I couldn’t make it in academia without my invisible support network

I recently got some good work news. (Hooray!) When I heard, one of the first things I did was text a group of friends who are also academics. They have become an essential source of support for me. I wanted to tell them the good news, yes, but I also wanted to thank them. I had almost given up on this thing over the summer—I wasn’t sure it was worth the time I was investing in it, and thought it didn’t stand much of a chance. They told me it was worth it and gave me the encouragement to go forward with it. So, without them, this good thing may well not have happened.

And that’s just one example of a time when I benefitted from my invisible support network. Both in Atlanta and here in Michigan, I’ve benefitted immensely from this behind-the-scenes support. These networks help with specific situations: Is it worth applying for this thing? What do I do about this tricky work situation? I think this behavior by person X seems not okay—am I being overly sensitive? What do you think of the wording on this really important email—is it too strong? Did I screw up when I did Y? I can’t decide between A & B—can you help me think them through? There’s also the general venting and commiserating and celebrating and checking in on each other. These support networks aren’t visible to outsiders, but they feel essential to my ability to do what I do.

It’s possible that the title of this post is an overstatement—maybe I could make it without my behind-the-scenes support networks?—but I’m really, really glad I don’t have to. I don’t want people who will agree with everything I say, but I do want people who I know will be supportive, even if they’re challenging me.

As I thought about this, I remembered seeing this tweet:

I completely agree – finding your people is so key. And, for me, one of those things is finding people who I know will be supportive, but who will also challenge me.

I know I’m not alone in feeling extremely grateful for my invisible support network. Here’s one example:

I found that one particularly amusing because the text support network I mentioned in the first paragraph started based on trying to organize a get together for coffee (for the adults) and playtime (for the kids).

Some of my invisible support networks have happened by chance—in addition to the text group, there are two people that I now run with regularly where it started in part because we bumped into each other while out running separately and it seemed like we should try to coordinate it. Those runs are now a highlight of my week! But even that behind-the-scenes support isn’t been entirely by chance, in that all of those people are ones who I suspected would be “my people”, to go back to the framing in the quote from Needhi Bhalla above. Others have been more intentional—for example, the support network that has formed from my writing group. And others have been chance on my part but intentional on someone else’s—I deeply value the behind-the-scenes interactions that Brian, Jeremy, and I have.

The Needhi Bhalla quote in Gina Baucom’s tweet above comes from this episode of The Taproot podcast. When she talks about finding your people, she notes that your people may live in the same place as you, but they may not. In particular, she notes the value of twitter as a place where people—especially those from marginalized groups—can find their people and engage in conversations that aren’t happening in their department or institute or wherever.

In summary:


Do you have an invisible support network? How did it get started? Was it chance or cultivated or some combination of both? Do you have advice for how others can find people who will share their struggles, celebrate their victories, and provide support?

8 thoughts on “I couldn’t make it in academia without my invisible support network

  1. I *think* Meghan is talking mostly about what would be termed “friendships” or perhaps “mentoring” rather than formal research collaborations. I’d just add that it’s also perfectly appropriate to seek out “your people” in those formal research collaborations. Perhaps this idea is obvious to others, but it hadn’t really occurred to me until an elderly Hungarian physicist/engineer articulated it to me toward the end of his long and fruitful career. I had previously thought that one is supposed to find collaborators based on whether they had access to data or techniques that I didn’t, etc. Which of course is true, but not the whole story. Find people who actually put wind into your sails rather than taking it out!

    • Yes, I was thinking more of friends and mentors when I wrote this, but you’re absolutely right that it’s perfectly appropriate to seek out “your people” in formal research collaborations! (Well, as long as finding “your people” doesn’t lead to excluding people from marginalized groups — I know that’s not what you were suggesting!) There’s the saying that “everyone here is smart, distinguish yourself by being kind”. I think that factors in when thinking of collaborators, too — aim for smart and kind.

      • There’s an interesting link related to seeking out “your people” in collaborations in the next linkfest. Short version is that, according to a new preprint, women authors in economics and sociology tend to collaborate with fewer people than men, and to collaborate with the same people repeatedly to a greater extent than men do. Which seems to be associated with lower research productivity by women authors, by various measures. It looks like it might be a case of women authors responding to systemic problems with diversity and equity in their fields in ways that don’t fully overcome, or perhaps even reinforce, some of those problems. A sort of “tragedy of the commons” in which individually-reasonable responses to systemic bias end up reinforcing those biases or shifting how they’re manifested.

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