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II. Discovering Your Brand, Your Story, Your Future

Jul 23, 2017 by Dr Sally

Can you articulate what you do as a researcher and a professor in one or two clear sentences? As you learned in the first blog entry in this series, an academic brand is a concise snapshot of who you are and who you will become as a researcher and professor. This second blog in the series explores how to create your own unique academic brand to prepare yourself for a clear and consistent presentation in all of your academic job application materials.

Your Brand

Academic branding makes clear why you do what you do in your research, in the classroom, and in service to your department and university. Although a clear academic brand is important at all stages of your career, it is especially important when you are on the job market. Search committee members are overwhelmed with the number of applicants and typically rush through the screening process. By branding your job materials, you make it easier and faster for the committee members to understand your work and your strengths as an applicant. As a job seeker you must guide the committee members through your documents in a way that helps the committee decide to short list and then interview you. Search committee members look for the overall “take away” and “fit” of each applicant. When coupled with strong research and preparation, academic branding helps you move your application into the next round of consideration. Branding helps the search committee understand your potential, how you will fit into their department, and why they should hire you.

Creating a strong brand statement pushes you to think about the value of your work and what you do well beyond soft skills that fail to set you apart. Your brand statement does not say: “I have a good work ethic” or “I am a team player.” Strong brand statements are concrete and factual statements (e.g., “I am an ethnographer of the mental health of women in third world countries”) and stake out areas of expertise to provide the foundation or framework for your career (e.g., “I am an Interpreter. I use my artistic background as a lens to understand interactions between mental health providers and their patients in urban health care clinics in the US”).

Your Brand Story

Academic branding enables you to tell a compelling story about the research you do and why it matters. Your brand story can be told implicitly in your job materials or explicitly in narrative form. Think of your academic brand as if you are weaving a story through your materials. What are the various threads in your scholarly work and how are they connected? You may want to use a powerful personal story to pull these threads together. Do so only if this is acceptable in your field and make sure the story ends with who you are now as a researcher, what you care about, what you want to do next, and how you plan to do it.

Your Future

Often academics think about their work as discrete projects, informed by one another, but not necessarily creating a comprehensive whole that significantly speaks on a specific area in their field at a specific moment in time. Your brand story is an interpretation that pulls your past, present, and future together with a question, or metaphor, or action. It is not simply a list of papers or projects. It's a narrative that shows the logical progression of your work and its significance to your field.

Getting Started With Your Brand and Brand Story

Here are a number of tips for figuring out your academic brand and brand story so that you can begin to weave your brand throughout your job materials. While not all of these strategies work for everyone, some of them are likely to help you in the branding process.

Assess Where You Are Right Now. Before you begin to write your brand statement and brand story, spend time discovering more about yourself, your motivations, and needs. Consider all of the descriptions of you and your expertise that you have already constructed. For example, if you have written applications to graduate programs and fellowship grants, what do these say about you? What messages are you currently conveying about yourself?

Connect Your Core Values and Beliefs to Your Research and Your Teaching. In the process of discovering your brand reflect upon your beliefs about the pursuit of new knowledge and the nature of learning. Do you view your role as a researcher as one of discovering the immutable rules of the natural world or do you view your role as that of a subjective observer of socially constructed realities? How do you view your role as a teacher? How do your personal beliefs and values inform the methods you use in your research and the practices you apply in your teaching?

Play With a Metaphor. Finding a metaphor that describes your strengths and your values is one way to create a powerful brand statement. For example, “I am a bridge builder” is the metaphor constructed by a conservation scientist who valued doing work that directly connected to management in the field. “I am a hunter who tracks down and destroys cancer cells” is the metaphor created by a medical researcher.

Use “I-statements.” Writing with “I-statements” is a strategy to help you create your personal brand statement. Try filling in the following statements with the work you do: I reveal ____. I cultivate _____. I discover ______. I interpret _______. To find the active verbs that capture what you do, begin interrogating yourself about why you do what you do. For one job seeker, the phrase “I hear silenced voices” became her brand statement, connecting her archival research to her preference for teaching marginalized, first-generation college students in the immigrant community surrounding her university.

Keep It Simple. Your brand statement should be brief, memorable, and authentic. It should be simple enough for you to explain to an interested teenager. Avoid using jargon. Your brand statement should be memorable so that you will be able to hold on to it and job committee members will recall it without too much effort. It should be authentic. Academic branding is a process of discovering who you are. It's not about trying to be someone else. Once you have captured your scholarly identity in a single brand statement, develop a paragraph that expands on the story of your brand, what you do, why you do it, and why your work matters.

Articulate the Research Problem That You Address. As you begin to create your brand story, think about your past research and explore what overarching question exists across this research. Ask yourself, “What real world problem(s) is/are made better by my work?” If you engage in several areas of research and work on different problems, what connects these branches of your research? Although you may be interested in different types of problems, your brand statement represents the overarching question or problem that motivates you.

Free Write About Your Legacy, Your Values, Your Hidden Strengths. Do your need to discover more about how you want to be perceived and what brand message you want to convey? Take time to free write responses to the following questions to help you create your brand statement and brand story.

  • What do I want to be known for? (or remembered for?)
  • What values do I want reflected in my brand?
  • What core strengths do my colleagues and students notice about me?  

Developing a compelling brand statement and a paragraph for your brand story will help you stay focused as you develop each of the documents you need for your job applications.

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