Building your brand while in a career transition

Building your brand while in a career transition

This post originally appeared on the GCC Carpe Careers blog published on the Inside Higher Ed website on July 3, 2017. Re-posting with permission from Inside Higher Ed. This is a post by policy activist Adriana Bankston.

 

What do you want people to know you for? Surprisingly this is not an easy question to answer, depends on your personal goals and motivations, and may not be your actual job. And while I am not an expert in this topic, I would like to share my personal perspective and advice from my own experiences.

 

If you are an academic scientist in training and want to become a PI, your main goals are of course for people in your particular research field to know you for your scientific work, typically through publications and presentations at conferences. Therefore it makes sense that you would highlight these particular accomplishments as your brand.

 

On the other hand, if you are currently a graduate student or postdoc and want to pursue a non-academic career, you are likely to invest a great deal of time (after hours and on weekends) on building the skills and experiences you will need to transition out of academia. This may include volunteering with relevant organizations, writing blog posts or other statements about issues of importance to you, as well as giving talks or participating in workshops or panels in your field of interest.

 

Overtime, these experiences which you may only do “on the side” of your work initially may become the body of work that you can use to transition out of academia. Personally, I volunteered with several organizations over the years, mainly because I wanted to help contribute to their mission and goals. Through these experiences, I also learned a lot of skills that are useful today.

 

As expected, my goals eventually aligned best with one particular organization (as described below), so I became more deeply involved with them. This experience eventually developed into my career passion, which I didn’t expect to happen initially. It also gave me a sense of belonging, which is a very important thing to have when you are in the uncertain territory of career transitions.

 

While contemplating the idea of becoming a PI, I didn’t realize that the experiences I was building “on the side” could be a way for me to transition into another career path. I also learned that the things we do on a volunteer basis are likely things that we truly value and we think are important, because we don’t do them for the money. I think that if we are willing to invest a great deal of time and energy into something other than our own work, that particular activity is something that has been or will now become a part of who are. And that is, in fact, at the core of what we actually truly are.

 

Many people, especially in academia, may consider these “extra” activities as necessary for their CV in order to progress in their careers. But for others, these may actually be the way to pursue other directions. But how do you know which of these activities are useful and may lead you down your desired career path? One piece of advice I would have is looking at whether all of your activities have a common thread (which they did in my case), and cultivate the ones that may lead you down a career path in that particular area.

 

Most of my volunteering activities, especially during my postdoctoral years,have revolved around helping trainees succeed. This was not something I had planned on using for my actual career transition, but it was important for me to get involved in this cause, and I found overtime that I greatly enjoyed it. But these activities were always performed and listed briefly on the side of my job as a postdoc.

 

Over the years, I have also volunteered, and still continue to be involved with, several organizations with goals of helping trainees. So for trainees in a similar situation, and important question to ask is if you have volunteered with multiple organizations, which one do you want to be known for and put forth as your brand? And how do you decide what this brand should be?

 

Personally, as I thought more about my interests and likes, I realized after my postdoc that I was very passionate about advocating for junior scientists and wanted to work on improving policies for them. Overtime, this evolved into a broader interest to gather data and study the actual scientific enterprise, which became a fascinating area for me. This is largely my current role as a volunteer with the non-profit organization Future of Research as a Policy Activist.

 

Once I realized that this was my career goal, I decided to label myself as a Policy Activist both on my business card and on all my online profiles, even though this was only a volunteer position. I wanted people to know that I was passionate about this area, and I wanted them to know me for the policy work I was doing in this position. At the time, this was largely related to postdoc salaries – which continues to be a topic of great interest to me, and something I never imagined I would do when I was working at the bench.

 

This experience brought up the idea that it’s ok to label yourself based on your volunteering activities, if they relate directly to the field you want to into and to the area that you want people to know you for. This may be a bit unconventional, especially since as an academic you are used to labeling yourself based on how many papers you have in your field of research. But for example for me, since I want to be in science policy, I might list policy papers and blogs posts on issues in science as most relevant to this career direction. And in the way, my volunteering activities, which have now become focused on one particular area, have become the portfolio I can use to make the transition into science policy.

 

Thus, if you are going to transition out of academia, I think that finding your passion and cultivating it more intensely in one particular area is a good strategy. While I have yet to get a job in this area, I believe that this was a good way for me to discover what I enjoy doing, what I am good at, what field I might want to go into, and even what area of science policy I want to pursue and build my career on. And for me, these are major accomplishments. I think people often focus on their day to day activities in their job, and don’t take time to contemplate the bigger picture of where their careers are going. But once in a while, it is a good idea to step back and think about whether you are heading in the direction you want to go. And if not, how can you change that and use your current experiences to help you determine what you want to do with your career?

 

And once you know what you want to do, I think it is important to keep your image consistent everywhere – in your papers, talks, as well as your online presence. Particularly with social media, it is very tempting these days to share everything that you like or you think is interesting – and to some extent this is fine if you state that it’s your personal opinion. But it can also make you look like you don’t know what you stand for. So for your professional brand, it is better to focus on one (or a few) particular issue(s) that you want people to know you for, and try to become an expert in those areas – which is much like being in academia, actually.

 

And with that point, it is important to emphasize that, once you leave academia, the skills you have learned during your scientific training can also help you pursue a career outside of academia. Also, you might still be doing research, just in a different field. During this past year, I gathered and published data on postdoc salaries in a publication in much the same way I did in academia. So if you are in academia but want to switch careers, don’t despair and think that what you are learning now will never be useful to you.

 

To end, I think that finding your passion and cultivating that direction in particular can help you build your brand into something that people view you as an expert in and associate your name with. I think it is perfectly fine to explore several directions for a while, but once you find the area you want to pursue, you should start to build up your reputation. In that manner, you will have a higher chance of succeeding in your chosen career field and be able to pursue your area of interest.

 

If you have ideas of strategies that worked for you in terms of building your brand while transitioning your career, please comment below!

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