I know of no better guide to becoming a researcher than this book, which exists only online. Written by a professor to help his PhD students learn how to network and develop their professional skills, it is great advice for anyone who wants to create a place for themselves in the information economy. It’s all about finding, feeding, and harvesting networks of other like-minded folks, and growing your own distinctive node. While the author naturally focuses on how academia works, there is enough valuable wisdom here for anyone doing original research (and you should!) — whether corporate, journalistic, or part-time blogging.
You are not choosing which network to join; rather, you are creating a new network of your own.
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 elements your work has in common with theirs. Then practice explaining your research in a way that puts those elements in the foreground and the other elements 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.
In working through this exercise, you are already encountering two fundamental principles of professional social life, both of which will recur throughout this article. The first one was already well-known in classical rhetoric, and I will call it “articulating commonalities”. The point here is to develop relationships with people. And relationships are founded on commonalities. These commonalities might include shared values, shared research topics, shared goals, or anything else of a professional nature that you might share with someone. To articulate a commonality means formulating language for it.
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”.
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?”.