Pick an area and stick to it
Academia is characterised by demarcation into specialist areas.
Few would be able to straddle mathematics, physics, chemistry and alchemy in the manner of Isaac Newton. He, like many of our other great thinkers, might not have been REF-returnable.
Modern academia is a terrain that is marked out in specialist territories where people will spend entire careers. These days, skimming the surface of many territories lowers the likelihood of your establishing a strong reputation in the medium term.
Of course, you might window-shop for a while, but don’t procrastinate too long. Choose one area and stick with your choice.
Identify the right space
Specialist areas, such as the one you’ve chosen, tend to have support structures that emerge over time. Typically there will be a membership organisation, annual conferences and some house journals. Stump up the membership fees, find your way in to their conference and be sure that you read the house journal religiously.
Attending a new conference for the first time can be bewildering, and even lonely. Expect to go multiple times before you get to know who the key players are and find some friends from beyond your own institution.
Choose a tribe
Academics spend a significant portion of their time marking. This produces a tendency to enjoy offering, if not necessarily receiving, criticism. Hence, even our neatly delineated interest areas are factionalised. This may manifest itself as new ideas versus classical ones or revolve around some other perceived slight, injustice or other form of misapprehension. Your big decision is to choose the tribe that you will join.
This key decision will lead you to identify some scholars as part of your tribe while others will become forbidden, ostracised and will be cited only in order to demonstrate the flaws in their arguments. Remember, a tribe is for life – not just for Christmas.
Befriend a local chieftain
Having chosen a tribe, you’ll probably find a collection of village elders, local warlords and chieftains who represent the key voices in your field. These individuals will have established a hierarchy for themselves based on their H-index or some other proxy.
The harsh reality is that you probably won’t be able to access the Great Om directly in the early part of your career. Pick a local chieftain and engage in a charm offensive by reading their work, citing it heavily and demonstrating that you see them as the next president-elect of the tribe.
Build your brand
Faced with fierce competition for airspace, you’ll need to have something distinctive to say if you want to be heard and remembered.
Try to find an angle: perhaps a new theory applied to an age-old problem, perhaps some other distinguishing feature, idea or methodological approach. Consciously promote the idea that you are intrinsically linked with this angle, and make it part of your own branding.
The sign of a glowing academic reputation is that your peer group acknowledges you as the leading light in relation to “X”. In part, that’s why everyone will feel compelled to cite you whenever they mention “X” in their own work.
Volunteer often and early
As a PhD student, it is important to know your place in the world.
In relation to students on taught programmes, you are an elite athlete. You have already excelled in every exam you’ve ever taken, and such tawdry things as written exams are but a memory. Sadly, in the academic world, you are somewhat closer to the bottom of the food chain.
To ingratiate yourself, you’ll probably need to volunteer to do the tasks that those higher up the food chain used to do, now resent and definitely see as beneath them.
Act as a reviewer for conference streams and take the time to do it well, offering careful, informative and developmental feedback. It will get noticed. Offer to chair conference sessions, run workshops, sort logistics, organise a dinner venue, book taxis, organise to see the local sights and so on. Nothing should be too much trouble. Make yourself indispensable.
Keep your promises
The mark of a successful career is that you become very busy. Invited hither and yon, speaking at this and that, guest-editing here and there. The very people you are trying to impress will appreciate you all the more if you appear to be the sort of person on whom they can rely.
Build a reputation as someone who does what they say. All the better if in doing so, work is also done on time and to a high standard. Chieftains have long since earned the right to be flaky, idiosyncratic and unreliable. It is unlikely that you’ll achieve such a lofty reputational position if you start out in that mode.
Build your portfolio
Every aspiring academic imagines a future state in which they can eventually claim that there is an extensive secondary literature based around their seminal works.
Even the largest oak trees start with small acorns, however. From the outset, think of your portfolio of public domain work. Your papers, book chapters, conference presentations and so on need to be curated. Aim to publish in the right places. Manage your profile on ResearchGate, Academia.edu, LinkedIn, GoogleScholar, Twitter and the various other places that researchers will look for your work.
But remember that if you want to have a serious, academic, game face and a more carefree or irreverent online identity, it may be helpful to keep them separate.
Hit the right tone
In the early stages of your academic career, much rests on your ability to build relationships.
Think of two parallel universes. In one you are a shrinking violet, too modest to promote yourself, your work or your angle; you may find yourself overlooked and ignored. Your PhD findings will be forgotten before they’ve even been finished. This is clearly not a good world for you to inhabit.
Meanwhile, in a second parallel universe you are a shameless self-publicist, talking up the global significance of your pilot study and trumpeting the all-too-obvious flaws in the work of every chieftain you’ve cited. Senior academics place restraining orders on you, and you quickly develop a reputation for over-promising and under-delivering.
Clearly this, too, is not a good world for you to inhabit. The trick is to strike the right tone. Be respectful of established figures, understand the social graces of the conversations that you’re joining, but do have something suitably provocative to say.
Above all, be good company. Nobody likes a non-talker or a stalker. Charm, wit, a good memory for details of biography and circumstance help a great deal.
The above items are a tall order, and, in the meantime, you also need to keep one eye on the PhD completion.
A salutary exercise is to remind yourself that those great figures in your chosen field were once themselves not so well known. Reputations take time to build, as do the relationships, social networks, connectivity and credibility on which those reputations rest.
Aim high, or you’ll never get there, but don’t beat yourself up too much if you have won best paper of the decade with your first forays into publication.
Robert MacIntosh is head of the School of Management and Languages at Heriot-Watt University. He has published widely on strategic development and management and sits on the council of the British Academy of Management. This piece originally appeared on Heriot Watt’s PhD support site, It’s Not You, It’s Your Data.