I took an alternative route to academic success – and I’m happier than ever

I ignored senior management and marketing departments and experimented with making my work more accessible and interesting – it paid off, says Jonathan Wilson

Jonathan Wilson's avatar
Regent's University London
13 Jan 2022
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University academics can take risks to get to the top
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Judging by university websites and prospectuses, I look more like a student than a business school academic. And I don’t think there’s much appetite to change that. Unlike in industry, where there’s now a push for staff to reflect their clients and customers in terms of representation and how they present themselves, business schools continue to opt for something more monocultural and monastic.

There’s real pressure on staff to convey a traditional notion of what being a “business professional” is, what being employable means – and manifesting this in their dress codes. Every classroom is in effect rendered into a job interview simulation: blue and grey suits; short back and sides; no facial hair, visible tattoos or accessories.

I call it the business school butler approach. The goal: turning out graduates with impeccable office manners; a vocabulary punctuated with business jargon; an ability to apply cookie-cutter models in any situation, whether they fit or not, and to trim away interesting irregularities; primed to fit in, not rock the boat, dress like everyone else and avoid all talk on race, religion or politics.

But did students sign up to learn how to become so intentionally anonymous?

I extend this observation to the policing and presence of staff on social media, as well as what research is considered appropriate. I was under the impression that we were supposed to engage with what’s actually going on and matters to people now and to view “impact” in wider terms than collecting citations from an elite community of about a hundred academics.

But under the conditions many of us experience, such aspirations require breaking from convention and potentially making career choices that might spoil our business school butler finery.

My own breakthrough moment came one summer when I couldn’t go on campus because of the London Olympics and decided to set up a LinkedIn account, because I saw opportunities to connect directly with professionals, academics, students, journalists and brands.

It was also a response to being told constantly by university senior management, marketing and PR departments that some of my work or marketing ideas weren’t newsworthy, didn’t constitute what were considered measurable dissemination and impact metrics, and wouldn’t generate interest.

I ignored them. I took risks and experimented with ways I could make my work more accessible and interesting. That involved variously playing music, writing in rhyme, using emojis, humour and loud colours. Basically, I became an “edutainment prof”.

What happened? I’ve built a following of credible professionals and receive more traffic and engagement than the universities I’ve worked for – and without their budget and teams. Also, I see the balance of power beginning to shift between universities and social media platforms. There’s now far more of a pull for universities in having presence and recognition online – from LinkedIn especially, in order to demonstrate industry relevance and student employability.

This has prompted a reverse in my approach to working, which is now far more LinkedIn first, rather than relying on more peer-centric academic channels. Validation of my work now comes from engaging outside the university sector and across traditional lines of subject field, industry, geography and types of output. Alongside and instead of academic writing, videos, podcasts and live streams have become far more important in terms of reach, interest, knowledge-sharing and curriculum materials.

These activities have led to my receiving a “Top Voices” annual award from LinkedIn for four consecutive years. The platform invited me to take part in a Twitter takeover, meaning I was allowed to post content and comments on behalf of LinkedIn on its UK Twitter account for one day, around my field and interests.

I also became a LinkedIn Learning instructor and launched an online video course on its platform titled “Unlocking Authentic Communication in a Culturally Diverse Workplace”. It’s currently trending, having hit 10,000 learners in its first month. I’ve since launched another online course, this time on personal branding, on the FutureLearn platform.

Both required several rounds of interviews and auditions and were the culmination of months of work with data analysts, course designers, scriptwriters, editors, producers, film crews, video editors, graphic designers and marketers. It was definitely a step up, thinking about and being graded on hand gestures, eye contact, delivery of every word and each piece of content’s suitability for an international audience.  

My advice to anyone interested in pursuing, or even thinking about, this is to enjoy the journey of building a very personal and branded reputation. Don’t chase popularity, instead play the long game of creating a corpus of multimedia content – in different formats and lengths on a variety of platforms – that are an honest reflection of what you do, what you know, what you don’t know, who you are and what you stand for. Over time, new and perhaps unexpected opportunities will open up, and when they do, you’ll be in a better position to take advantage of them.

While this way of working isn’t what’s usually prescribed, or properly understood, by universities, when presented with evidence and results, it’s been well received. It’s been great for securing industry collaborations, speaking engagements and journalists looking for quotes. I’d even say it has revolutionised how I’m viewed, where, sadly, the calibre of an academic is often judged according to the ranking of the institution they work for rather than what they actually do. I now get prospective students and alumni contacting me directly looking for career advice, because I now have consistent visibility on platforms where we’re all connected.

Accessibility and the personal touch are things that universities aspire to. By harnessing social media, I’ve been able to take that as a personal responsibility.

Perhaps most importantly, this experience has changed my view of who I am and how I should work. By increasingly seeing myself as an independent content creator, the long tail of social media means I’m linked visibly to both a wider range of outputs and to all my previous institutions forever. This means it can become less about who you work for and more about what you do. I got into this career because I wanted to be “free”. I think I’m finally getting there.

Jonathan Wilson is professor of brand strategy and culture at Regent’s University London.

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