message to you was detailed, for example, point out that you noticed this by saying "Thank you for your detailed message".
More generally, practice coming up with positive, non-obvious things to say about people and their actions. It's harder than coming up with negative things to say, of course, but it makes you much more perceptive, articulate, and diplomatic. It also helps you to offer criticism, since people find criticism much more useful when you put it the context of positive observations. For example, someone I know once pointed out to me that I always try to make things fun. I had never realized this before, but it's true, and his incredibly astute observation really changed my own awareness of myself, as well as giving me a sense of proportion against which to weigh the equally astute criticisms that he also had to offer. A positive observation, by the way, isn't just a compliment.
Most compliments are generic (smart, pretty, nice, responsible, blah blah blah) but positive observations are much more specific to that individual. They're much less obvious and much more valuable, and they don't have the same faintly manipulative feeling as ritual praise.
The temptation to pretense.
Electronic communication affords the illusion of semi-anonymity: since people only know you by what you type, you may tend to lose the inhibitions that normally keep you from pronouncing on matters that you are not really informed about. The chatty informality of most e-mail discussion
groups, which is certainly capable of being a force for good in the world, nonetheless also tends to wear down these inhibitions. Besides, everyone else is doing it. But pretending to know things is just as bad an idea on e-mail as it is face-to-face. Phrases like "I think I recall that ..." and "I'm not a lawyer but ..." are red flags -- indications that you're probably about to do more harm than good.
Keep focused on your own unique professional contributions and let the random chatter slide.
Beware: many people revile this injunction against pretense, based on a false conception of community and a misguided fear of elitism. I am certainly not promoting the reign of experts here;
I am simply applying to electronic communication the everyday injunction to know what you're talking about.
The temptation to paranoia.
Along with your own near-anonymity goes the frequent difficulty of knowing who exactly is receiving your discussion-group messages. As a result, you may just listen in, terrified to say anything for fear that you will be dumped on by powerful experts -- an experience sometimes stigmatized (or even celebrated, as if it expressed some kind of power) as "lurking". This phenomenon is not exclusive to e-mail, of course (much hype to the contrary), but it is real. The solution is to focus on the careful, step-by-step process of approaching individuals, leaving group participation until you feel more comfortable -- which you will, eventually. Don't feel pressured to participate before you are ready.
The temptation to get overwhelmed.
It's easy to sign up for everything that sounds interesting, or to pursue dozens of people in every direction, only to find yourself swamped with messages to read and favors to return. If you're getting more than about twenty messages a day, or if you hear yourself saying "it's all I can do just to delete all the messages that fill up my mailbox", then perhaps you should review your goals and adjust your mailing list subscriptions accordingly. If you're on a high-volume list, investigate whether it has a "digest" option that packages the messages for each day or week into one big message.
The temptation to get addicted.
Addiction means getting overwhelmed on purpose. Few people take e-mail addiction seriously, but it is a genuine addiction and it can be a self-destructive waste of time. Ask yourself: Can I just decide to give it a rest for a few days? Am I reading all this e-mail because I get some identifiable value out of it, or am I doing it to distract myself from my feelings? Do I use other things to distract myself from my feelings -- drugs, sex, food, alcohol, television, work? If you start thinking that any of the answers to these questions might be "yes", go find a twelve-step recovery group in your community (Alcoholics Anonymous or the many other programs that have been modeled on it) -- or maybe start one on the net.
Getting help doesn't mean you're crazy; quite the contrary, it means you're one of the saner people around. And taking care of yourself doesn't make you selfish; quite the contrary, it is a prerequisite to being any genuine use to anyone else.
The temptation to waste time.
Exploring the net is a tremendous way to avoid writing your thesis. But random exploration will rarely yield network information resources that are actually useful to your real career goals. Useful information is always bound up with useful people. Therefore, your explorations of the network will most usefully be guided by your goals and structured by the search for people to add to your network.
