Bootstrapping With Friends: How to Succeed in Academia Without Big-Name Contacts

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Bootstrapping is a popular, uniquely American myth—a comforting notion that hard work and individual excellence are both sufficient and necessary for successful upward mobility. It’s a premise that officially dates back to the mid-19th-century novels penned by Horatio Alger, and academics have been poking holes in it ever since. The most recent takedown to come across my desk is an interesting take on the genre: a 2014 paper arguing that the United States is only formally a democracy, and in actuality is a functional oligarchy.

The paper—written by Martin Gilens, of Princeton University and Benjamin I. Page, of Northwestern University—maintains that American policy-making is a nearly pure expression of the preferences of the rich. In an interview with Talking Points Memo, Gilens argued that “ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States. And economic elites and interest groups, especially those representing business, have a substantial degree of influence.”

It’s not hard to see academia as a functional oligarchy, too. The role of the rich and powerful, in this case, is played by the tenured faculty and upper-level administrators. They vocalize the myth of Horatio Alger; those who speak against academic structural inequities are too often drowned out with cries of “sour grapes” and claims that they just weren’t good enough to succeed in a pure meritocracy.

Many academics who have not been lucky enough to have been swept into the ranks of the anointed continue to scream into the wind about the need for reform. I’m guilty of that myself. But perhaps the best path forward is to emulate the structural haves by breaking the sacrosanct rule of bootstrapping. Let’s turn it into a team sport. Here are some concrete steps for increasing your academic value by tapping into a network of (mostly) have-nots.

Become an apprentice: If you have no idea what career path to take, call up someone you’ve never met but whose work you admire. Tell her you believe in the Rule of Two and are ready to learn the dark ways of the force as her apprentice. Go meet her. Be honest that what you want and desire is a mentor and advocate. Be honest that you will help in whatever way you can. Sometimes it’s just as easy as writing a book review or live-tweeting a panel at a conference.

Earn some street cred: If your academic credentials are nonexistent (or about to be so), or if you’re locked into an institution that isn’t known for rigorous research, it’s time to either alter or bolster your primary affiliation. Seek out a research institute at an R1 university and formally request to be a research affiliate. These are typically zero-time positions, so they don’t provide any financial remuneration. But they will get you an email address, access to a big library (with all the PDFs you can read on JSTOR), and the backing of an elite player that signifies your research as worthwhile and valuable.

Create your own clique: Build an academic support group. Starting a group blog is a fun and easy way to build up a strong relationship with a bunch of peers. (Maybe eventually you can move your banter from the web to journals.) Go for personalities with at least a small chip on each shoulder, so you’re taking calculated risks in engaging the world around you. If you’re lucky, like the founders of the Monkey Cage blog, you’ll get acquired by a reasonably reputable news outlet.

Go mercenary: You’ve spent decades learning stuff. Time to take it out for a spin on the global market place. Here’s a rarely-spoken truth in academia: Plenty of big-name scholars don’t actually do research so much as they conduct a staff of assistants who complete that work. (This is more generally accepted in the hard sciences, where a tenured faculty member will run a lab.) Find one of these people and make authorship of some kind part of your pay. A smoothly-run lab is designed to produce quality papers, and those papers could have your name on them. Don’t know where to look? Incite these folks to find you. Research something that will make a wave or two and work to promote the hell out of it. Interested parties will come calling.

Find a co-author: If you just can’t crank out the amount of work necessary to get where you want to be, it’s time to accept that you may need a co-author. There is nothing more devastating than hubris, so share and share alike. Is it better to single-author one paper a year or co-write two or three? I’d say go for the latter. Perhaps you can keep the ideas from your dissertation for yourself, but if you’re bogged down and aren’t gaining traction, it may be time for you and a friend to help push and pull each other out of the professional mud.

Take a sojourn: If you want a career in the academy, perhaps one of the best ways to kickstart your pursuit is to take a break from it. The world around us holds a vast treasure trove of activity; it can help you develop your skills and become proficient with tools that you didn’t know existed. Forays into web design, writing and editing, business, policy, and industry may provide experiences that will be valued greatly within an academic landscape, even if it isn’t in the professoriate. Go out and continue to invest in yourself. A temporary, self-imposed adventure into non-academic work may become something you love. And it may give you tools to return to an academic home. Either way, it’s far better to leave on your own accord than to have exile imposed upon you.

Academe hasn’t yet learned that we all rise and fall together. So when the going gets tough, get yourself a friend—or five—and take on the world en masse. Life hits hard and fights dirty. It’s time to even the odds.

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