Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University renowned for his work on public choice theory, the economics of parenthood, and the signaling theory of education, has compiled some basic data from his readers at EconLog about their networking experiences in school. Turns out, the networking effect may be negligible.
Question 4: How many people you met in college do you professionally interact with?
As you might expect, people make the most professional contacts in graduate/professional school: .2 for K-12, .8 for undergraduate, 3.1 for graduate/professional. But the median is zero at all three levels.
You could argue that since my questions specified current interaction, it masks the full impact of professional connections. Maybe people use connections to jump start their careers when they’re young, then gradually lose touch. However, simple regressions of professional contacts on age lend almost no support to this story. The average number of contacts lost per year is .01 for K-12, .03 for undergraduate, and .03 for graduate/professional.
Despite the popular narrative that you go to college to professionally network, there’s little evidence to support this claim. While Caplan’s informal poll is hardly definitive proof against the networking argument for college, it doesn’t provide evidence for the claim, and among likely-successful people (the kinds of people who have the capacities and leisure to read an economics blog).
When we really break down the networking argument for school, we begin to see some of its weaknesses. On the very basic level, the networks within schools are pretty artificial. They consist largely of people your age (or about your age) in your field of study (or about your field of study) with your interests (or about your interests). That ends up being a pretty homogenous group. Networks outside of the schooled setting include people with different interests, at different stages in their lives and careers, and filling drastically different roles than your own.
On a more utilitarian level, networking through school is unlikely to yield the beneficial results that are often expected of it. To gain much from a network, you not only have to know the right people, but you need to know the right people at the right time. Your friend Joe, who was in the business school, may be crazy successful at age 60, but Joe isn’t going to be of much help when you are 27 and looking to seed-fund a new venture, or 23 and on the job market, or 35 and moving to a new city. You’ll want different people at different stages of their lives to go to bat for you, especially early-on.
What about alumni networks?
Alumni networks are a supposed solution to this problem of vertically-non-diverse networks. But the connections made through these networks are usually pretty weak, and given the voluntary nature of them, given to people who are probably inundated with such requests and attempts at connecting.
Caplan addresses the problems with weak-connection theories of networkingelsewhere:
The better your school, the more your friends and people can do for you after graduation.
This story has a kernel of truth, and may occasionally be dead right. Overall, though, the case is weak. The modern economy is vast and diverse. Few of the students you meet will end up in your line of work – even if they share your major. As a result, they’ll probably never be in a position to help you. If you’re looking for a good job, you don’t want generic contacts. You want relevantcontacts.
Empirically, friends in your narrowly-defined occupation seem quite lucrative. So are older male relatives (father, uncle, grandfather) who know the boss or vouch for you. When researchers estimate the average benefit of “contacts” or “social networks,” though, some find a positive effect on employment and wages, some no effect, and others a negative effect. If this seems implausible, bear in mind: Even if your cousin or college roommate plainly “got you your job,” you might soon have found as good or better a job on your own.
Ultimately, Caplan’s point is exactly what is noted above, your “relevant contacts” are the ones that matter. You don’t build those best by sitting in a classroom taking general education requirements.
So where do you build professional networks? The best place is in the real world, working with other people who choose to be with you engaged meaningfully in problem solving. You’ll meet people much like you would at school — your age, similar interests, similar phases of their careers — but you will also meet people totally different, at different stages of their professional careers, with different interests, and engaged in different behavior.