Promote Yourself

Apr 02 2012 Published by under career issues

An interesting question/topic from a reader; touched on before in previous posts, but worth a revisit:

I would love if you posted on active self-promotion in the sciences... that is, the idea of specifically and intentionally promoting yourself and your work to others in your field.  In my field, this is almost a faux pas because "the science speaks for itself" and so its hard to get straight answers from people.  The people I've seen who are successful are active and effective promoters of themselves and their own work, even if that's not what they say they are doing.  (e.g. I have a colleague who regularly contacts strangers in other fields that he doesn't know to make them aware of his work because, "they need to know about this research, its so important"... it's really not, but the practice and his confidence have contributed to his success, I think)

I guess my question is, in your experience, what are (socially) acceptable and nonacceptable forms of self-promotion?

Does this vary from field to field? I don't know. My impression is that it varies from person to person, with maybe some departmental/institutional variation, and perhaps also variation by culture/country.

I think a key question is: What is the purpose of the self-promotion? Is it essential to your progression in your career; for example, making you more visible (as an early-career scientist) to those who might eventually write letters as part of your tenure evaluation? Is it important for your tenure evaluation that you give invited talks? Is it a way to develop new collaborations and recruit excellent grad students and postdocs (important for any career stage)? Or do you just generally want to be more famous in your obscure field?

In my discussion, I will focus on strategies for self-promotion as an essential element of career development, not for hunger-for-fame purposes. I am also writing from my point of view as a non-extrovert. You do not have to be loud, talkative, sociable, aggressive, or even supremely self-confident to self-promote in the interest of career development.

So, what can you do? What about the example given in the e-mail above? In a situation similar to that example, I have a colleague in my same general field who has long sent copies of pre-prints to others in the field, even to people he doesn't know well and even in the days of paper-and-slowmail, just to help spread the news of his work and results. I consider this a completely acceptable means of self-promotion (and beyond the self, also promotion of the work of a research group, including students, postdocs etc.). The pre-prints are accompanied by a simple statement that this work might be of interest. Does anyone think that is obnoxious?

There is clearly disagreement, even within fields, about what is a 'good' form of self-promotion.  For example, a young scientist recently suggested himself to join a professional service group of which I am part. My reaction was "Great, this might be a good person to join us in the future", but some of my colleagues in this group said (privately, to the rest of us), "What a jerk." They thought the young scientist was obnoxious for making the suggestion instead of waiting for us, in our collective wisdom, to think of him when we needed a new member.

If this young scientist had said something like "I am so awesome, I know that you will want to benefit from my awesomeness and you are fortunate that I happen to be willing to help you", then OK, that would be obnoxious, but the communication was more like "I just wanted to let you know that I am interested in joining your group if you have need of a new member at some point. I have the following qualifications [list] and am looking for opportunities to be more involved in the professional community." I consider that entirely appropriate and even very welcome.

If there is a professional service opportunity that is of interest and would be useful for career advancement and valued by your department/community, I think it is good to look into ways to pursue this opportunity, perhaps in an (initially) indirect way, scouting out nice and knowledgeable colleagues who might have some advice or assistance to offer for each circumstance/field. If you ask around to learn more about the culture in your field and whether a proactive approach would be welcomed or rejected, you might get some clues as to how to proceed. Or, quite likely, you will get a range of opinions and just have to guess anyway.

I noted above that culture/country might play a role: that is, in whether we are likely to self-promote and in how such actions are perceived. For example, in the "self-promotion" scenario I described, my colleagues who thought the young scientist was obnoxious are not American. I -- the only American involved in this incident -- thought the self-promotion was appropriate and inoffensive. Did I feel that way because I am more used to a culture of self-promotion? Maybe. [I should note that the self-promoting young scientist in this anecdote is not American.]

Anyway, what are other possible forms of self-promotion in academia? One way to become more visible in one's field is to give talks at other institutions. Ideally, you will get inviations, typically because someone read an interesting paper of yours or saw you give an excellent talk at a conference. If you have been publishing and speaking at conferences but the invitations to visit other universities are slow to come, you could try to be more active in inviting people to visit your department (this might make them more likely to reciprocate with an invitation), or you could express your interest to a senior colleague, who might be able to help spread the word that you give interesting talks and would be a good person to invite.

A nice way to self-promote, in fields in which this is possible, is to organize or co-organize a session at a conference. This is seen as professional service, but it also gets you out there in front of an audience of people in your sub-field and gives you a chance to interact with co-organizers and speakers. If you pick a broad and interesting topic that involves more than just your close friends and associates, session-organizing can be an effective and non-obnoxious way to self-promote.

You could also let program officers know that you are interested in serving on a proposal review panel. I think this would generally be seen as less obnoxious than inviting yourself to do some other time-consuming service activity. Some panels have a habit of inviting early-career scientists to serve for a round or two, in part to give them a glimpse of how things work. If you serve on a panel, you will likely spend an intense few days working closely with a group of scientists you might not otherwise encounter, even if they are in your general field. I am only familiar with some NSF programs in this respect, so you'd need to ask around about other funding agencies that are relevant to your field; and, within NSF, whether this is how 'your' programs work.

Another service-oriented way to self-promote (sort of) is to be a diligent reviewer. I am not objective about this (speaking as an editor always seeking good reviewers), but my positive impression of thoughtful, thorough, and prompt reviewers can certainly affect my overall impression of these people and their research. It doesn't make me more likely to accept their manuscripts (if there are problems with the manuscripts), but it would make me more likely to invite them to give a talk in my department or in a conference session, read their papers, be interested in working with their students/postdocs, and to just be generally more aware of (in a positive sense) them and their work.

I suppose some forms of self-promotion also relate to where we send manuscripts for review (that is, the impact/prestige of the journal), but this involves a complicated equation involving many factors that I will not discuss here.

Are there other forms of professional self-promotion that most people would agree are acceptable, and even welcomed, or necessary? Do you welcome self-promotion in others, at least in some form, or do you think this is obnoxious ('the science will speak for itself' etc. etc.)?

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