The art and science of academic self-promotion

November 17, 2011, 8:25 am

I was joking with academic friends a few nights ago about another friend who is something of a shameless self-promoter. When something good happens in his life, like an award or grant, he begins a round of promotion of this achievement that  begins on his  Facebook page and doesn’t stop until everyone has acknowledged it: the local newspaper, organizations of which he is a member, his blog, friends’ blogs and FB pages, the university newspaper and media center (including website), etc. If he hasn’t received appropriate acknowledgement, he might send it again. They laughed that he recently skipped an award ceremony because not enough people were going to see him accept the award.

I understand the criticism. No one wants to be around a person who is just interested in their own lives. There is something in academe, though, that requires a good bit of self-promotion. It starts when you are applying for jobs. Everyone has had to work through the weirdness of having to write a letter outlining your strengths, awards, and experiences for potential employers. It is a fine line to walk the balance between bragging (“I do groundbreaking work that has changed the face of research in this area”) and presenting your strengths (“I have explored X, a little understood phenomenon in this area, and challenged prevailing theories”). My work is important, you are saying, without implying that you are too self-important.

It is worse for those of us who have to write “drafts” of our own reference letters. I have had to do this more than once. The first time, my dissertation advisor wrote what I thought to be a very quick, thin letter of reference, not because she didn’t like me, but because she was crazy busy and somewhat disorganized. When she sent it to me for my review (which I thought was an indication she thought it might be sub par), I found a way to tactfully ask if I might give her a suggested rewrite that added a few more examples and superlatives. After working on it for 8 hours and finding myself embarrassed and stymied by my own sense of not wanting to brag on myself, I had a family member who is also an academic edit my version. He added things like, “She is in the top 2% of all doctoral students I have taught” and discussed my work as groundbreaking and innovative. With bated breath, I sent it back to my advisor, who thanked me and used the letter pretty much verbatim.

This self-promotion continues if you want to get your work noticed in the discipline. I had a senior faculty member explain to me, when I was a doctoral student, that he always sends copies of his article to everyone he cites. He also told them in a cover letter that he had cited their work, and hoped that they might be able to use his article in their research (i.e., please cite my work). That kind of quid pro quo seemed pretty tacky to me then, though I understand the practical nature of this practice in a field where promotion and tenure committees actually want to know how many times a particular article was cited.

For me, my self-promotion as an assistant professor started innocently enough with telling friends that I got a publication. I didn’t do this to brag, but because I was excited! After months of writing and rewriting, it was both a relief and thrilling to hear the work would appear in print. Grants are the same kind of thing; lots of work and waiting, and usually many tries, before one gets funded. My friends would then mention my article or grant to the chair and/or dean, who often would send the information out to the faculty. I have also had chairs and deans who sent such information on to the university media relations office, to my alma mater, and occasionally to the local press. These leaders know that in today’s US News rankings, positive press is a must. How can you improve the reputation of your school if others don’t hear about the good things you are doing? (I just filled out that US News survey for my discipline for the first time, and I hated doing it. But that is another post for another day.)

Good leaders should find ways to promote the work of faculty, students, and staff in their employ, but many administrators are too busy to pay attention to what is happening with everyone. I have also seen situations where only the work of the “favorites” get noticed, and others who are not playing golf in good with the Dean see their accomplishments ignored. So, to make sure you get a mention of your project, grant, award, or publication on the website or newsletter, you often have to write someone yourself and let them know.

Sometimes, academic self-promotion is about managing our insecurities. I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about my alma mater, in that I didn’t have the easiest time there and don’t always feel very appreciated or even respected by some of my former faculty. So, I have sent them (or had my chair  send them) announcements about my accomplishments. When I got a national award, I made sure the alumni association knew. Yes, it is somewhat petty, but it makes me feel better when I think they have to acknowledge that I have skills and abilities.

I discussed with my friends the issue of what counts as shameless self-promotion and what is wanting to share excitement and pride in one’s accomplishments. It is difficult to clearly delineate between the two. I wonder if we sometimes criticize what we see as too much self-promotion out of jealousy, insecurity, or basic dislike of the person involved. If I like Jenny, I see her announcement about receiving an award as an invitation to celebrate with her and even to be proud of being her friend. If I dislike her, I think she is a self-aggrandizing freak who thinks only about herself and her own life. If I am jealous of the attention she is getting or feel insecure about my own place in our department, I express my disgust at her attention-grabbing and rationalize that many good researchers and teachers (like myself) go unacknowledged and unrewarded.

As an administrator, I try to celebrate (and have others celebrate) the accomplishments of everyone in our program. If someone doesn’t tell me what is going on with them, what articles they have had accepted, what keynote addresses they have been invited to deliver, what awards and honors they have received, I try to seek out this information. I let them know that we want to recognize everyone, because (1) they are all making our program better and (2) they are each valuable and important, in and of themselves.

As a sometimes self-promoting academic myself, I try to remember not to believe the hype. I am still a flawed human being, no better and (hopefully) no worse than my friends and colleagues. On any given day, there will be many people who are much more impressive than me, who think more deeply, write more beautifully, and do more for the world than I ever will. I try to be pleased with what I have accomplished and strive for the best in the future. And I send my alma mater a note about my new job.

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