Gillian Rose has written a helpful blogpost on her blog following a talk at Maynooth about developing a career as an academic for the Supporting Women in Geography Ireland group, which I recommend reading. I value the advice Gillian gives (and wish I’d had it earlier in my career), so definitely give it a read.

I don’t wish to draw equivalences of experience (either in the sense of expertise or stuff that you do/happens to you) not least cos that experience/those experiences are clearly different, yet Gillian’s blogpost made me think of a couple of things about academic ‘brand’…

Goodness knows you can put all sorts of pressure on yourself to somehow live up to the ‘superhero‘ (*oh dear*) that seems to be asked for in job adverts (as Rachel Pitt and Inger Bewman have discussed), sooo… in my limited experience, it seems to me that developing what Gillian calls a ‘brand‘ (with those scare quotes, mind) is both necessary and problematic.

It’s a positive thing insofar as other people need to be able to understand what you do so if you have a clear and accessible ‘brand’ then it may well help with applying for jobs, for grants and so on. As Gillian puts it, try to work out:

the kind of geographer/academic that you are or you aspire to be

As Gillian goes on to identify – a mentor can help (and that can be fantastic). If you’ve got a sort of narrative that binds together, however loosely, the things you’ve done, written and taught then other people can easily make sense of who you are as an academic. Likewise, if you respond to thematic funding calls it can give you a way in. It may lead to other people actually inviting you to give talks, collaborate and so on… so that’s all pretty good – it can feel nice to be recognised and (hopefully) respected. Also, if a theme becomes a ‘big thing’ then you can get a head start, for example if you ‘brand’ yourself as someone who does ‘the geopolitics of media’ then you may have an advantage when pitching into thematic calls about the machinations around ‘fake news’ and so on…

I hesitate to say this, again from my limited experience, however – ‘branding’ can also, I think, be problematic when pursued over-zealously. I am not being derisory about ambition, I think/ hope there are positive versions of it. Nevertheless, there are strategies for career advancement that may work but may also come at a cost – sometimes to yourself and sometimes more widely. I’d like to think these are the sorts of issues a mentor can help you identify and hopefully negotiate without negative effects.

Being specific about your ‘brand’ may start out helpful but could become restrictive. For example, you might position yourself as someone who does research on a particular area (like the ‘geopolitics of media’ example above) or on/with a particular theory or theorist – you might write the journal article or book on it – but you may want to have one eye on whether you’re pigeon-holing yourself restrictively… after all, we have careers that can last decades (hopefully).

‘Brand’ carries the possible, unfortunate, connotation of monopoly – trying to become the person who does [x] (I know that’s not what Gillian was suggesting). It may be tempting to try to achieve that status too, but I think I would caution against it personally. If you have tough enough skin I suspect it’s possible to gain that status in some circumstances, I doubt anyone will tell you not to (you may just face more-than-usually unpleasant anonymous peer review comments as you ratchet up the ‘outputs’), but I wonder at what cost..?

One of us might somehow bash out eight articles in a year all on-‘brand’, they might manage a few more in subsequent years, firmly staking a claim to that theme/ set of ideas/ empirical focus. They might organise conference sessions and events, carefully billing themselves as the gatekeeper or key speaker. A group building a ‘brand’ might collectively do these things, spur one another on – they even ‘boost’ each other through citation rings. However, we might also want to think about what such practices and that level of productivity means in terms of expectations we set for ourselves or our employers, perceptions of the quality of our work, or sustainable work load.

We might want to think about the positive and negatives of ‘reputation’ that may come from all this. We might also want to think about whether we’re perpetuating problematic expectations for other colleagues – “Well, if Bloggs can write so many articles in a year why can’t you?” etc etc. It becomes competitive. Personally,  I hope that we can find ways of celebrating one another’s work rather than competing. I’d like to think that academia is a collective and collaborative enterprise…

I worry (too much! heh) that if we were to focus too much on ‘brands’ we open ourselves to the negative sides of competition that so many colleagues have criticised in terms of the negative effects on wellbeing [e.g.]. I think the advice Gillian gives in her blogpost takes us some way towards doing so, and I’m grateful she shared it.

Maybe you disagree with my ramblings? I’d welcome comments below…

In terms of how to manage our own wellbeing I wrote some stuff on here a while ago about ‘the job’ that may or may not be of interest too…
Academic emotional labour
Illness, reflecting on work…

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2 Replies to “Careering”

  1. Really interesting thoughts, thanks Sam.

    Not a comment from me so much as the whole debate is v.interesting, and seems tied to a rearticulation (or more palatable articulation?) of who an academic *is*, or what an academic *does*, to the outside world (including to funders and others with a vested in categorising things in recognisable ways). Food for thought for early career researchers, certainly!


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