Here, then, are some of the fundamentals of professional networking. They will sound cumbersome and abstract. You’ll be able to skip some of the steps as you get established in your field (or if, unlike most of us, you can charm rooms full of strangers in twenty minutes), but if you’re starting from zero then the process really is this complicated.
Do some good research.
All of my advice in this article presupposes that you have done some good research and are ready to report about it at professional conferences. There’s a sense in which you don’t even exist in the profession until you have done some research and written some papers about it that are at least capable of being circulated. And once you do finish that first round of publishable research and write something about it, the substance of your research will very much determine who you should be adding to your network.
Identify some relevant people.
Having done some research, it is time to identify relevant people to network with. “Relevance” here is reckoned in functional terms: given how your particular professional world operates, with whom do you have a mutual interest in making contact? In the world of research, mutual interest is almost always defined through the content of your research: you wish to contact people whose research bears some important relationship to your own. Your network will thus consist, more or less, of the people whose work you cite, at least the ones who are still alive. And when you cite someone’s work, you should form the intention of adding him or her to your network. But how do you identify these people? Most of the methods are mundane: asking people with good networks, chance mentions of people in conversation, and the habitual scanning of bibliographies, abstracts, and conference proceedings. Get used to these mundane practices before you explore anything fancier.
Here is a way to think about it. Let us say that your research involves ethnographic study of grade-school teachers’ strategies for including computers in their lessons. While you must certainly identify any other people who conduct research on that exact same topic, you should also cast your net more widely. Start by chopping your research interest into pieces; the pieces might be “ethnographic research in classrooms”, “research on teachers adopting computers”, “strategies for including computers in lessons”, “ethnographic research on people adopting computers”, “grade-school teachers’ work strategies”, “new
technology in schools”, and so on. Take those pieces to the library and locate the existing literature in each area. This will feel strange at first: if you’ve only worked with ethnographers, then the non-ethnographic work on your topic will seem foreign; if you’ve only worked with education people, then the work of business people or sociologists will seem foreign; and if you’ve only worked with people who study teachers’ strategies, then the work on students’ strategies will seem foreign. The vocabulary and research agendas may well be different, and it may take some effort to figure out what constitutes good research in a different literature. But find the relevant literature anyway, photocopy it, read it, get your head around its issues and worldview, highlight salient passages, take notes, write full citations in your notebook, and look particularly for the authors whose work you respect and whose values you share.
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. This will not always be easy. Because the people whose work you cite will often inhabit worldviews quite dissimilar from your own, you may have to draw on the full resources of language in order to identify the large, irregularly shaped patches of ground that you share in common. The recipe that I just provided for sorting elements of your work into foreground and background is one simple method of doing this, and you will develop other, more advanced methods as you go along. Think of yourself as growing and evolving a distinct language for every one of your professional relationships. Having done this, you can then proceed to explore differences, disagreements, debates, and other stimuli to clear thinking. Many people avoid conflict because they want to preserve relationships. As a result, they become unable to assert their opinions and their distinctive intellectual contibutions in public, professional fora. And indeed, disagreements that are conducted outside a framework of articulated commonalities are most often confused,
destructive, and a waste of time. Lacking such a framework, the combatants will lapse into projection, stereotyping, sloppy thinking, and other such junk. The principle of articulating commonalities is the secret to getting along with people.
The second principle of professional life that you are encountering here is a concept from sociology called “structural holes”. (See Ronald Burt, Structural Holes: The Social Structure of Competition, Harvard University Press, 1995.) A structural hole, intuitively speaking, is a bunch of people who don’t know each other but ought to. Your research topic almost certainly defines a structural hole, and you occupy that hole precisely by building relationships with all of the people whose research is related to your topic in several different directions. The different directions are crucial: you want relationships with people from diverse communities. The intuition, again, is that these people ought to know one another, and you will be providing a public service by serving as the go- between. You will not know in advance just how you will interconnect these people.
Perhaps they should all gather for a meeting. Perhaps some of them have useful ideas that could be used in the others’ research. Perhaps several of them have useful ideas that can be combined to improve your own research. The more diverse people you build relationships with, the more of these unpredictable opportunities will arise, both for your own benefit and for theirs. Occupying a structural hole also alleviates the fear that derives from putting all of your eggs in one basket. If your contacts in one community somehow fail to appreciate the importance of your work, then you will still have contacts in several other communities who remain uncontaminated by the views of the doubters.
