Establishing Your Scholarly Identity

Stephen J. Aguilar suggests ways new tenure-track faculty members can define and shape how they present themselves so they can do more of the work they want.

July 26, 2018

I begin this month’s post with what I hope is an uncontroversial thesis: that your scholarly identity is multifaceted, important and, unfortunately, not entirely under your control. Instead of focusing on the aspects that you cannot control, I’d like to suggest ways that you can shape your scholarly identity so that you are given more opportunities to do the work you want to do.

What, however, do I mean when I say “scholarly identity”? Put simply, your scholarly identity is the product of your training, areas of expertise, methodological inclination, interests, publications, research agenda, reputation and anything else that may be important in your field. Thus, your scholarly identity is multifaceted and (ideally) signals to anyone who researches your work (googles you), what you have done, what you are doing and what you can potentially do in the future.

I’ll use myself as an example. I am a trained educational psychologist from a well-ranked program, and many of my interests concern educational technologies -- specifically, learning analytics. I focus on visualizations, developing educational technologies with an eye toward educational equity, and I also study the effects of novel psychological interventions on the perception of educational policies.

The latter concentration may read as an appendage that takes away coherence, but I’ve never been one to myopically focus on a single area. That tendency to develop a set of interests rather than a singular one has followed me throughout my academic life, so it contributes to my scholarly identity.

I should note, however, that the onus is on me to identify the through line in my interests, especially when they appear to be disparate. Most often, I do that by explicitly referencing the similar quantitative methodologies and designs that I have used to answer the questions I’ve focused on. That may read as an imperfect approach, and parts of it may be, but a scholarly identity, in my view, is stable enough to be referenced but fluid enough to not grow stale.

Why It’s Important

“You know who would be good for this? [Insert scholar.]”

Often, opportunities to distinguish yourself come in the form of the above question posed by someone who is made aware of a grant, a collaboration or an upcoming vacancy in a leadership role that they cannot fill themselves. They can be senior colleagues, peers, administrators or even someone who isn’t in academe. Regardless of who asks the question, you should work to position yourself such that your scholarly identity resonates with the opportunity. In other words, you want to be the first person named in the “[insert scholar]” brackets.

This is important for anyone in academe, but it is especially important for emerging scholars who need to develop upward-trending trajectories. Having such a trajectory, in fact, becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy: those with upward-trending trajectories are given more opportunities that, in turn, maintain the upward trend, which is used to justify additional opportunities, and so on.

Aside from the aforementioned pragmatic reasons, a scholarly identity also serves as a touchstone for your work. Ask yourself, “Does this project add to the areas I want to develop or the scholarly identity that I am fostering?” If the answer is no, then you can pass on projects without feeling guilty about it. That is, again, especially important for emerging scholars who may feel pressure to be helpful at the expense of their own agendas.

Finally, ensuring that you have a concrete and distinct scholarly identity that others find intriguing or relevant to them can help shape the opportunities that come your way. It will enable you to put your mark -- your spin, if you will -- on projects.

How to Develop a Scholarly Identity

Ask yourself, what are you about?

Your answer will be the first step in developing your scholarly identity. Your answer can be as expansive as you like at first; you don’t need to be concise in a thought experiment. Take notes. List your research interests, your publications, the grants you’ve received (or are about to receive). List the conferences you attend and any academic special interest groups of which you are a member. If you’re a social scientist, you might want to include your populations of interest, key theoretical frameworks and methodological competencies.

The list you’ve come up with is the starting point to your scholarly identity. It should be fairly long at first. Your task after it is written is to shape it in a manner that is easily understood by others.

Every discipline has its methodological and theoretical epistemologies, its ways of classifying what counts as knowledge. Some of them are informal to the point of practically not being epistemological stances at all, while others are overly rigid. Think of the academic community you are, or want to be, part of. Pay attention to how those epistemologies are expressed. When cultivating your scholarly identity, you should attend to them.

That does not mean you should blindly conform to the epistemologies that are around you. Instead, you should just deal with them in a conscious manner. Know what counts as evidence, what counts as success and where your scholarly identity lies relative to those markers. Understand that there will be consequences for how you respond to both.

If you position yourself as a champion of a given epistemology, for example, you may earn the trust, respect and the support of those who are fellow champions, but you may also alienate those who disagree. You may not care. That is OK. What is important is that you understand how you are positioned within the communities you care about.

Determine Where your Identity Lives

Now that have your scholarly identity, you should know, and influence, where it “lives” -- whether online, in person or on paper.

Online. Google yourself. I’ll wait.

What came up with just your full name? What if you were to google yourself plus your institutional affiliation?

Ideally, two things happen when you google yourself. The first is that information about you comes up first (especially when you include an affiliation). Second and equally important, information you want to appear comes up. If the former is true but the latter is not, then you have some work to do. It can be tricky to knock down unflattering information on search results. If the former is not true, then your work is easier. You have a blank slate to work with.

Regardless of what comes up, you should cultivate your online presence. Make a website. (A static one, as long as it’s up-to-date, is fine.) If your department or school gives you space for a profile online, you should use it and keep it current.

Consider joining Twitter, but understand that Twitter is like yelling into a crowded room with a scribe recording everything. Everyone can listen, and everyone can reference what was said. That is powerful, so be mindful of it as you tweet.

You might also join other academic social media sites if you feel the urge to. The point of doing all of this is to make it more likely that your name will come up in search results. Make sure that all of your online traces point to the same scholarly identity. Don’t say you’re interested in educational policy one place, then only tweet about something totally different elsewhere. That will lead to incoherence, which is the opposite of your goal.

In person. Hopefully, you have your own elevator speech memorized. Along with that, you should come up with a few more ways to talk about research interests and projects. Make sure that you have key language down pat. That includes projects you’ve done, including interesting findings and projects you hope to get off the ground. The latter are especially important because you probably need support for them.

Have long and short versions of your stories/projects. That will enable you to talk about your research in impromptu as well as planned situations and to do it in a way that reinforces the scholarly identity you want others to associate with you. Having a few phrases that explicitly signal identity helps. (For example, “I am an educational psychologist who focuses on learning analytics.”)

You’ll use your phrases, interests and stories most during conferences, where conversations can be as short as 10 seconds or as long as a couple of hours. They can also be handy during dinners or serendipitous encounters with funders and/or like-minded colleagues. Practice in your head or with peers. Doing so will lessen the likelihood of stumbling over your words.

Your CV. Finally, and potentially most important, have a PDF of a current CV handy at all times. Consider adding a date to it. That allows the reader, committee members and others to know whether or not your CV is up-to-date. Otherwise, people will have to infer how old the document is based on dates of publications. Try not to have too many different versions of your CV floating around or it will become more likely that information about you is dated.

Remember, your scholarly identity is yours and yours alone, so develop it and take care of it. Avoid the trap of conflating an identity with a “brand.” Make peace with the parts you cannot control, and focus your attention on the parts you can.


Stephen J. Aguilar is assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education. He leads the Learning Analytics and Psychology in Education Lab (LAPeL). You can follow him on Twitter @stephenaguilar.


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