If you really do care about on-line information resources, develop a good relationship with a librarian. Librarians are almost uniformly wonderful people who enjoy helping you find things, whether on the net or elsewhere. (If you're shy about asking people to do things for you, instead tell them what you're trying to accomplish and ask them for advice about how to do it yourself and for suggestions about who might be able to help you.)
The temptation to blame e-mail for your problems.
If you're a beginner with electronic communication, you will probably have a few mishaps at some point: getting put down by somebody, acting on an impulse that you later regret, accidentally sending a message to the wrong person, violating the obscure protocols of professional communication, getting overwhelmed with marginally worthwhile messages, finding yourself trapped in long, complicated correspondences, or whatever. When this happens, you might be moved to blame the medium; you'll find yourself saying that e-mail is dangerous or worthless or overwhelming. But ask yourself: do similar things happen in group meetings or conferences or over the telephone or in paper mail? E-mail has its shortcomings to be sure, but it's just a tool like any other. You'll have to learn how to use it, what to use it for, and when not to use it.
Of course, a few mistakes won't kill you. And it's just as bad to go to the opposite extreme and become a compulsive machine for scoring points and making connections. What matters is understanding whatever you're doing within the bigger picture of your life and career.
5 The Role of E-Mail
So, assuming you've been duly admonished against these temptations, what *are* the most constructive uses of electronic communication? Let's review the six-step networking process I outlined above and look for opportunities to use electronic mail to ease the various steps:
(1) Know your goals.
Electronic mail can't help you much here. Indeed, you'll need to make sure that your goals are not defined narrowly in terms of electronic mail. Once you've begun corresponding with people you consider wise, you can begin to seek advice from them. Asking for advice is an art in itself, and other things being equal it's best done face-to-face, but once you know someone fairly well on a face-to-face basis you can move some of the discussion to e-mail.
(2) Identify some relevant people.
The most fundamental way of finding people online is to help them find you. This starts with your home page. Your home page is a projection of your professional persona -- a way for people to know who you are as a member of the profession. If you have had a past life in a professional field, then you instinctively understand the point: your fate depends on how people perceive you, and so it matters what image of yourself you project. Your home page should include four things:
* complete contact information (paper mail and e-mail addresses, work phone and fax numbers, that sort of thing),
* links to organizations you are associated with (your department, laboratory, project, professional associations, events that you are involved in organizing, classes you teach, etc),
* full citations to all of the publications you want people to know about (these should ideally be linked to complete text for all of those publications), and
* links to other Web-based facilities that you maintain, for example a page of links to resources that are relevant to your research topic.
It is especially important to put your publications on your Web site. This can be difficult, given that publishers generally ask you to sign over your copyrights. But even when this happens, you can still amend the copyright form with a marginal phrase like "I retain the right to post the paper on my Web site". The publisher may grouch at you or say no, but it's worth a try -- vastly more people will read your work online than in the dusty pages of a journal. The best situation is when you publish in a journal (or conference proceedings) that is itself online. In that case you can link from your home page to the official version of the publication, and the official version of the publication can include a link back to your home page. In general, the more you spread around links to your home page, e.g., by always including it in your bio when you write magazine articles
and the like, and by including it in all of your messages to discussion groups and the like, the more it will help you to connect with others.
Unless you know what you're doing, I do not recommend including personal information on your professional Web page. If you do want to maintain a personal home page for your friends and family, or if you want to post your baby pictures and jokes and links to TV show fan pages, get an ISP account and create a completely separate home page for that purpose. I also do not recommend putting goofy stuff on your professional home page. It needn't be dour and pompous, but it should not be frivolous either. Humor is okay, but professional humor. It's a fine line.
Having made yourself visible on the Web, you can also use the Web to search for people whose work is relevant to your own. Web searching certainly does not replace library work. But the library and Web sort the world in very different ways, and you can accomplish a great deal by moving back and forth between them. Look for specialized online resources that are specific to your field, directories of research project in your field that people might have built on the Web, and the home pages of relevant university departments and other research institutions. Hunt through them, and notice how badly designed most people's home pages are for your purposes. When you do find useful materials, such as online research papers, be sure to capture URL's and citations for future reference. You might even consider creating your own Web page with links to those resources, thus saving both yourself and other people the trouble of searching for them again.