I am taking a strong stand here about the nature of networking, so let me explain the point another way. Many students ask themselves, “which network should I join?”, and they worry that they will make the wrong choice. After all, your social network defines your career in a profound way, and if you choose an unfriendly network then you can make your life miserable. But this is the wrong way to think about it. You are not choosing which network to join; rather, you are creating a new network of your own. Your network is made out of individuals — the individuals whose research and outlook are related to your own. These individuals’ own networks will overlap to some extent, but they will not be identical. Most of them will attend several different conferences, publish in several different journals, and so on. You should do the same. Don’t spread yourself too thin by trying to cultivate everyone who could possibly be relevant. But don’t confine yourself to existing boundaries either.
Those, then, are the basic methods of identifying people to include in your professional network. How can you build on them using the Internet? To begin with, the most fundamental way of finding people online is to help them find you. This starts with your home page. Your home page is a projection of your professional persona — a way for people to know who you are as a member of the profession. If you have had a past life in a professional field, then you instinctively understand the point: your fate depends on how people perceive you, and so it matters what image of yourself you project. Your home page should include four things: complete contact information (paper mail and e-mail addresses, work phone and fax numbers, that sort of thing),
- links to organizations you are associated with (your department, laboratory, project, professional associations, events that you are involved in organizing, classes you teach, etc),
- full citations to all of the publications you want people to know about (these should ideally be linked to complete text for all of those publications), and
- links to other Web-based facilities that you maintain, for example a page of links to resources that are relevant to your research
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”. The publisher may grouch at you or say no, but it’s worth a try — vastly more people will read your work online than in the dusty pages of a journal. The best situation is when you publish in a journal (or conference proceedings) that is itself online. In that case you can link from your home page to the official version of the publication, and the official version of the publication can include a link back to your home page. In general, the more you spread around links to your home page, e.g., by always including your URL in your bio when you write magazine articles and the like, and by including it in all of your messages to discussion groups and the like, the more it will help you to connect with others.
Unless you know what you’re doing, I do not recommend including personal information on your professional Web page. If you do want to maintain a personal home page for your friends and family, or if you want to post your baby pictures and jokes and links to TV show fan pages, get an ISP account and create a completely separate home page for that purpose. I also do not recommend putting goofy stuff on your professional home page. Your professional home page need not be dour and pompous, but it should not be frivolous either. Humor is okay, but professional humor. It’s a fine line.
Having made yourself visible on the Web, you can also use the Web to search for people whose work is relevant to your own. Web searching certainly does not replace library work. But the library and Web sort the world in very different ways, and you can accomplish a great deal by moving back and forth between them. Look for specialized online resources that are specific to your field, directories of research project in your field that people might have built on the Web, and the home pages of relevant university departments and other research institutions. Hunt through them, and notice how badly designed most people’s home pages are for your purposes. When you do find useful materials, such as online research papers, be sure to capture URL’s and citations for future reference. You might even consider creating your own Web page with links to those resources, thus saving both yourself and other people the trouble of searching for them again.
You can also use online discussion groups to find people, but you should do so cautiously. If someone in a discussion impresses you, don’t approach them right away. (It’s obviously okay to answer routine functional requests on the order of, “does anyone know …?”, provided you simply answer the request and leave the networking for later.) Instead, head back to the library catalog and periodical indexes (which are probably on- line anyway), look the person up, read a sample of what they’ve written (especially any books they might have published — at least skim them), and proceed with the next step. Then use standard Web search tools to locate this person’s home page, which might include some citations or even complete papers. Only if you cannot find any relevant publications should you consider sending the person a concise note saying, “what you said about XXX is interesting to me because of YYY; if you have an article on the subject ready to distribute then I’d much appreciate a copy”.
Or, having listened in on a discussion group for a while and observed its customs and conventions, you might consider contributing something yourself. Don’t just react or chat. Instead, write an intelligent, self-respecting, unshowy, low-key, less-than-one-page message that makes a single, clearly stated point about a topic that’s relevant to both their interests and your own, preferably but not necessarily as a contribution to an ongoing discussion. Since your message might be read by people all over the world, avoid any slang or jokes which might not travel well. Sit on this message overnight to make sure you’re not just reacting to something or repeating a familiar point that happens to make people in your community feel good. If you’re feeling uneasy or compulsive about it then just throw it out and wait for another day, or get comments from someone whose judgement you trust.
