I remember a golden time when a dinner was just a dinner, having coffee was exactly that, and employability meant running around town desperately shoving C.V’s into Topshop employees’ faces. However, after one and a bit years in Oxford, these seemingly innocent pastimes strike the fear of Alan Sugar into me. What will I do when I graduate? How do I make the right impression at a function? Will Topshop take me back?! It appears that university life, academic life, is inextricably caught up in that most sleazy of grown up business words: networking.
Yes, I am being dramatic, and yes, I am well aware that I cannot run around Oxford waxing lyrical about the nice pointy rooftops forever, but still, there is something about the idea of socialising with intent which I fundamentally cannot get my head around. According to Wikipedia, it is a ‘socioeconomic activity by which groups of likeminded business people recognise, create or act upon business opportunities.’ This probably covers the finance and law events we all too often receive emails about, which are inevitably slightly uncomfortable parades of fixed smiles and fixed interest rates. At least the business events, those which favour the Randolph Hotel and seduce you with promises of canapés and an office with a view, accept what they are. They unashamedly market themselves as ‘networking’ events, they unashamedly say ‘FEMALE OXFORD GRADS, WE WANT YOU TO DIVERSIFY OUR COMPANY’, and they unashamedly bribe you with wine to attend. It is not this type of networking that we should approach with caution. It is the networking that filters down through university, from society recruitment events to desperately trying to befriend the latest treasurer of OUDS in order to get funding.* When does it all end? At what point does a drink with a friend become collecting a potential contact for the future?
Becoming ’employable’ is obviously an important part of being at university, but it’s not the only reason we are here, nor should it be our main motivation for getting involved in university life. Just consider the sense of ego that comes with running for a Union position. Are you there because you feel you can contribute to the running of the university and the welfare of its students, or are you there because striding down those panelled corridors makes you feel pretty darn good. Most likely the answer is neither. More likely is the answer; it will look good on my C.V. Cynical and a bit grumpy, maybe, but a recent Cherwell article did show that on average 1 in 3 ex-Union Presidents could network themselves all the way to Parliament. However, the Union is just one example, Oxford another, and this isn’t a discussion about career politicians and Old Boys’ Clubs. All universities are judged by how employable their grads are, and I am extremely grateful for the opportunities that this particular establishment affords. It’s just that the idealist in me wants to get by with good honest graft, rather than a purse full of beautifully embossed business cards.
The fact is, the whole concept of networking seems a little contrived. Everyone knows that it is a part of university life, but we are reluctant to acknowledge that we do it, and even more reluctant to acknowledge that some of us consider it to be quite a skill. Sadly, I am not one of those people, but as much as I dislike the concept of networking, I find myself doing it almost unconsciously. One of my worst habits is a tendency to blend into the given situation, to become a ‘likeminded business person.’ Drinks with tutors equates to passing comment on the wine and name dropping a few articles, finance events involve dressing sharply and having a quick glance at the FT website beforehand, and somewhat humiliatingly, Cherwell Drinks meant hovering around whilst loudly discussing potential article ideas. It’s as if we are playing at professionalism in our safe little university circle, and we are most certainly playing characters. Today, in my head, I am a journalist. I may as well be drinking black coffee, chewing a cigar and hammering away at a typewriter. (If only).
The question is, do we really believe it? Do we believe ourselves in these roles? Those who do are probably far more likely to fall into a job than the few, like myself, who sit angrily in a corner and complain about ‘connections’ instead of making them. The strange thing is, I respect people who are natural networkers. They fascinate me because they have a goal, and they go for it, their pockets brimming with canapés and business cards. Good for them. I hope they are very happy in their job that neither I nor they fully understand. That said, I think I prefer my shamefully comfortable seat on the networking bench, where the contacts are in reach, but my soul ostensibly remains my own.
*Hypothetical example. Probably.