A reader writes,
I am on the job market for the first time post-degree and I have no outside letters. How does one go about getting them? I made the mistake as a grad student of not networking until my last years in the program. I feel like my work is good enough to get a letter, but I don't think I know anyone well enough to ask for one. It feels sleazy just emailing someone and being like "would you read these papers and write me a letter."
As I wrote in my Job Market Boot Camp entry on letters, I once shared this individual's concerns. For most of my life, I was strongly averse to networking. I'm very much an introvert, for one, and have a hard time approaching people--and, truth be told, I always felt networking to be a bit "icky" (I've never wanting to be a "social climber"). However, I think I've learned better, in a few respects.
First, I don't think networking has to be icky. Although it took me most of my life to get it through my thick skull, I now think it all depends on how one approaches it. My father and my wife are brilliant at networking because they genuinely like people. They're not people who are constantly "angling for an advantage", and indeed, they don't even really try to network. They are honestly just genuine, friendly people--and it just so happens that because they like people, people genuinely like them back. Over a number of years, as I got increasingly frustrated with my self-imposed introvert isolation--just wanting some philosophical friends (as I was feeling really lonely in my first few jobs!)--my wife continually encouraged me to open up and approach people--not in an "angling for an advantage" kind of way, but again, just in a genuinely friendly way. She encouraged me to socialize more at conferences, keep up with people I'd met by email, and so on. And what do you know: I slowly started to develop some nice relationships! The vast majority of them had nothing to do with letters, or anything of the sort. However, a couple of them sort of organically turned into mentorships--people who I could turn to for publishing questions, book proposal questions, and feedback. And those mentorships then just sort of organically turned into letters. Once you know someone well and have a good relationship, asking for a letter isn't icky: it's natural!
Second, although I don't think it's a very good idea to just send someone a paper and ask for a letter (as the above reader worries about), I don't think one should shy away from approaching people by email. When I had just gotten out of graduate school, one of my advisers emphasized to me the importance of getting outside letters. When I told them and others who I sought advice from that I basically had no idea how to do that, the most common answer I heard went something like this, "Try reaching out to so-and-so by email. Since you admire their work, since you do!, and ask if they might be willing to give their impression on a paper you are trying to publish." Although I was initially hesitant--and none of my letters ultimately came about this way--I've actually developed a few nice relationships with people by email: people who, when I now go to conferences, I can chat with, just as a friendly colleague.
One further suggestion I would make is trying to attend workshops and institutes, especially the kinds of summer workshops one has to apply to (e.g. NEH summer programs), as they are really great ways to meet new people.
In short, although I'm by no means the king of networking, the lesson I've learned from effective networkers is this: just open up and be genuine to people. Strike up conversations with people at conferences, or by email, and stay in touch, asking for advice, feedback, etc. Try to develop relationships--not because they are necessarily going to result in a letter, but simply because it's good to have good relationships: people you consider friends, mentors, and so on! Trust me, even if no letters ever resulted from "relationship building", I'm glad my wife pushed me to do it: it's simply nice to have friends! Finally, if you approach things this way--just trying to get to know people--letters simply have a strange way of "happening." They're not things you angle for in an icky way: they're just a natural result of strong, friendly, supportive relationships.
Or so say I. What say you, my fellow Cocooners?