Having thus refined your message, contribute it to the discussion group and see what happens. If nothing happens, don’t be too concerned. Part of having a public voice is that your audience isn’t always directly visible; you won’t always get the same kind of immediate feedback that you get in a one-to-one, face-to-face interaction. So resist the urge to agitate until you get a visible response. If your message happens to start a discussion then listen respectfully, constructively acknowledge all halfway worthwhile responses, and be sure you’re not just reacting to things. This process might flush out some people worth adding to your network. Or it might not. In any case it will get your name out and will establish your reputation as an intelligent and thoughtful person.
Remember: don’t bother doing any of this until you’ve written up some work and are ready to actually start building your network.
One thing that does not work, in my experience, is broadcasting a message to half the world saying, “I’m looking for people who are working on such-and-such”, or “I’ve written papers about X and anyone would be welcome to read them”. I don’t know why exactly, but such broadcasts either don’t reach the most worthwhile people, or the most worthwhile people are too busy to answer them. Whenever possible, then, approach people as individuals. What you can do, aside from publishing your work and giving talks at conferences, is to send messages individually to small numbers of people saying, “Can I ask your help? I’m trying to locate people who are working on such-and-such. I’ve tried the obvious sources in journals and indexes, but without much luck. Any leads you
can offer would be much appreciated.” Only do this if you have a specific purpose in mind for finding such people, such as organizing a workshop or other professional activity.
Write to these people individually.
The right way to start a professional relationships with someone whose work is relevant to your own is not entirely obvious. Unless you are already well known in the person’s field, you should not simply approach them and say, “hey, I hear you’re interested in …”. The reason for this is profound, viz, whereas ordinary social life calls on you to simply be yourself, professional life calls on you to construct and maintain a complex professional persona that is composed largely of your research, writing, and professional activities.
Therefore, in approaching possible professional contacts, you should let your research articles be your emissaries. (If you haven’t written anything yet, let your networking wait until you have. Unpublished articles, conference papers, and research reports are all okay. In writing your first articles, you will want to lean heavily on your local system of advisors, mentors, and peers; the skills involved in this process are a subject for another time.)
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?”.
Don’t drop dead if you don’t get a response right away. Anybody who isn’t egotistical will appreciate your taking the trouble to write them. Most people are thrilled to learn that someone understands what they’re saying. If they don’t reply, that’s regrettable but it just means they’re busy. The deep principle is that network-building takes time. It’s a long- term investment. You have to get your name out there. Keep taking the actions that I am describing, and trust that your community will come together when it needs to. The lack of an immediate response does not mean that nothing was accomplished, and you should not read any meaning into it.
In some countries, custom places great emphasis on “being introduced” to someone. That is, if you wish to meet with person X, you must first convince a professional peer of X, let us say Y, to formally introduce you at some professional gathering, or at least write you some kind of letter of introduction. While this procedure is harmless enough in itself
as a substitute for the kind of letter I described above (provided that you have written a relevant paper along the lines I also described above), I think it is most unfortunate when customs actually require introductions. The effect is to reproduce social inequalities by making it difficult for anybody new to break into the existing circle of professional contacts. The procedure I advocate may sound embarrassingly American, but it is also relatively egalitarian.
A few comments about the paper itself.
- Make sure you include full contact information on the front page. That includes your mailing address, phone number, e-mail address, and home page URL. Be sure to mark the paper as a “draft” unless it has been formally published, and put a date on it to distinguish different versions.
- Double-check all of your quotations from other people’s work. It is remarkably easy to get them wrong.
- Write a good abstract. A bad abstract just announces a question (“topic X is important and I will say something about it”), but a good abstract also answers the question by clearly stating the substance of your new idea or discovery. You may resist putting the bottom line of your paper right there in the abstract; it feels like you’re making the paper redundant. But don’t worry; it only feels that way because you know how the conclusion is arrived at.
