In the increasingly arduous toil for tenure at research universities, it’s no longer sufficient that an assistant professor has acceptable publication and teaching records. Promotion committees look for evidence of a national reputation, such that a scholar’s name is associated with a certain brand of research among his or her peers. A national reputation allows professors to attract desirable resources for themselves and their universities, such as grant money, talented colleagues and high-calibre graduate students. Any evidence that a scholar has begun to develop a national reputation during their PhD studies signals their future capacity to contribute in meaningful ways to their university. Securing media attention for your research as soon as you start publishing can go a long way in reassuring prospective employers of your potential to establish a national reputation.
With the proliferation of media by which news is delivered, there are more opportunities than ever for PhD students to gain attention for their research. Here are some tips on where to start, how to ensure the message is not lost, and how to leverage media attention into a tenure-track faculty position.
Promote your work – and yourself
It’s common practice for scholars to notify their colleagues at different universities about their forthcoming publications so they can increase their citation count, but unfortunately most don’t consider contacting the press. Some scholarly journals have their own public relations team to notify the press about interesting and important forthcoming publications. If not, take advantage of the PR professionals you likely have on campus. Reach out with a concise summary of the most important findings of your article, why your contribution is significant to the academic community and why it should matter to the public.
You should do this for every article you publish. If you’re the first author on the article, insist that you participate in any and all interviews requested of you. I’ve witnessed PhD students get press-shy and let a more seasoned co-author take interviews. Though less anxiety-provoking, this approach creates uncertainty about your contribution to the research. That is a problem at a time when professors are known to give their graduate students unwarranted authorship to help them on the job market. In fact, speaking to the press presents a rare opportunity for you to demonstrate your expertise and create a brand that is separate from that of your supervisor’s.
Conduct quality control
Always take the opportunity, if it’s presented, to review any press packages or article drafts for accuracy before they are to be distributed or appear in print. Once a story appears online or in print, it’s difficult to backtrack and correct any errors. It’s important that the public not be given misinformation, and it’s also critical that the findings reported in the press match those you present in your published article. This signals to prospective employers your ability to communicate effectively with the press and bridge the academic-practitioner gap.
If your work is somewhat controversial, avoid falling into traps that are meant to sensationalize or otherwise misrepresent your work. You might be baited or asked to extrapolate from your findings in order to comment on something only tangentially related. Stay on message and reiterate to reporters that you can only comment on the findings of your own research. It helps to always keep a synopsis of your article on hand and to anticipate and rehearse responses to questions you’re likely to be asked.
On the market
Keep a portfolio of all of your media mentions and have them easily accessible on your website. Provide a sampling of the press you’ve received in the cover letters of your job applications next to the scholarly journals you’ve published in. Explicitly draw the link between the media attention you have received and the personal brand you are developing. For example, if the media attention has afforded you invitations to prestigious conferences or collaborations with scholars in your field, mention that. If it’s provided you with public speaking engagements, mention that. All of this signals to hiring committees that you are an independent scholar capable of not only doing quality research, but also keeping your university relevant. Most academics underestimate the value that their institutions place on the latter.
Leah D. Sheppard is an assistant professor of management in the college of business at Washington State University.