The B Word: Personal Branding in the Academic World

Originally published April 9, 2018.

I fought self-promotion for the first five years of my academic career. I insisted that if I did work worth recognition, my peers and superiors alike would see my hard work and reward it with their attention. And I wasn't wrong in this—advisors, peers, and reviewers are happy to pile praise on strong research and, to a lesser degree, teaching.

But praise isn't worth much. It's attention that's the goal, attention to our research and ideas, attention from other scholars as well as those who could benefit from our ideas in the greater public. So while it's nice when the circle of peers we most closely associate with recognize our achievements, it's far more important that those beyond our bubbles come in contact with our ideas.

Here's an example from close to home: I research journalism history, and I know how valuable my research could be to today's journalists. But unless I can get my ideas in front of those journalists and other influential scholars and industry leaders, they will never reach their potential. Too often we put months or years of effort into our research, get it published in a journal, and assume our work is done. But our journals rarely have publicists. If we want our work to be widely read, that work is left to us.

“If no one knows who I am or why they should care what I think, my ideas will never rise above the digital noise.”

This is where academics can benefit from personal branding. By taking a little bit of time here and there to develop a presence online, you can significantly increase the reach of your work because people will be able to find and share it. You can develop a network that can help you with tricky problems in the classroom and in your research. And for those on the tenure track, you can elevate your stature among your peers and find new opportunities for research collaboration and funding.

This is certainly a strong motivation for my own personal branding efforts. I want a platform to advocate the changes that I think need to be made in journalism. But if no one knows who I am or why they should care what I think, my ideas will never rise above the digital noise.

I teach strategic social media in the classroom, and I'm going to write quite a bit on this blog about online personal branding, particularly as it relates to those of us working through the tenure track process. For starters, here are four steps every academic who is doing work that matters should take right now to make their ideas more visible:

  1. Create a personal website and use it as a hub for linking to and commenting on your research. This should not be on LinkedIn or one of those academic websites that has tried, and failed, to become the social hub of academia. You want people searching the web to find your own website and not be distracted by the social media melee. It doesn't have to be expensive, and it doesn't have to cost a dime, although spending $10 a year for a custom domain (www.yourname.com) is well worth it. To get started quick and free, try github's free personal pages.
  2. Start a blog. This should be a component of your personal website. Take at least an hour or so a month to post an update on your research. Be patient. It can take several months to develop a loyal readership.
  3. To help draw attention to your work, share your blog posts on social media. In my early efforts to draw more attention to my research, I've found sharing my blog posts with friends on Facebook is extremely helpful.
  4. Speaking of social media, converse about your research on Facebook and LinkedIn. I was surprised, when starting down the personal branding path, to discover there are lots of social media groups where academics are getting together to chat about teaching and research. A ten-minute search will yield a lot of new connections.

Each of these points deserves a blog post of its own. They're forthcoming. For now, just stop thinking of branding as a dirty word. If your work is worth doing, it's worth publicizing.

Ken Ward