- Do not use citations as a form of flattery. This sort of thing fools nobody. Instead, think of a research paper as a kind of open letter, with the people you cite included among its addressees. The research literature is a conversation, and your paper is a way of starting new conversations with people in your area. When in doubt, get advice.
In the old days, the article and letter you sent to approach someone were both printed on paper. Should you use electronic mail instead? I actually recommend using paper. At least you shouldn’t use electronic media just because they’re modern. For one thing, paper is much easier to flip through quickly or to read on the subway. It’s also much easier to write comments on. Use your judgement. If you do decide to employ electronic mail for this purpose, use just as much care as you would on paper. Remember that first impressions count. And don’t try to use e-mail for the get-to-know-you type of chatting that should logically follow at this point. Instead …
Meet each person face-to-face at a professional meeting.
Research people normally go to great lengths to attend conferences and other professional meetings, and computer networks are unlikely to change this. So submit papers to conferences. Once you’re at a conference, by all means attend the talks that interest you. But spend most of your time tracking particular people down and talking to them. If your target is scheduled to speak, attend the talk, take notes, brainstorm low-key questions and conversation topics, and then introduce yourself as the crowd is breaking up, or in the
break or reception time afterward. The person’s talk will provide conversation topics, and most people are more relaxed after their talk is over anyway. You shouldn’t introduce yourself out of the blue by saying, “I wrote you a letter, remember?”, but you can gently refresh their memory a moment or two into the discussion. Unless you really know what you’re doing, you should keep the conversation to safe, professional topics. Ask questions about their work that you genuinely want answered. Ask them about the people they work with. Figure out who you know (that is, professionally) in common. Say things like, “I hear that your school has started a new such-and-such program; is that something you were involved in?”, or “So-and-so from your group joined our faculty recently; nice person, interesting work”. If other people, projects, or laboratories come up in the conversation, say whatever positive things you honestly have to say about them — avoid criticism and negativity.
The most important project, once the discussion turns to matters of professional and intellectual substance, is the articulation of shared values, for example, “we both believe in using research to change the world”, or “we both believe in using both qualitative and quantitative methods judiciously, without any a priori bias against either”. Shared values make for stronger professional bonds than shared ideas or shared interests alone. Don’t rush into this, but do keep the conversation focused on the concrete professional topics that will provide raw materials for it. On the other hand, if the conversation doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, that’s not your fault. Don’t force it. Don’t set enormous expectations for a single conversation. It’s a long-term process. Just say “nice chatting with you” in a pleasant way and let it go. If the interaction went well, you can end the conversation by saying, “do you have a business card?” in a mildly enthusiastic way (assuming you have one yourself); if they don’t have a card then shrug and let it go. If the interaction leaves you feeling bad, go get some fresh air, acknowledge the feelings, and be nice to yourself. Talk it out with someone if you need to. Then carry on.
If the person you wish to approach is significantly more powerful than you then the prospect of conversing with him or her will probably make you uneasy. That’s okay. Concentrate on meeting people who intimidate you less and your courage will grow. Your single most important audience is actually not the power-holders of your field anyway, but rather the best people of your own professional cohort, especially other graduate students and others who are a few years further along than you. These people share your situation and will usually be happy to talk to you.
I believe, notwithstanding all the talk about “virtual reality” and “electronic communities”, that electronic communication does not make face-to-face interaction obsolete. Instead, as I said at the outset, you should think of e-mail and face-to-face interaction as part of a larger ecology of communication media, each with its own role to play. In particular, you do not really have a professional relationship with someone until you have spoken with them face-to-face at length.
Having said that, the availability of e-mail will nonetheless bring subtle changes to the ecology of communication in your field. This is particularly true with regard to the telephone, whose uses change considerably in e-mail-intensive communities — so much
so, in fact, that many people nearly stop using the phone altogether (or never learn how) and try to use e-mail for unsuitable purposes like asking discussion groups for information that could have been gotten more easily through resources listed in the front of the phone book. (It’s amazing what you can accomplish over the telephone once you learn how. And long-distance really is not that expensive unless you’re planning to settle in for a long chat, which you usually are not.) But the role of face-to-face interaction will change as well, particularly since many kinds of routine work can be conducted almost as easily at a distance electronically as in formal meetings face-to-face. Electronic communication might even allow face-to-face interaction to shift its balance from its practical to its ritual functions. In any case, the general lesson is to pay attention to the relationships among media so you can use the right tool for each job.
