One of the recurring portrayals of academics is unworldliness. There was a mortifying episode of The Apprentice when the token PhD candidate buckled in the boardroom because they failed to meet their sales target. The ability to sell rubber dog turds for an egocentric billionaire may not seem a core skill compared with pipetting, coding or whatever research-specific thing you do; however, salesmanship is central, and increasingly so as you progress away from the bench.
This was re-emphasised when listening to a presentation recently. I
knew the work was brilliant, smartly executed and highly impactful, but
somehow the presenter lost the audience and failed to convey their
brilliance. It wasn’t that the presentation was poorly delivered or ill
rehearsed, far from it. The problem was the sales pitch. I have also
been to some extremely data-light presentations which have conveyed the
story brilliantly. Reluctantly, we need to accept that sales is a major
part of the job: demonstrably so when grant writing, but no less in
papers, seminars, blogs and even thesis writing.
Be the brand: you are the product
We have two things to sell, our ideas (more of which another time)
and ourselves. Of the two, and this may sound a bit “self-help seminar”,
the main product we sell is ourselves. This product is defined by our
CV: where we have worked, on what and with whom. But these strands need
to be pulled together into a single memorable “personal brand” – the
lung T cell expert, the insect neurobiologist, the DNA crystallographer.
This brand comes into play when meeting potential collaborators,
conference organisers and funders. Interactions with other academics
tend to have three levels: an entry-level overview of your work to check
you are in the same field, followed by a description of a specific
piece of work and, if you really click, detailed dissection of
experimental design. There is no space for English modesty: don’t say
“you know, this and that, some stuff on respiratory infections”. Do
define your brand and develop a snappy single-line pitch that summarises
what you do, backed up with an exciting case study. You are pitching
this brand so that when other academics need someone with a particular
skill set they think of you.
Develop the brand: publish or perish
Having crafted your academic brand, you need to generate brand
awareness. This can be achieved in a range of ways, but publishing is
central. One hurdle is the volume of academic material – 93 per cent of
humanities articles, 45 per cent of social sciences and 25 per cent of
science articles never get cited.
Yes, the ideal is the big “impact” (glossy, single-word title)
journals, but don’t get fixated on these to the detriment of getting
stuff out there. It can take some time to generate sufficient reputation
to overcome the editorial activation energy for the glossies (another
example where having a personal brand can open doors). Target the
journals that are most widely browsed in your field: high-volume, good
(but not superstar) quality output is as good as large gaps between
superstar papers and potentially better early in your career. And while
traditional publishing has to be the central strand to your brand, don’t
neglect blogging, tweeting and public engagement.
Sell the brand: break the bread
The final component is networking, which has to be face to face and
not just electronically. Get out there and meet people – you have to be
shameless, but not rude. Invite yourself to give talks in your friends’
departments, talk to people in lifts and in the departmental tearoom. Go
to conferences, consortia and congresses. I prefer small conferences
where you avoid that “total perspective vortex” moment – being exposed
to just how big your field is and how insignificant your place in it is.
Ask questions at meetings, and use the formula: “Hi, I am Dr X at
university Y, in our system we see Z which relates to your findings
because…have you seen the same?” Corner the speaker after talks, ask
them more questions, sit next to people at meals, go to the drinks. Any
(positive) way of getting yourself known is a good thing.
What you waiting for?
I am sure you are all brilliant, you are after all reading this
article! But brilliance in a vacuum is not going to get you a permanent
position or enable you to secure the funding to test your brilliant
theories. You have to sell your brilliance. So this year, get out there,
hone your personal brand to Kardashian levels and start selling
This article first appeared on the Times Higher Education on Feb 24 2016