Who Are You? – Some Tips on Personal Branding in Academia (1)
Updated: Aug 16, 2022
Part 1 - The One-Liner
Over the last 2 years, I have been attached to the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Universities Centre for Education and Learning, also known as LDE-CEL. During that time, I have had the privilege of working with a wonderful group of young, truly multi-disciplinary researchers in the fields of Engineering Education, EdTech and Learning Analytics, which have really expanded my horizon. Many of them started working at LDE-CEL just before or during the pandemic.
Now that the pandemic seems to have at least temporarily been put on hold, many of these young researchers are now for the first time going out to conferences and doctoral symposia and many also are in the process of submitting their first journal paper. Whilst they have of course attended their fair share of online symposia and conferences, they are now for the first time confronted with informal academic small talk, setting up networks and looking for (future) collaborators. For many, this is a whole new world and probably feels to them a little like Cinderella attending her first ball.
As part of the regular PhD network meetings, this time on the beach in Scheveningen, whilst making the most of what may be the only good weather this summer, I gave a slide-free (Cue flashcards) workshop on Personal Branding. The downside of slide-free is that there are no slides to share afterwards, so in lieu of this oversight, I will try and summarize the main points of this workshop in a series of blogs.
Why Personal Branding in Academia?
Well, the short answer to this is that most of us would prefer to be known for what we do, instead of being referred to by our appearance. This means that you share what you do with others (both in and outside of academia) and as such develop a professional identity of some sort, meaning you can explain to others what it is that you research and why with an aim to create a focus and engage in meaningful academic discourse and collaborations which can help you in progressing in your research and in your personal development. In this 3-part series of blogs, I will try and address some of the key elements I think you need to create and maintain your own personal brand:
How to start? – The need for a one-liner!
Imagine standing at a conference, next to that famous keynote speaker in your field during the coffee break and you thank them for a great keynote. They are flattered and in turn ask you who you are, where you are from and what it is you are working on right now.
Hopefully, despite your nerves, you will still remember the answers to the first two questions (if not, hint look at your conference badge) but that last question catches most newer researchers out. What to say? Without starting a too-long superfluous explanation (if you know me a little, that’ll be me) or the opposite, completely freeze and stammer some meaningless terms. A golden opportunity missed as in both cases the speaker will say good luck with your research and walk away, rather than this being the beginning of a meaningful conversation.
What is the solution to this? The easy answer is to have a one-liner ready, sometimes also known as an elevator pitch. In one sentence explain the who, what, where, when, how, and why of your research, using terms that are specific enough for your field, yet short enough to not lose the attention of the person you are talking to.
The Recipe for a successful one-liner
Let me try and explain this in a bit more detail using a recipe approach:
Who? You of course, and the people you work with. E.g., “Together with [namedrop your supervisors, especially if they are well-known] I am...”
What? What is it that you are researching? Usually, this is a statement along the lines of: “researching/studying/testing the effect of [variable X] on [variable Y]”.
Where? At what institute, lab, place, or environment are you doing this. This is the part of the sentence that says: “at [insert location, for instance, the International Space Station but just your university or in a certain estate in a certain city is fine too]”. This provides context for the other party.
When? This is where you give an inclination of the period your research will last. This can be a short period if you are about to do something exciting: “for the next two weeks I am doing measurements on [X] in outer space to study its effects on [Y]” or longer periods: “over the next 2 years”.
How? How will you research or measure? You can sound like a forensic scientist and say using my mass spectrometer and other nice instruments, but it can also be more mundane things such as using interviews and surveys of students and classroom observations. Be specific though, stay away from buzz or helicopter terms such as surveys, studies, big data, AI, etcetera. If you cannot be more specific, it does not actually add any information and will likely only lead to a discussion with a family member on computers and robots taking over the world. As an example: “by analyzing the data on mouse clicks by students in an online course”.
Why? This is where you justify your research. Why is it important? Why should we care? Why are taxpayers spending money on you? Great lines here are: “to improve the quality of [noble cause]” or “to find a cure for [ailment]” or “to create cheaper or more accessible [something desirable but too expensive for most]” or “to solve the problem of [Issue]”
Creating a one-liner is more difficult than you think. After all your research plan is usually much longer than this one sentence, so how to do this properly? The only answer I can give you is practice. Large family events are great opportunities to practice (unless your whole family is in academia). If you do it right, they will politely nod and be suitably impressed and accept your word for it. Else they will look confused (too unspecific) or bored (way too long). Another good moment to practice these lines is with fellow researchers in every graduate course or workshop you attend when asked to introduce yourself and your research. That has an added advantage that you can also see how they introduce themselves to others and learn from them.
The Next Steps
But, when you have this down, you are not there yet. This is just your conversation piece. But how will people find you afterwards? And how can you develop an online presence in your field? Especially in the era where business cards slowly seem to be going extinct and GDPR is dissuading many conferences from issuing participants lists? More on this in part 2 of my blogs on Personal Branding: How to let people know who you are.
This part of the workshop and the subsequent blogs were inspired by the great courses I followed on science communication and pitching your research and other advice dispensed via their social media outlets by (former) colleagues Michel van Baal, Roy Meijer, and the indispensable Molly Quell as well as the book by Leiden University's Science Communication Expert prof. Ionica Smeets: Het Exacte Verhaal (in Dutch only, sorry)