Researchers: fight back against your struggle with self-promotion

Postdoc or professor, the self-promotion struggle is real. So, how can we promote ourselves without sounding too ‘sales-y’? Emma Williams has the answers

Emma Williams's avatar
EJW Solutions
27 Oct 2021
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Megaphone shouting. Researchers at universities must overcome the struggle with self-promotion

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I’m sitting in my office, rather predictably staring at a Zoom window. A fantastic postdoc looks back at me, their fellowship application on the screen. As is often the case, their personal statement is somewhat, well, understated.

This researcher has raised their head above the postdoc parapet by wanting to apply to a fellowship. But once on those academic battlements, they have forgotten all the marvellous things that got them there.

But let’s look at the other end of the academic food chain. One of my university peers who now holds two professorships was awarded a national honour but I only found out by accident. Why? “I didn’t know how to tell you,” was the response.

Postdoc or professor, the self-promotion struggle is real. Why do we researchers struggle so much with this? It’s probably because scaling those battlements, waving a flag and shouting “It’s all about me!” feels so unnatural.

Unnatural it may be, but it is essential. Researchers operate in a system tied to metrics: publications, grants, collaborations and IP. Putting ourselves forward for promotion and having the metrics to do so both require self-promotion. Papers need to be cited. You don’t have collaborators if no one knows you exist. Those who wait around to eventually be asked to put themselves into the promotion round get leapfrogged by those who are happy to throw their hat in the ring (if the call comes at all). “Should have done it sooner” is a phrase I often hear from academics advising postdocs, especially those from groups that are underrepresented in the senior levels of our universities.


So, how can we promote ourselves without sounding too “sales-y”? When does promotion tip into self-aggrandisement? It’s a high wire act, but there are some simple steps that every researcher can take whatever their level.

Ideally, promotion of your research (and therefore you, as the brains of the operation) should be built in from the start. Creating processes that encourage the world to interact with your research as you do it will slowly banish any thoughts of feeling sales-y and move you towards an attitude of service. After all, doesn’t the story of your research need to be told so it can move us on scientifically, socially or ethically?

All researchers have to publish, so the first step is focused on peri-publication activities. Focus early on the “brand” messages of your work. What are the key questions? What is your “why”? Write with these in mind and use them consistently in all communications – your abstract, tweets, coffee queue pitches or conference talk.

Key words and indexing terms can be chosen well to work for you. Could a first-year grad student find your work? Could your next employer? Use all the channels available to you to promote your work, from a link in your email signature to using the journal’s or your institution’s resources. If you want your publication cited you need to embrace the places where your audience dwell. Don’t worry, you won’t overwhelm them the world is a big, noisy place. Equally, if you don’t promote it, your work will become part of the ever-present background noise.

And don’t be afraid to embrace your niche. You’ve taken time to specialise, so use that investment. If we try to appeal to everyone, we appeal to no one it’s easier to promote our research and our talents when we have a vision of who we’re crafting our message for.

The ripples of self-promotion go out from here. Choose methods that you enjoy (or at least don’t hate). If your gift is writing, then blogging, approaching the media or contributing to a book might be next. I was always envious of those who could command an audience as a speaker, but there is no better way of introducing yourself to several hundred people at once. If you’re of a more practical inclination, then organising meetings can be a great way of getting known in your field. If you struggle, engage with media training, find a teen to explain the latest social media trends or ask someone to help update your biography.

The best road map for this is in front of you. Think about the people you admire in your research field. You’ve heard of them, you know what they do and you know how you learned about them. You don’t think they’re too sales-y just because you’ve heard of them and their work. Now, be forensic. What do they do that works in your field? What has been their career trajectory? What did they say “yes” to in their careers (and when) that now places them in your vision?

What one thing could you do comfortably that would promote you a little bit more? Do it, measure it by noticing opportunities or contacts, record and evaluate. Then push the boundaries a little further. After all, that’s what researchers do.

Emma Williams is an independent trainer providing advice for early career researchers. A former postdoc, she is also a former head of academic practice at the University of Cambridge and co-author of What Every Postdoc Needs to Know, with Liz Elvidge and Carol Spencely.


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