You can also use online discussion groups to find people, but you should do so cautiously. If someone in a discussion impresses you, don't approach them right away. (It's obviously okay to answer routine functional requests on the order of, "does anyone know ...?", provided you simply answer the request and leave the networking for later.) Instead, head back to the library catalog and periodical indexes (which are probably on-line anyway), look the person up, read a sample of what they've written (especially any books they might have published -- at least skim them), and proceed with the next step. Then use standard Web search tools to locate this person's home page, which might include some citations or even complete papers. Only if you cannot find any relevant publications should you consider sending the person a concise note saying, "what you said about XXX is interesting to me because of YYY; if you have an article on the subject ready to distribute then I'd much appreciate a copy".
Or, having listened in on a discussion group for a while and observed its customs and conventions, you might consider contributing something yourself. Don't just react or chat. Instead, write a really intelligent, self-respecting, unshowy, low-key, less-than-one-page message that makes a single, clearly stated point about a topic that's relevant to both their interests and your own, preferably but not necessarily as a contribution to an ongoing discussion. Since your message might be read by people all over the world, avoid any slang or jokes which might not travel well.
Sit on this message overnight to make sure you're not just reacting to something or repeating a familiar point that happens to make people in your community feel good. If you're feeling uneasy or compulsive about it then just throw it out and wait for another day, or get comments from someone whose judgement you trust.
Having thus refined your message, contribute it to the discussion group and see what happens. If nothing happens, don't be too concerned. Part of having a public voice is that your audience isn't
always directly visible; you won't always get the same kind of immediate feedback that you get in a one-to-one, face-to-face interaction. So resist the urge to agitate until you get a visible response. If your message happens to start a discussion then listen respectfully, constructively acknowledge all halfway worthwhile responses, and be sure you're not just reacting to things. This process might flush out some people worth adding to your network. Or it might not. In any case it will get your name out and will, with remarkable efficiency, establish your reputation as an intelligent and thoughtful person. Remember: don't bother doing any of this until you've written up some work and are ready to actually start building your network.
One thing that does not work, in my experience, is broadcasting a message to half the world saying,
"I'm looking for people who are working on such-and-such", or "I've written papers about X and anyone would be welcome to read them". I don't know why exactly, but such broadcasts either don't reach the most worthwhile people, or the most worthwhile people are too busy to answer them. Whenever possible, then, approach people as individuals. What you *can* do is to send messages individually to small numbers of people saying, "Can I ask your help? I'm trying to locate people who are working on such-and-such. I've tried the obvious sources in journals and indexes, but without much luck. Any leads you can offer would be much appreciated." Only do this if you have a specific purpose in mind for finding such people, such as organizing a workshop or other professional activity.
(3) Court these people individually.
In the old days, the article and letter you sent to approach someone were both printed on paper.
Should you use electronic mail instead? I actually recommend using paper. At least you shouldn't use electronic media just because they're modern. For one thing, paper is much easier to flip through quickly or to read on the subway. It's also much easier to write comments on. Use your judgement. If you do decide to employ electronic mail for this purpose, use just as much care as you would on paper. Remember that first impressions count. And don't try to use e-mail for the get-to-know-you type of chatting that should logically follow at this point. Instead ...
(4) Meet this person face-to-face.
I believe, notwithstanding all the talk about "virtual reality" and "electronic communities", that electronic communication does not make face-to-face interaction obsolete. Instead, as I said at the outset, you should think of e-mail and face-to-face interaction as part of a larger ecology of communication media, each with its own role to play. In particular, I honestly believe that you do not really have a professional relationship with someone until you have spoken with them face-to- face at length, preferably in a relaxed setting over a social beverage. Call me old-fashioned, but make sure that any aversion you might have to face-to-face interaction isn't based on inertia or fear.
