The work of graduate school is an increasingly public affair. As a 21st-century graduate student, you have a public profile, and it is up to you to manage it.
That does not mean that you must corporatize your image. You don’t need a particular kind of public profile. What you do need is a coherent public profile that isn’t inscrutable to the people whom you’d like to work with -- be they history professors, social justice advocates, nonprofit case workers or government employees.
Not all graduate students feel comfortable with the increasingly public-facing nature of higher education. “I’m a Serious Academic, Not a Professional Instagrammer,” for example, was one Ph.D. student’s take on the supposed damage social media is doing to academic culture. Written “from the perspective of a young Ph.D. student, not some cranky old professor harking back to the good old days,” the essay contains a lot of stereotypes and exaggerations. For these and other reasons, the piece was quickly taken to task on academic Twitter and elsewhere by the likes of The Tattooed Professor and Dean Burnett.
The anonymous author suggested that academics use social media “as proof of their dedication to the profession, as if posting a picture marks them out as more enthusiastic than their peers.” The writer goes on, “Those of us who wish to keep our social media accounts private … face being frowned upon for somehow being less enthusiastic about what we do.” This strategy of proving one’s enthusiasm, the writer suspects, is imposed from outside the rank and file of academics, stemming “from the work of career advice gurus.” The writer imagines that such a guru would tell Ph.D. students: “You must remember, potential employers could be Googling your name right now, keeping an eye on your social media timelines … Try to tweet regularly to ensure that people know that you love your work and are truly dedicated to the world of science.”
Are “career advice gurus” responsible for the academy’s changing attitudes about social media? Not likely. Academics are changing the way they engage the public for a variety of reasons. Not least of these is the fact that higher education is in the middle of a shift in the way it values and rewards public scholarship. In America, agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities are increasingly interested in connecting the work graduate students and professors do with the general public.
Graduate students are in the middle of this movement. Yet graduate education typically features little to no training in how to navigate this brave new world. Those who mentor and teach graduate students are often hesitant to offer advice, and departments can be slow to recognize the value of public scholarship. Graduate training -- with its emphasis on deep specialization and its arcane publicity practices -- often turns good communicators into mediocre communicators, and mediocre communicators into incoherent, uninteresting, hesitant and self-conscious communicators.
This regression is true of academic writing, and it’s also true of the public profile of graduate students. That’s because unless you have a model adviser -- or a star in your department who engages the public mindfully -- you’ll probably follow academia’s norm. And that norm doesn’t produce too many compelling public figures.
This continuing grassroots recalibration of graduate education means that today’s graduate students are in a kind of limbo, between an older model that rewarded insularity and a developing model that increasingly values engagement (i.e., by rewarding it during hiring and promotion).
So, in this interregnum period, what is a graduate student to do? My advice: establish a public profile for yourself and don't let that profile drift. There are several reasons why.
For starters, the academic job market requires you to have a coherent profile. Karen Kelsky writes that when you’re on the academic job market, you should think of yourself like a candidate for office. Your first priority is to establish your candidate platform. It makes sense: if you don’t know what your research, teaching and service priorities are, how will you manage to convey them to a group of people who’ve never met you?
Further, if you don’t prioritize, your job application documents will read like a bloated listicle. Kelsky writes that search committees “don’t want to know about every last little thing you’ve ever done or thought. They want to know you, rather, as a neat, legible and memorable package of skills that meets their needs for the job advertised.” (For more insights like this, pick up Kelsky’s book, The Professor Is In. It’s an affordable and indispensable guide to the academic job market.)
A coherent platform is even more important on the regular job market. Finding careers outside academe can be daunting. A good way of starting is by identifying discrete publics with whom you can engage in meaningful ways.
Here’s an example of what I mean: a colleague of mine -- let’s call her Violet -- is currently gearing up for her first tilt at the tenure-track job market. Violet knows, however, that the academic job market is like a comb-over -- it gets worse every day. So throughout graduate school she’s been developing connections and experience on several career fronts about which she feels very passionate. She’s found time to work during a part-time job, averaging four to six hours a week during the busy stretches of the academic calendar and more during the slower months. She has a healthy volunteer profile on issues like education reform, immigration reform and advocating for international students.
Her ongoing, public commitment to that trio of issues has led to opportunities she wouldn’t have had otherwise. Because those issues tie closely to her research, and because she’s actively networking in those areas, two advisory boards have recruited her. Even better, job leads come her way every so often, forwarded by the contacts she’s made along the way.
When I caught up with Violet last week, she told me that her strategy was to find people and causes that interested her. Those people and causes led her to identify career paths rather than the other way around. Along the way, she told me, she built skills and confidence. And it was through nonacademic networking that she ended up connecting with a senior scholar in her field, who works for a think tank that she’s interested in joining. Connections like that, she told me, work on a variety of levels. For example, the senior scholar gave her feedback on her dissertation and also will serve as a reference when she applies for nonacademic jobs. The first probably wouldn’t have happened through typical academic channels, and the second definitely wouldn’t have.
As Violet’s story suggests, cultivating a coherent public profile will work best if you begin early on in your graduate career. If you wait until your last year of graduate school, or until you are out of graduate school, you probably won’t have as much success as if you'd started earlier.
For the most part, you can choose what you look like online. “Serious Academic” exaggerates: employers aren’t scouring your digital record for stray off-color remarks. But you do have what job search gurus like to call a Google résumé. While potential employers are unlikely to dive too deeply into any part of your online profile -- this depends on the job you’re after, of course -- a quick scan of the first few pages of a Google search of your name is common practice.
So do take care that your overall online profile tells the story you want to tell. Like a good storyteller, make sure you’re always thinking about the audiences that you want to reach. Don't assume, for example, that a lukewarm profile is better in every case than an in-your-face profile. It all depends on the kinds of communities with whom you want to engage, and what paths you want to explore.
Find models and use bits and pieces from each example to forge your own profile. And don’t restrict your search to scholars on the tenure track. The best ideas about public scholarship -- and many of the best public scholars -- come from the likes of graduate students, adjuncts, independent scholars and other populations often marginalized in academe.