One more note: when you go to a professional meeting, take a minute to flip through your e-mail correspondence and make a list (ideally on paper) of all the people you’ve “met” on-line who might attend the conference. Right before the meeting begins, recite all of the names out loud to yourself so they’ll be on the tip of your tongue. Few things are more embarrassing than drawing a blank when someone at a conference approaches you and tries to pick up a conversation begun on e-mail.
Having made initial contacts with people, I’m afraid that the next step depends on the hierarchy. If someone is much more senior than you, your goal is simply to get on their radar screen — one chat per year is plenty. (That’s mostly because they already have a full network and have begun to reckon relevance differently from you.) If someone you have met is more or less equal to you in the hierarchy, and if they still strike you as relevant, worthwhile, and trustworthy, it will probably be time to exchange pre-publication drafts of new articles. Again, keep it low-key: pass along a draft that you’re ready to circulate and invite “any comments you might have”. (Make sure you’ve run your draft through a spelling checker first.)
Upon receiving such a draft yourself, take the trouble to write out a set of comments on it. Make sure your comments are intelligent, thoughtful, constructive, and useful. And legible. Good comments include “so-and-so’s work might be relevant here because …”, “I can imagine a so-and-so arguing that you’re wrong here because …”, “I didn’t understand what you meant by such-and-such; do you mean X, or Y, or what?”, “a possible counterexample here is …”, “another question that might be interesting to discuss here is…”, “you could take this analysis even further by talking about …”, “this point could probably use more explanation because …”, “I found the transition here to be jarring”, “would it be correct to say that you’re arguing that …?”.
If you are uncomfortable writing critical comments, frame them with positive comments (“this is obviously an important topic and you’ve made some valuable observations”), develop a lexicon of hedges (“I’m not clear on …”, “maybe”), emphasize what’s possible instead of what’s wrong (“maybe you can build on this by …”, “perhaps you can further clarify this by …”), own your feelings and judgements (“my sense is that …”, “I had trouble with …”, “I couldn’t figure out whether you meant X or Y”, “I’m worried about the assumption that …”, “I think I disagree with this argument because …”), emphasize the audience (“I’m concerned that this particular audience will perceive this as …”, “I think these readers might interpret you as saying …”), turn shortcomings into opportunities (“a topic for future research here might be …”), and keep to specifics (“how does this step follow?” as opposed to “woolly and vague”). These rhetorical devices may seem baroque at first; their purpose is to let you express yourself honestly without fear of giving offense. Indeed, once you get used to these devices you may realize that you’ve spent your whole professional life saying what you think you’re supposed to say instead of asking yourself what you really think and feel. The point, of course, is not to use the precise words I’m offering, but rather to find words that work for you while serving the same general purpose.
Most of your comments will respond to local issues in the author’s paper. When you get done with these local comments, but while the issues are still fresh in your mind, it’s good to take a step back. Ask yourself, “what is the outstanding paper that’s in here trying to get out?”. Then explain to the author what this outstanding paper is like, without of course implying that the paper isn’t already outstanding. On a more mundane level, you might take a moment to think of relevant references that the author hasn’t cited.
When you get someone else’s comments on your draft, you should take them seriously without regarding them as nonnegotiable demands. When they suggest that you change something, distinguish clearly in your mind between the problem the commenter was having and the solution they suggested. If they saw a problem (grammar, logic, fogginess, etc) then a problem probably does exist and you should probably fix it in some way. But their particular solution might not be the best one, and you should not feel bound to adopt it. In fact, the most common error in using such comments is to follow them superficially, making the changes that entail the least possible effort, without honestly asking yourself what the underlying problem (if any) might be. For example, it will sometimes be clear that the reader misunderstood something you wrote. Their misconstrual will usually be offensively absurd, and you may feel frustrated. The solution to this problem is not to send the commenter a message to set them straight, but rather to figure out how a reasonable person, operating from a particular background of assumptions, might misconstrue what you wrote in that way — and revise accordingly.
