6 essentials in developing an academic career

 I’ve recently been approached by several early career researchers (ECRs) about how to network, how to focus their careers and how to start building their profile while they are still in an early phase in their career. In the university system, there is often not much advice on personal branding for academics or how to effectively network or on the use of social media platforms as often the expectation is that your published research speaks for itself.

But in today’s world where much of our visibility is increasingly linked to an online presence, ECRs need to think about how they get noticed while they are still getting to know their area of expertise. This means being more strategic where to invest your energy in career development.

I’ll share my lessons learned here both based on my own personal experience as an ECR but also from the management and leadership literature and podcasts from which I have picked up many of these ideas.

Know yourself

This is such a cliché yes but so true at the same time. Everyone should spend some time mapping out their interests, values, and what inspires them. I came across recently a Passion Assessment, which basically asks 6 questions e.g. what are you passionate about, what cannot you stop doing, etc. There are a number of different assessments out there (some paid, some free) where you can reflect over your values and strengths.

I have for example done the the Strength Finder Assessment  to have a better idea where my key strengths lie and what that means as to what I am good at and like to do. It all sounds very simple and often it is, you don’t need an assessment necessarily but rather inner reflection as to where you want to go and what you are interested in. This relates also to your personal brand: what do you want people to know you by?

Linked In

Regardless what people say about LinkedIn, over 90% of managers and employers go online to find you when your CV comes in. I think of LinkedIn profiles as living CVs where you state your experience but also tell about what you have learned in which job or degree, and showcase your skills. There is a great article by Brenda Bernstein on what this exactly means in regards to structuring your profile and what things should stand out.

One essential is the obvious: a picture. People want to know who you are and uploading a photo will make you more human and not just a name. It’s worth investing your time in creating an updated profile that also tells a story of who you are, what your interests are, and where you see yourself contributing the most. One specific profile I love is Mara Bun, she manages to write in a very funny but insightful way why she is now where she is and how she got there.

What I find most useful in LinkedIn is the ability to keep up to date with my field and networks but also to connect with new people who I might not be able to meet somewhere else. Recently a maple farmer who is also a decision researcher got in touch after seeing my comments on decision-making in LinkedIn. Now we are discussing different aspects of decision-making and it’s a great way to learn more through such personal connections.

Note to self: If you want to connect with someone who you do not personally know, send a connection request with a personal message. This will indicate that you are actually interested in the person and it is not just about growing your network. I rarely accept LinkedIn invitations without a message because I want to know the people I connect with. Brenda has more to say on this so listen here for her interview in Coaching for Leaders podcast, it’s brilliant!.

 

Twitter

Many academics might not see the necessity of Twitter, especially since it requires active use if you want to stay ‘visible’ to broader number of people. I began using Twitter only last year but I have found that it’s a great way to follow other people and topics in my field.

Twitter also makes it easy to stay up to date what is happening in conferences and workshops that I cannot attend in person. For example, during United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change CoP 23 last year, it was easier to get an understanding where interesting side events were by following the Twitter feed.

Posting about your own research on Twitter is also good for a number of reasons: it has a greater likelihood to be picked up by more people, it can increase your citations, but also get you noticed by more prominent people in your field. Re-tweeting important news and articles also stores these in your profile that you can check later for references.

Make a plan how you want to use Twitter (daily? weekly? during conferences?) and be consistent in what you tweet about and how often. Note also that bad tweets can ruin reputations so have a think what you write and how that could be perceived.

 

Conferences

Conferences have so many opportunities for career development and I always encourage PhDs to attend as many conferences as they can. These are great ways to stay up to date with the recent science in your field but also meet the people whose papers you read.

Volunteering at conferences is good because you often get to do many different roles, learn about event management, and assist experts who you might not otherwise have a chance to talk to.

Many early career researchers get discouraged when your abstract is accepted to a conference “only” as a poster. But poster sessions have many benefits that you don’t get in regular oral presentation sessions: people have more time to discuss, are more relaxed, and you learn as much about them as they learn about you.

Something that is not possible when giving a somewhat rushed 12-minute oral presentation to a large group of people where the majority is already busy checking the program which session to attend next.

 

Networking

Online platforms such as Twitter and LinkedIn are useful in networking. But pretty much the best way to reach a person is still email (Dave Stachowiak: indeed!). Why? Because everyone reads their email.

If you have met someone at a conference or have read their work and have questions or just want to connect, find out the person’s email and write to them.

Sending an email to an author of a paper you found particularly compelling is a great way to connect but also to establish a conversation about the topic. Some people might not respond but the right people will. And those are the ones you want to have conversations with. There are also limits to this: bugging an author vs. being respectful of their time.

During my PhD, I once emailed a professor ahead of a conference we were both attending and asked whether he could answer some questions I had regarding his theoretical framework as I was developing mine. He never replied. At the conference, I bumped into him and made a comment about the email. It was awkward but it turned into a funny conversation since he was so embarrassed. Now we’ve been working together on papers for the past six years.

 

Make your research relevant

One of the best ways to contribute to your field is to make sure your research is addressing key knowledge gaps in the research field. I know most PhDs worry about whether their research is going to be novel enough, and spend often the first year busily reading literature to make sure they can find a gap to contribute to.

There are several quick ways to check where the field is at. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment reports are a great source as often these have identified which issues are still unclear, which concepts we need a better understanding of, and what is still not yet known. The assessments reports are also good as they summarise the literature and main arguments, and give you a good indication which authors to follow.

Likewise, documentation from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) on climate adaptation and different agenda items, and reports such as the UNEP Adaptation Gap Report 2017 , all note areas where new research is necessary.

As an avid podcast listener, I would also encourage listening to different podcasts on your field and even others that deal with interesting topics. True innovation often comes from blending and merging ideas from different disciplines together in a new novel way.

To sum up:

  • Know thyself: Think about how you want people to perceive you and know you for; what are your core strengths and values? How can you leverage those in developing your career?
  • LinkedIn: This is your living CV. Make sure it’s up-to-date, with a profile picture, and use the sections to tell a story who you are, and what expertise and experience you have.
  • Twitter: Make Twitter part of your career strategy. What keywords can people find you with? What are you tweeting about? Be consistent.
  • Conferences: Use conferences and poster sessions as opportunities to connect with your peers. Volunteer if you can as this will be great for your CV but you can get to meet experts you would not otherwise have a chance to talk to.
  • Networking: Go “old school” and email people who you admire in your field.
  • Make your research relevant: check what the latest major science reports have identified as key knowledge gaps.

It’s never too early or too late to start developing your career and brand, even if it is just to get your research noticed by a broader audience. There is much more to this of course than what I’m detailing here, but these are at least some of the first basic steps that can be helpful in starting that journey.

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