Inertia and fear are normal feelings, but they have to be worked through and faced.
Having said that, the availability of e-mail will nonetheless bring subtle changes to the ecology of communication in your field. This is particularly true with regard to the telephone, whose uses change considerably in e-mail-intensive communities -- so much so, in fact, that many people
nearly stop using the phone altogether (or never learn how) and try to use e-mail for unsuitable purposes like asking discussion groups for information that could have been gotten more easily through resources listed in the front of the phone book. (It's amazing what you can accomplish over the telephone once you learn how. And long-distance really is not that expensive unless you're planning to settle in for a long chat, which you usually are not.) But the role of face-to-face interaction will change as well, particularly since many kinds of routine work can be conducted almost as easily at a distance electronically as in formal meetings face-to-face. Electronic communication might even allow face-to-face interaction to shift its balance from its practical to its ritual functions. In any case, the general lesson is to pay attention to the relationships among media so you can use the right tool for each job.
One more note: when you go to a professional meeting, take a minute to flip through your e-mail correspondence and make a list (ideally on paper) of all the people you've "met" on-line who might attend the conference. Right before the meeting begins, recite all of the names out loud to yourself so they'll be on the tip of your tongue. Few things are more embarrassing than drawing a blank when someone at a conference approaches you and tries to pick up a conversation begun on e-mail.
(5) Exchange drafts.
Once again, you should decide whether to use paper or electronic mail to exchange comments on drafts of articles. I recommend using electronic mail. Read the paper once with a red pen, marking small items and writing two-word marginal comments -- just enough to remind you of your thoughts an hour later. Having marked the superficial problems, you may need to read the draft again with more weighty questions in mind. Again, simple comments in the margin will suffice.
Then, right away, before your thoughts fade, sit down at a computer and type in a long e-mail message with all of the thoughts that your two-word comments call back to mind. Just keep typing until you run out of red markings to explicate. You will be amazed at how much useful material you can generate in a short time. Once you are finished, toss the author's draft in the recycling bin.
The author will miss out on some of your detailed copyediting, but you don't want to take the risk that the author will misunderstand the cryptic comments you wrote in the margin. If you do decide to paper-mail the marked-up draft to the author, put your name and phone number on it so they can keep track of whose comments were whose.
Notice the complex interactions between paper and electronic forms of communication. You may find different practices more convenient; the point is to be aware that you have a choice. I even know people who tape-record their comments on a paper while they're reading it and then send the author the tape. Keep your real goals in mind and be creative.
(6) Follow up.
This is one area where e-mail makes a qualitative difference. Once you've established a professional relationship with someone, e-mail provides a convenient way to maintain a steady, low-key background of useful two-way interactions. You might wish to forward things to people (abstracts, interesting messages, conference announcements, press releases, book reviews,
whatever) depending on their interests. Or you might wish to recommend their papers (in a low- key way, with a concise summary and a complete citation, and only if you really mean it) to e-mail discussion groups. Don't overdo it, and pay attention to whether the gesture is being reciprocated.
After a (long) while you might consider building an electronic mailing list of people who share your interests and would like to get interesting stuff forwarded to them routinely -- including, of course, your own abstracts and shorter papers. Never add anybody to such a list (or any list) without asking them, and never pressure them or make a big deal out of it. (And make it a real mailing list, run on an automatic server that lets people subscribe and unsubscribe automatically, rather than a long list of addresses that you send a message to. If you do have to send mail to a large number of people at once, be sure to put their addresses in a Bcc: field, not in the To: field where everyone will have to look at them.)
E-mail is also obviously useful for a wide variety of other purposes, for example scheduling and organizing professional events. Make sure that some purpose is actually being served; don't engage in professional e-mail correspondence simply for the sake of it.
