I was thinking about how I came to get this new columnist gig, and how the mechanics of it differ from getting an academic position. This is worth some reflection.
Simply put, I got The Future through Gregg Zachary, a friend of mine who's the editorial director of Red Herring. I've known Gregg for over a decade now: he tracked me down when he was working on a biography of Vannevar Bush, as I had written about a colleague (and nemesis) of Bush's at MIT.
Gregg was the first journalist whose work I got to see up close, and the timing was fortuitous. It was just about the time when I was starting to realize that the academic job market probably wasn't going to work out for me, and I was starting to think about what else there was-- or whether there WAS anything else in the world to do. Gregg was proof that you could be a non-academic, and be a smart person who did creative, thoughtful work. (He gets a brief mention in my piece "Journeyman.")
So we became friends, and kept in touch after we both left Berkeley (he went to London, I went to Chicago). Eventually, we both landed back in the Bay Area.
In the last few years, I've provided the occasional quote for pieces he's written; he's participated in Institute things when I needed an outside expert on globalization or technology regions; and now and then, as schedules permit, we'd get together at Il Fornaio for a quick espresso. In other words, the columnist opportunity was a fortuitous, happy accident that was ten years in the making.
Contrast this with the way academic networks work, which are focused, targeted, purposeful, and almost always fail.
A strong set of claims, but think of it this way. You have a small number of people (your thesis advisors, maybe a postdoc advisor or undergraduate mentor) who you hope can help you get a job, who know your work and character well enough, and are themselves eminent enough, to matter to search committees. Every year, there are a small number of positions in your field that you're qualified for. But because of the vagaries of departmental politics and the bureaucratization of hiring, your network is probably going to be of highly limited utility. No matter how much your advisor loves you, he or she is not likely to be able to sway a search committee head who has to mollify some eminence who's threatening to leave unless they hire someone to take over the World Civ survey.
Further, they're not likely to know of jobs that you wouldn't have considered: they're all published in the Chronicle and on scholarly society Web sites. Since most academics know other academics, their own personal networks probably don't extend very far, and don't generate the kind of happy accidental connections-- the loose ties, as sociologist Mark Granovetter calls them-- that can lead to new opportunities.
Finally, most advisors want their students to succeed in getting tenure track jobs (or define success in terms of getting a tenure track job), and are loathe to see them go do other things.
It's a system that takes the limitations of personal networking, combines the inflexibility and opaqueness of modern bureaucracy, and wedges it all into a small labor market. No wonder it fails.
This isn't to say that those networks aren't useful in other ways. My advisors are some of the smartest and nicest people I've ever known. I wouldn't trade the years I spent working with them for anything. But I've never gotten a job through them. Fellowships, yes, and postdocs too. But no real job. Those have come through loose ties: through a former student whose father was a member of the editorial board at Britannica; through a library director who enlisted my help in acquiring a collection of papers; through a friend of that director; and now through Gregg. The people I'm intellectually closest to are the ones who can help me least.