Such misunderstandings will naturally happen in moderately large numbers as you’re first tuning in to a given audience, and your whole language and ways of explaining things might evolve a great deal as you learn to anticipate and avoid them. In general, when you’re revising a paper based on readers’ comments, try to formulate particular rules or themes or slogans to define an agenda for improving your writing. Identifying such an agenda will make you more aware of potential problems in the future, as well as motivating you to take some action about them, for example by rereading Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style” or Claire Kehrwald Cook’s fabulous and little-known copyediting book “Line by Line” one more time.
The ritual of meeting people and exchanging drafts is tremendously important. It’s a shame, therefore, that nobody ever seems to teach you how it’s done. When in doubt, ask
for help. And if somebody comments a draft for you, thank them, include them in the paper’s acknowledgements, and be willing to reciprocate. (You don’t need to make an explicit offer of reciprocation, though, any more than you need to express your willingness to pass the salt — it’s understood.) Doing so will cement a long-term professional relationship — a new member of your network. What is more, having thoughtfully reflected on others’ comments on your work will help you to internalize their voices. That way, their voices will keep on talking to you during later projects. You will be smarter as a result, and you will have a clearer and more realistic sense of who your audience is and how they will react to your writing.
Once again, you should decide whether to use paper or electronic mail to exchange comments on drafts of articles. I recommend using electronic mail. Read the paper once with a red pen, marking small items and writing two-word marginal comments — just enough to remind you of your thoughts an hour later. Having marked the superficial problems, you may need to read the draft again with more weighty questions in mind.
Again, simple comments in the margin will suffice. Then, right away, before your thoughts fade, sit down at a computer and type in a long e-mail message with all of the thoughts that your two-word comments call back to mind. Just keep typing until you run out of red markings to explicate. You will be amazed at how much useful material you can generate in a short time. Once you are finished, toss the author’s draft in the recycling bin. The author will miss out on some of your detailed copyediting, but you don’t want to take the risk that the author will misunderstand the cryptic comments you wrote in the margin. If you do decide to paper-mail the marked-up draft to the author, put your name and phone number on it so they can keep track of whose comments were whose.
Keep coming up with simple ways to be useful to the people in your network. A few times a year is plenty. Pass things along to them. Mention their work to other people. Plug them in your talks. Include them in things. Get your department or laboratory to invite them to speak. Put them up when they come to town. Write reviews of their books. And invent other helpful things to do. None of this is mandatory, of course, but it helps. And I can’t repeat this often enough: keep it low-key. Never, ever pressure anybody into anything. Don’t say “please” or “I know you must be very busy”, which can sound like emotional manipulation. Don’t heap so much unsolicited help on someone that they feel crowded or obligated. Don’t complain. Don’t approach the whole business as a matter of supplication and begging, but rather as ordinary cooperation among equals. Likewise, make sure you’re exchanging these favors out of courtesy and respect, and not as phony politicking — everyone hates that stuff. Build relationships with personal friends outside of work so you won’t be unconsciously trying to get professional contacts to play roles in your personal life (for example, the role of sounding board for your troubles). If you don’t hear from someone for a while, let it ride. If you feel yourself getting obsessive about the process, go talk it out with someone you regard as wise.
Following up with people is one area where e-mail makes a qualitative difference. Once you’ve established a professional relationship with someone, e-mail provides a convenient way to maintain a steady, low-key background of useful two-way interactions. You might wish to forward things to people (abstracts, interesting messages, conference announcements, press releases, book reviews, whatever) depending on their interests. Or you might wish to recommend their papers (in a low-key way, with a concise summary and a complete citation, and only if you really mean it) to e-mail discussion groups. Don’t overdo it, and pay attention to whether the gesture is being reciprocated.
After a (long) while you might consider building an electronic mailing list of people who share your interests and would like to get interesting stuff forwarded to them routinely — including, of course, your own abstracts and shorter papers. Never add anybody to such a list (or any list) without asking them, and never pressure them or make a big deal out of it. (And make it a real mailing list, run on an automatic server that lets people subscribe and unsubscribe automatically, rather than a long list of addresses that you send a message to. If you do have to send mail to a large number of people at once, be sure to put their addresses in a Bcc: field, not in the To: field where everyone will have to look at them.)
E-mail is also obviously useful for a wide variety of other purposes, for example scheduling and organizing professional events. Make sure that some purpose is actually being served; don’t engage in professional e-mail correspondence simply for the sake of it.