Telling your career narrative

by | Apr 3, 2017 | academic brand, academic writing, mindset, publishing

We had a great Google Hangout call as part of the Virtual Writer’s Retreat this week. One of the members began talking about how she had her tenure requirements in the front of her mind all the time while writing. She went on to explain that the requirements include a certain number of words of cohesive academic publication. Cue the self-doubt: Am I writing enough? If this article isn’t enough, what else will I write to get to the word count? Are my publications cohesive?

I have to admit I kind of freaked out. Here was this amazing scholar asking me: how do I turn off the tenure requirements that keep playing on an endless loop in my head? Thankfully one of the other members of the group came to my rescue. She suggested that to make her publications cohesive she needed to construct a narrative that explains to the tenure committee how everything connects, and by thinking about her branding she might be able to accomplish that in a cohesive way.

Bingo! You see, I am a fan of academic branding. Not because it helps you “sell yourself,” but because it helps you know yourself. Nobody’s academic trajectory looks perfectly cohesive. Sometimes this can be a problem—we truly can get pulled in different ways that will derail us to make us lose focus. But more often our trajectory is a continuing process of development. Everything indeed connects, but maybe these connections are only logical to us.

This is where branding can help. Branding is really just telling a story—the story of you!—and as such you are in control of how the dots connect. Using narrative, you can explain how this idea led into the next, and to the next. And truly, you should have this narrative clear in your mind as you go up for tenure.

How to write your career narrative

I think this exercise is really worth doing and should take you maybe about an hour. You’ll need two packs of post-it notes (in two different colors), a pen or marker, and a big place to stick the post-it notes like a whiteboard, a wall, your kitchen table, or several pieces of “newsprint” or poster board stuck together. Here are the instructions, step-by-step:

  1. Start by making a list of the titles of your major seminar papers (the ones that stand out in your mind), your dissertation, and any publications (including abstracts, posters, conference presentations). (Hint: Steal this from your CV and then just add in the seminar papers.)
  1. Transfer your list to your post-it notes, one title on each note.
  1. Start by arranging your post-it notes chronologically. Get a piece of paper and write the narrative that this arrangement tells.
  1. Next, unstick your notes and group them by theme. “Theme” can be line of research, topic—make it work for your field and for you. The idea is to form 2-3 (at most 4) logical groupings. Now use your other-colored post-it notes to label each themed cluster.
  1. Re-write the narrative, connecting the themed clusters together in a logical way. Ask yourself: how does theme X build on theme Y? How are X, Y, and Z connected? How would I explain to someone who does X that I also do Y? Which post-it notes should I leave out of the story (you can actually unstick them and put them aside).
  1. Read through both the narratives (the chronological and the themed). Revise them into a cohesive career narrative that tells your academic story. You get to craft this, so make it what you want it to be. Not everything has to fit perfectly. And you are in control of where your story goes from here: that’s your academic brand.

Again, academic branding is about knowing yourself. Being reflective is worth your time because it builds focus. Tap this focus to choose projects, say no, and take your career where you want it to go.

If you’re interested in building your brand, I just finished making this self-study course, so hop on over and check it out!

If you have questions about your academic brand, I’d love to answer them in the comments below!


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