Building Your Brand During a Career Transition

What do you want people to know you for? Surprisingly, this is not an easy question to answer. It depends on your personal goals and motivations — and it 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 principal investigator, 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 those particular accomplishments as your brand.

But if you are currently a graduate student or postdoc and want to pursue a nonacademic career, you are likely to invest a great deal of time on building the skills and experiences you will need to transition out of academe. This may include volunteering with relevant organizations, writing blog posts or other statements about issues of importance to you, and giving talks or participating in workshops or panels in your field of interest.

Over time, those experiences, which you may at first only do on the side, may become the body of work that you can use to transition out of academe. 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 for me today.

As expected, my goals eventually aligned best with one particular organization, so I became more deeply involved with it. That experience eventually developed into my career passion, which I hadn’t expected to happen. It also gave me a sense of belonging, which is an 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 actually 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 think are important, because we don’t do them for the money. 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 we are. And it is, in fact, at the core of what we actually truly are.

Labeling Yourself by Your Passions

Many people, especially in academe, may consider such “extra” activities as necessary for their CV in order to progress in their careers. But for others, those activities may be the way to pursue other directions. How do you know, however, which activities may lead to your desired career path? I advise you to look at whether all of your activities have a common thread, which they did in my case.

Most of my volunteering activities, especially during my postdoctoral years, revolved around helping trainees succeed. That 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 over time that I greatly enjoyed it. But I always performed such activities 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 the same goal of helping trainees. For trainees who have similarly volunteered with multiple organizations, it’s important to ask yourself which one of these you want to be known for and put forth as your brand. And how do you decide what that brand should be?

Personally, as I thought more about my interests and likes, I realized after my postdoc that I was passionate about advocating for junior scientists and wanted to work on improving policies for them. That evolved into a broader interest of gathering data and studying the actual scientific enterprise, which became a fascinating area for me. That is largely my current role as a volunteer policy activist with the nonprofit organization Future of Research.

Once I realized that this was my career goal, I decided to label myself as a policy activist both on my business card and in my online profiles, even though this is 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, that work was largely related to postdoctoral salaries — this 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 move into and the area you want people to know you for. It may be a bit unconventional, especially since, as academics, we are used to labeling ourselves based on how many papers we have in our field of research. But to take myself as an example, since I want to be in science policy, I might list policy papers and blog posts on issues in science on my CV as most relevant to this career direction. And in that way, my volunteering activities, which are now focused on one particular area, have become the portfolio I can use to make the transition into science policy.

So if you are going to transition out of academe, finding your passion in one particular area and cultivating it more intensely is a useful strategy. I’ve found it has been 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.

People often focus on the day-to-day activities of 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. 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, it is important to keep your image consistent everywhere — in your papers and talks as well as in your online presence. Particularly with social media, it is tempting these days to share everything that you like or think is interesting, and to some extent, that’s 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, you should focus on one or a few particular issues that you want people to know you for and try to become an expert in those areas — which is, in fact, much like being in academe.

Finding your passion and cultivating that direction in particular can help you build your brand in an area where people view you as an expert and with which they associate your name. It is perfectly fine to explore several directions for a while, but once you determine what you want to pursue, you should start to build up your reputation in that field. 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!

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.

Adriana Bankston

Adriana Bankston is the Associate Director of Fundraising and Strategic Initiatives at Future of Research, a nonprofit organization with a mission to champion, engage and empower early career scientists with evidence-based resources to improve the scientific research endeavor. She became involved with Future of Research in 2016, conducting research on the national landscape of postdoctoral salaries. Her main interests are improving training and policies affecting early career scientists, and being an advocate on their behalf.

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