How to spin the plates of academic visibility, engagement and pleasing yourself

Think like a journalist. Think like a content creator. Think like a musician. Jonathan Wilson gives tips on getting ahead in your career without sacrificing personal satisfaction

Jonathan Wilson's avatar
Regent's University London
8 Jun 2023
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Spinning the multiple plates of being an academic

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I’ve successfully climbed the academic career ladder − now what?
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Getting the balance right between standing for something, cheerleading the successes of your students and institution, raising important issues, bringing new thinking and demonstrating impact (read: value and staying employed) with being a complete, multidimensional and authentic individual isn’t easy. Add to that being a box-office teacher, great student recruiter and efficient administrator, yet also a free spirit – all on a time-poor schedule and shoestring budget – and you might be feeling your head whirling faster than the multiple plates you’re being expected to spin.

These spinning plates require additional planning and timetabling beyond our regular teaching, admin and research duties, in a way that is intentional, strategic and plays both the long and short games, so that the balance of recognised performance, career stability and personal satisfaction swings in your favour.

Here are some tips that helped me, and can help you, build an ecosystem of communication, dissemination and expression – spearheaded by LinkedIn and supported by Twitter and Instagram – that creates tangible assets that can help offer meaning to who we are, what we do and why we do it.

Think like a journalist

Have a “features list” of key topics of personal interest that you intend to speak about over a time period of your choice, so you’re covering the main themes within your area of expertise regularly. But also be open to working in the moment on what is trending to capitalise on activity and interest. This can mean working quickly and sometimes burning the candle at both ends by pushing yourself to capitalise on a trending story because it’s worth it. Journalists do this all the time, and what’s “worth it” in this context is up to you to decide: visibility? Networking? Speaking and media invitations? Championing an under-represented perspective or cause? An opportunity to further define your professional profile? Laying the groundwork for a career pivot? Something else?

For example, I’ve expanded my output to guesting on podcasts, writing magazine articles, live streaming, vlogging and working with online platforms (such as GoodHabitz, FutureLearn and LinkedIn Learning) on high-production-value masterclasses. With this approach, journal papers take a back seat and are the culmination of a series of iterative interactions from other, shorter, more immediate communication channels. The benefit is that you then have a long-tail trail of multimedia assets linked to communities, which will help to grow your network and visibility and map back to your more academic work.

Think like a content creator

Journalists disseminate news, communicating its relevance and importance in the here and now. But content creators understand the value of personal branding, injecting their personality and encouraging you to remember them. In addition, they bring to our attention things that many take for granted, overlook or have forgotten. They look for meaning and entertainment in a direct and easy-to-digest format. Have you thought about capturing a day in the life of what you do? Or sharing what’s on your mind? Or taking a selfie after a great class or conference presentation? The key here is not just to document, but to make it interesting and intriguing. Look for the art in what you do and capitalise on it.

Think like a musician

Lock yourself away and create your “album”. In our academic context, the album is the overarching theme, concept and message – packaged in a way that’s easy to share and for others to pick up on. As such, your ideas, findings, articles, lectures, PowerPoints, podcasts, vlogs and so on will be the “tracks” on your album that you then “perform” in front of audiences for the next few months. Collectively, they form the backbone to what you stand for and how you position yourself.

Musicians who are recording artists understand that there are definite phases to their work. First comes pottering about (with purpose). Then comes jamming. Then writing, rehearsing, recording, rehearsing again, promoting, performing. Each phase requires a different skill and mindset. As do the various outputs and phases expected of academics: research, collaboration, creating, publishing, speaking and generating income. Considering these stages, I’ve learned to embrace the importance of being introverted, in solitude, extraverted and swimming in the action – each at the right time. But perhaps most importantly, all of this needs to lead you to explore being inimitable and developing your own style, because that is what will help you develop a reputation as a recognised expert with a bankable and unique positioning.

What’s your palate cleanser?

I talk a lot in public and in class about inequalities and where things aren’t working – but that doesn’t mean I’m a grumpy guy who doesn’t get along with people. Thus, it’s crucial to intentionally look for good news and things that bring people together as part of your output activities. Music, food, travel, culture, fashion, entertainment and sport are my favourites, but you might find others. Also, remember to look for the humour in everything because, if employed correctly, it can be a useful way to dissipate difficult conversations and keep lines of communication open longer.

Final thoughts

Ultimately, try to reflect upon what footprints you’d like to leave behind, their value and what people will remember about you when you’re not in the room. The closer those things are to how you really are and what you strive for, the better. While I’ve impressed the importance of the here and now (ie staying relevant and employable), I think it’s more important to be concerned with the Gestalt that defines you over the long term. First and foremost, please yourself and the people you care about.

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

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