And don't do any of this stuff with someone unless you've gone through the previous five steps and established a real, functioning relationship with them. Finally, double-check that you're keeping track of the difference between a professional relationship and a personal relationship. A good test is, would I call this person up on a Friday night and suggest going to a movie? Even then, give any such transition in the relationship a little time to sink in before you start to rely on it.
6 Building a Professional Identity
So far I have been talking about networking at the one-to-one level. That's where it starts. But the research community is a public place, and as you become established in your field, publishing in journals and speaking at conferences, you will also develop an identity. This section describes some of the basics of building such an identity. I call it a professional identity because its workings are governed by the tacit rules of the research profession, some of which are specific to the research community and others of which apply to most other professions as well.
Socializing at conferences
Sooner or later (hopefully sooner), you will start attending research conferences in your field.
Sections 3 and 5 have already discussed the techniques for approaching someone at a conference that you have already written to. This section offers more suggestions for getting the most from a conference.
First, however, for those who weren't born knowing these things, let me explain what a conference is. Almost any professional field will have one or more annual meetings, typically three or four days in length, sponsored either by a professional association or by an organization created specifically to host that particular conference. Most such meetings are held in a different city each
year, although some smaller meetings are held in specific appealing places (e.g., Hawaii in January). In recent years many conferences have developed a custom of rotating between the United States and Europe in alternating years, or some other gesture toward globalization. Most conferences, especially larger ones, are held in expensive downtown convention hotels, for the simple reason that such hotels are the only places where large numbers of out-of-towners can sleep.
At first it might seem like a scam that everyone in your field gets to travel to a different interesting city every year for a conference. You'll stop thinking that way, though, once you have been to a few dozen conferences and gotten sick of traveling. People's home institutions are all spread out, and they have to meet somewhere, so they might as well meet someplace reasonably nice, hopefully with good airline connections. They'll be spending most of their time in homogenized airports and hotels anyway, so it's not like a trip to a resort.
The fundamental purpose of professional conferences is networking. Everyone in your field has a professional network, just like you. They built their networks in more or less the same way that I am describing in this article, and they attend conferences to keep their networks in working order.
In the old days, before the Internet, conferences were also occasions when committees would meet, for example to edit journals or plan future conferences. That does still happen to a degree, but e- mail and the Web have moved most such logistical matters online, leaving the more ceremonial functions to face-to-face conference interactions. Conferences are also occasions to publicize your work, although as should now be clear that function can hardly be dissociated from networking, and they are places for the job market. Some conferences have evolved rituals for interviewing job candidates in hotel rooms; others simply provide hunting grounds for advanced graduate students to network with senior scholars whose departments are likely to be hiring. For all of these reasons, you should attend conferences, and take them seriously as professional occasions, as soon as you have research that's ready to report.
Although practices differ among the different fields, as a broad generalization there are two different ways that papers get accepted at conferences: either you submit your paper (or perhaps an abstract) as an individual, whereupon the program committee somehow decides which papers get accepted, or else someone takes the initiative to put together a coherent "panel" of papers that are submitted to the conference as a group. You should find out which practices obtain at the conferences you hope to attend, and plan accordingly. If the conference only accepts panel proposals, it would not be excessively presumptuous of you to start organizing a panel yourself.
You might discover that the people you approach are already putting panels together, in which case they might (or might not) include you in their planning. This process can get a little bit clumsy, but don't worry about it.
If the conference takes individual paper submissions, then you should seek detailed advice about the politics of the process. For example, some conferences require you to provide a few keywords on the title page so that the program committee can route your paper to the most suitable referees.
Obviously you want to include the keywords that get your paper routed to the referees who are most likely to appreciate your work's virtues, and only your faculty advisors can tell you what these are likely to be. (You should find out whether the conference is formally refereed, meaning that the program committee recruits people to actually write comments on each paper, accepting some and rejecting others. Formally refereed conference papers are more valuable in career terms than papers that were handled more informally.) Papers that are accepted individually will usually then
be grouped into panels by the program committee, so that the program will list your paper alongside a few other people's, and responsibility for convening the panel will be assigned to a panel chair, most likely a regular conference attendee whom the program committee has drafted for the job.
