Research or Branding? How To Effectively Self-Manage in Academia

January 11th, 2015


Career Development, Job Market

This text was fully written by humans.
  • In academia, understanding the different currencies of success is crucial, including publications, impact factor, and time. New methods and criticizing popular approaches can lead to recognition and opportunities, while following existing methods may result in citations but limited advancement.
  • Self-branding plays a significant role in academia, with some researchers establishing their image early on, while others explore different topics. Striking a balance between specialized and accessible papers is important, and intuition can guide the choice of research topics.
  • Developing intuition through conceptualizing problems and breaking them down into subproblems is valuable. Spending time thinking and organizing ideas leads to more efficient and productive work. In academia, there are unscientific aspects such as personal characteristics and presentation skills that can impact recognition and invitations. A sharp sense of humor can be beneficial in certain environments.

Self-manage in Academia Like a Pro: Understand the Currency First.

Science is business. If you don’t understand this simple fact, you won’t get too far in academia. Unfortunately, very many of us, PhD candidates, do not understand this. This might be because, in science, the real currency differs from money. In fact, there are several currencies. The number of publications, impact factor, time.

Of course, even if two publications appear in the same issue of the same journal, it does not mean that their worth is the same in the author’s eyes. If a given publication includes a new method, it is gold because you can recycle the same Intellectual Property and come up with applications to mint more scientific publications. And then come the citations, invitations to collaborate and co-authorship begin, invitations topped lectures and workshops training others to use the method — the fame and the praise.

Well, any new method is difficult to obtain. Yet another way to spark interest in public opinion is to break the status quo, namely to criticize popular approaches to a given problem. Such a body of work also attracts attention, but at the cost of immediately acquiring enemies for life.

On the other hand, if you are one of the followers, a person who skillfully used the existing methods to achieve interesting, novel results, you cannot count on anything other than quotations.

Self-manage in Academia Like a Pro: On The Value of Self-branding.

Another thing is self-branding. Some researchers have an idea for their own image right from the get go. After a few years, they are recognizable for their achievements on a specific topic. Others go round and round.

As an academic, you should become the to-go-to person of sorts sooner or later. But of course, delving into one topic relatively early on carries the risk of delving into a research subfield that will die a natural death. That’s the price to pay for joining early — high risk, high reward.

So, how to self-manage here? The best answer to this question might be balance — intertwine some highly specialistic papers with some papers meant for the masses. That’ll be fine. But basically, using intuition to choose the research topic won’t hurt.

Self-manage in Academia Like a Pro: On The Value of Intuition.

Honestly, I don’t believe in luck, but I do believe in intuition. And on top of that, I believe you can exercise your intuition, it is just like exercising your muscles.

After over three years spent in neuroscience full time, whenever I encounter a new potential method of solving a problem that I am working on (and this is now the problem of causality in fMRI), I immediately get some qualia associated with it. They might be positive, such as “nice,” “simple,” “clear,” “tasty”  or negative, such as “ugly,” “broken,” or “dark”. It is an immediate impression, even before I get to know this method in full detail.

And then it turns out that 90% of the leads that I thought of as “pretty” from the very beginning led me somewhere indeed. While 90% of those that I thought of as indigestible from the beginning lead nowhere for real.

It seems to me that I developed this feeling as a result of a long-term conceptualization of problems and breaking them down into independent subproblems. Most students do algorithmic stuff most of the time. They get some typical, conventional problems to solve and step-by-step instructions.

So, they google the codes already written before, read the codes, load the data, and produce the drawings to present the results of the analysis. Creating a new project and figuring out a path to solving this problem takes 2% of their time at best — they spend the remaining 98% of the time on writing code, data, and drawings, and of course, sitting in meetings where they can demonstrate these drawings.

Self-manage in Academia Like a Pro: What Is My Take On It.

In my case, the proportions are completely different. I sit and think 70% of the time. Or I stroll and think. Or I run and think. I try to organize what I already know and find relationships between various bits of knowledge, models, data… Most of this process only happens in my head.

For the first year of my current doctorate, not a single graph was created, and not a single code was created in the first 7 months of the project. And now, after spending a year figuring out everything I need to do in my head, I’m producing like crazy. I have maybe five projects open, which I pursue hard. Since I quickly see what is worth investing my time in, and what not, I save myself a lot of time.

I also try to predict potential missteps. Sometimes I see others’ missteps when other students present their projects. If I like someone, I tell them the ugly truth straight in the eyes… Of course, I still have to work a lot on my intuition, but I think I’m halfway there. And some haven’t even started.

Conclusion: What Does It Take To Self-manage in Academia?

What else about doing science read business … In my opinion, there are also many completely unscientific aspects to the matter. Some people are remembered or invited here and there half because they have good publications and a half because they speak colorfully or even because they have a characteristic appearance.

As my face is completely forgettable and I have a hopeless voice, my life is not easy here. Well, life.

But I have a sharp sense of humor. This was a problem in my previous lab, but in my current lab, it is, surprisingly, strengthened. And I slowly begin to feel that for the first time in my life I can benefit from my sense of humor.

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Please cite as:
Bielczyk, N. (January 11th, 2015) Research or Branding? How To Effectively Self-Manage in Academia. Retrieved from:

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