Build your academic brand, because being brilliant doesn’t cut it any more

Selling yourself can sometimes be quite difficult for academics, but as John Tregoning argues, scientific salesmanship could be vital for career progression

February 24, 2016
Source: iStock

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 yourself.

John Tregoning is senior lecturer in the mucosal infection and immunity section of virology at Imperial College London. He runs a blog on academic life.

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Reader's comments (2)

Further to my previous comment of 'yuck', notice that if everyone finally learns your 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?" then there will be no easy way for a speaker to learn if someone has spontaneously actually noticed a wonderful connection of ideas. You advocate learning how to look excited and utter 'eureka' at prescribed intervals.

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