Some conferences distinguish between papers and posters. A paper is something that you stand up and present in front of an audience, at a set time, with a microphone and perhaps some audio-visual aids. Posters, on the other hand, are grouped into one big room. You'll be given a bulletin board of a set size, and you'll be asked to prepare a poster that can be tacked up on the board. Conference attendees will be able to browse through the posters, and certain times will be advertised when poster authors are asked to be available alongside their posters to chat with passers-by. A poster is a lower-status form of presentation than a talk, but no stigma attaches to it, and you shouldn't be embarrassed to prepare a poster. Once you get over the feeling that you're a salesperson waiting on customers in a shop, it can be a more relaxed way to talk to people individually than the crush after a panel is over. If you do prepare a poster, do take the time to do it right, with appealing and legible graphics.
Conferences cost money. Most conferences have discounted student rates, which you might even be able to afford. Many conferences offer free registration for students who are willing to engage in menial jobs such as staffing the registration desk, and you should go ahead and accept such deals unless it offends your pride. There might be a Web page for students looking for other students to share hotel rooms with, or perhaps you can establish such a page yourself. If you are getting ready to go on the job market then you should guilt-trip your thesis advisor into paying your airfare to the conference, or at least make sure to write travel money into the relevant grant proposal well ahead of time.
Alright, here is the promised advice for socializing at conferences, partly adapted from notes by Dan Ryan.
Many conferences are preceded by smaller one- or two-day workshops; these events will usually provide a more focused and comfortable occasion for mixing with people than the larger conference. It is much easier to approach someone at random during such an event, something that tends to work poorly in a crowded conference setting.
Stay in the main conference hotel if at all possible; when you check in, locate the fitness center, if any, and the nearest good breakfast place. Study the conference schedule to determine which talks you'll be attending, and find out in advance where the meeting rooms are. You'll be happier if you don't look lost. Go find the room where you will be speaking and check it out. Find a moment when nobody is using the room, stand at the speaker's podium, and get used to the energy.
Once the event gets rolling, act like a host. Introduce people to one another, include them in things, and notice when they are feeling bad or being oppressed. Hunt for the person who is chairing the panel that you are speaking on.
When your talk comes, keep it simple. Practice your talk several times in realistic conditions before traveling to the conference, so you can be confident of doing well when the time comes.
If you aren't accustomed to speaking with a microphone, take a moment to do it right. If the room has an audio technician, ask if you can get a cordless lapel mike, which is much less constraining than a mike that is mounted on a podium. Refuse to use a headset or a hand-held mike, which are only for experienced performers. If you must use a podium mike, you can avoid looking like a fool by stopping briefly to familiarize yourself with its on-off button. If you are the first speaker in a session to use the mike, check the sound level ("can you hear me?") before you launch into your talk. If you are seated at a table with the mike on a stand in front of you, resist the temptation to press your mouth right up against it. You don't want the mike directly in front of your mouth, since the wind from your sibilants (s-sounds) will make a roaring sound in the speakers. Sound travels in all directions, not just straight out of your mouth, so put the microphone just below your mouth.
That will also help people to see your face. If you have problems with the microphone, don't be shy about stopping to get help. It happens all the time.
The chair of your session should tell you in advance how long to speak for. If not then ask. Try to finish on time. But if your talk runs more than a minute over your allotted time, suppress the overwhelming urge to race through the rest of it at 100mph. Don't be one of those people who says
"in conclusion" but just keeps on talking. Instead, just give up. Shrug and say, "oops, well, I've gone over time so I'll just stop here; I have the full paper here if anyone wants it", and then briefly remind everyone what your bottom-line conclusion is. Everyone will be impressed at your poise.
After all the panel members' talks are over, a question period typically follows, with audience members specifying which speakers their questions are addressed to. Don't worry if you aren't asked any questions; questioners are often drawn to the most provocative comments, and provocation doesn't imply quality. If you are asked a question, resist the temptation to launch into a long speech that explains all of your intricate thinking from the beginning. If the question has a short, conclusory answer (such as "yes" or "no"), say the short answer first. Having said the short answer, you might find that the long answer becomes shorter as well.
When your panel is over, hang around for a few minutes in case anybody wants to chat. Bring business cards to exchange with them (but, as the speaker, don't offer anyone a card unless they offer a card to you). Affect a calm, low-key demeanor and ask them, with genuine interest, "are you working in this area as well?". When you're done, go get some fresh air.
Relax. Take care of yourself. Breathe. Drink water. Buy a book. Don't drink coffee. Don't eat junk food. Rarely pass up an opportunity to go out with a group to eat. If you run out of things to do, go figure out who the smartest people at the conference are, especially the more human and less established ones, so you can start promoting their work.
If you have a laptop computer, consider typing in a straightforward narrative account of the ideas presented at the conference; after the conference is done, you can help others by editing this narrative for clarity and sending it to a mailing list of people in your field. This is a low-effort way to help the community and get your name out.
Some technically advanced conferences have created Web-based systems for helping attendees connect with each other and schedule their time before the meeting even begins; advocate that such a system be built for any conference that you might be involved in organizing.
The most basic skill for attending conferences is talking to other researchers about your work.
They will ask you, "What do you work on?", and you need to be able to answer this question any time, to anyone, at any length. This is amazingly hard, and you may end up kicking yourself at your stammering non-answers. That's fine; it's part of the process. You should rehearse answers to this question before attending conferences. Your local research group may not be helpful; since they already know what you're working and share all of your assumptions, you rarely need to explain yourself at a basic level to them. A good test is whether you can explain your research topic to an artist (unless your field is art, in which case you need to explain it to a mechanical engineer). Explaining it to your family is good, too. Try practicing ten-second explanations, one- minute explanations, five-minute explanations, and so on, up to a full-length talk.
The hardest part, however, is tailoring your explanation to your audience, and this is an area where you should invest sustained, structured effort. Do you remember when you were in the library, identifying researchers whose work was related to yours in various directions? This is similar. Try to avoid explaining your work to a complete stranger. Instead, get them to talk first. And while they are talking, work to identify specific elements that your respective research interests share in common. (By the way, the phrase "I am interested in ..." actually means "I am conducting research on ...".) Perhaps you both employ qualitative research methods. Perhaps you are both doing comparative work. Perhaps you both have a political agenda, even if maybe not the same one.
Perhaps you are both studying the history of a certain region, or a certain century, or a certain industry, even if other elements of your research topics are different. Perhaps you are both aiming your work at industrial applications. With practice, you will begin to spot the commonalities at a greater distance.
Once you have identified the commonalities between your two projects, fashion an explanation of your own project that puts the common elements in the foreground, and leaves the other elements in the background. For example, if you are using economic theories to study the Mongolians, and the other person is using cultural theories to study the Mongolians, put the Mongolians in the foreground; tell them what sources of evidence you're using, what particular people and places you're looking at, and so on, and then mention along the way that you're using some economic ideas to look at those things. On the other hand, if you are using economic theories to study the Mongolians, and the other person is using economic theories to study the Japanese, put the economic theories in the foreground. Explain what theoretical authors you are drawing on, what methods you are using, what big economic questions you're hoping to help answer, and so on, and then mention along the way that your case study happens to be drawn from the Mongolians.
This strategy of foregrounding shared elements might seem weird at first; it might even seem manipulative or phony, as if there were one single authentic answer to the question "What are you working on?" and all the other answers are artificial. But that's not how it works. The answers that you construct for people from unfamiliar backgrounds will certainly feel unfamiliar. But if they are honest representations of your work then they are good, informative, relationship-building answers. Once you get some practice consciously constructing explanations of your work for many