Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Gaining Attention for Your Research - The Art of Self Promotion

Brian T. Cunningham
July, 2013

If you are considering a career in academic research, you should know that competition for the attention of your peers, industry, funding agencies, and the public is fierce.  There are now such a large number of scientific journals, conferences, and other sources for information competing for our time and attention, that nobody can possibly keep up with all of them.  However, when your case comes up for promotion or tenure, your department head is going to be requesting letters of recommendation from senior people in your field, asking how good your work is, and how it compares to other people at the same stage of their career.  How can you increase the chances that people (besides your parents) know about your research?  You can be sure that your department head and Dean care deeply that their faculty are developing reputations as the leaders in their fields of research, since that impacts the reputation (and rankings) of the whole institution.  So, by promoting yourself, you are actually doing an important service to your school – so don’t be shy about it!
However, “self-promotion” sounds so unseemly!  It is like, as researchers, we are snake-oil salesmen/saleswomen from the old American West, except we ourselves are the snakeoil.  Very few faculty have a publicity department, so if we don’t help get the word out about our research, nobody else is going to do it.  Part of doing excellent science is participating in the scientific community, which you cannot do if you simply stay in the lab, never telling anyone about your work.  So what does it mean to “promote” yourself, and how can you do it effectively.  Is it possible to overdo it?
The first and most important aspect of self-promotion is to begin by doing excellent scientific work.  Are you working on a problem that is significant?  Does your work have applications or implications for things that would make it interesting to the public?  Are you doing something unique or demonstrating an exciting capability for the first time?  In your research, can you clearly demonstrate how your approach works, and without a doubt, claim that it is performing in a particular way?  If you were to go to your next big family reunion, and if someone asked you what you do, what is it that you could tell them, so they would understand why your work is exciting?  Working on an important problem and being able to describe why it is important to people who are not experts in your technology is half of the battle.  The other half is getting other people to know what you do.
The most common methods that people use to get the word out about their work is to publish in scientific journals and to give talks at scientific meetings.  If you are consistently targeting the journals in your field with the best impact factors, and giving your talks at both large meetings with a broad range of attendees, and at small conferences that bring in the best experts in a narrow sub-field, there is a good chance that people will start getting familiar with what you do.  However, academic “fame” takes a while to build for most people.   There are so many scientific conferences and so many scientific journals that you cannot expect even every specialist in your field to know about your work right away.  So as you continue your project and continue making new advancements, you may consider publishing in journals that enable you to focus on different aspects of your work, and giving talks at conferences that serve slightly different communities.  In your conference presentations, you should definitely highlight your previously published work, and give references to it.  Your new papers might mention previous work that you did on the same topic, referencing your papers from 1-2 years ago.  This way, people will get a sense that you are building a significant body of work, and you make it easy for them to find your results, even if published in a journal that they do not read regularly.
You should also have a well-organized web site that describes your research, and briefly discussed its importance in terms that a nonscientist can understand.  Include plenty of highlight images, and links to your papers, so readers who find your web site can also find your papers easily.  While this is now common practice for faculty, even graduate students can do this.
One way to get your research noticed by more people is to have it featured on the cover of the scientific journal it is published in.  The secret to getting a “cover article” is not necessarily to have the best or most important paper in the issue.  The key is actually to create an interesting-looking image in the course of the research, that makes use of microscope photos, computer simulation results, or a conceptual diagram.  Sometimes, people use the art department at their organization to make images that are colorful and interesting, if not scientifically informative.  When you receive notification that your paper was accepted for publication, send the journal editor your candidate cover image, and ask if they would consider using it for the issue that your paper will publish in.  Since few people go through all the extra work to create candidate cover images, your image is likely to be selected.  Not only does the cover image give you something nice to frame and put on your office wall, but you can highlight it to your department and colleagues, as if you are the MVP of the Superbowl, and made it to the cover of Sports Illustrated!  I have noticed that a lot more people are aware of papers that we published this way, since many people browse through the journal table of contents, and click on whatever looks interesting.  Being on the cover puts your paper in front of ~20-50 others, and you can feel famous for a week or a month, until the next issue comes out.
When your research group has an important breakthrough and publishes it, it can be a great idea to let your department or college publicity department know about it.   If it looks interesting to them, they might send someone over to interview you and your students, and to write a short article about your work.  These articles find their way to alumni newsletters, and home page highlights – but often a press release issued by a university will be picked up by other news organizations.  The people who write technology sections of major newspapers, technology web sites, and trade journals are constantly trolling for stories about technical developments that are new, interesting, and that have broad potential for the field or for the public.  So even if you don’t know the editors of major newspapers or trade magazines, you can make yourself easier to find through the publicity department of your university.  You should definitely make friends with them, and help their staff writers draft accurate and interesting stories about your work.  This is also a great opportunity for graduate students to get some publicity.  Always include their names in the stories and include them in any photos or videos.  After all, they are the ones doing the lab work and solving all the problems.  I know of instances in which the only person ever mentioned in the lab publicity is the professor, as if he/she is a lone genius who made everything happen, as if by magic.  People notice this, and label the faculty as greedy for publicity.  The same idea about publicity applies if you or one of your students is awarded with some kind of special recognition.  You should definitely let your department know when someone has won a best poster award, best paper award, or a major competitive fellowship. 
Is it possible to promote yourself too much?  It’s a hard question to answer.   I know of faculty whose every journal paper is an act of self-promotion, who put at least as much effort into the photographs and cover art as they put into the scientific data.  I know of faculty who insist on creating a big press release for nearly every paper, and get front-page treatment for every grant award, license agreement, or other routine events.  I have seen examples of faculty to breathlessly claim to be on the path to curing blindness, making Harry Potter invisibility cloaks, and making autonomous nano-robots that will navigate through your arteries, cleaning out the plaque.  I have even seen research centers with goals that seem to imply that they will do away with death itself!  I have seen major faculty who rarely ever mention the contributions of their graduate students and postdocs.  Another trend in recent years has been to take ordinary items, and to make them “smart” by incorporating some technology within them.  Examples include “smart” bandaids, tattoos, surgical gloves, noses, and even bricks!
The temptation to over-exaggerate the importance of one’s research may seem overwhelming, especially since the examples I cited above all come from investigators who have been incredibly successful in winning research grants, chaired professorships, and technical society awards.  At some level, selling themselves as having a big vision, even if several miracles would need to occur in order to make the big vision come true, makes them seem important and farsighted.  On the other hand, I know that many people who recognize such proclamations as empty marketing, and grow annoyed when reality does not come close to matching the rhetoric.  However, I would say that this group is comprised of people who are technically very knowledgeable, and therefore in the minority.  Most people cannot tell when something that sounds spashy and exciting is the real thing.
So my advice on self-promotion is to do it, but to not over-do it.  Save your attempts for garnering publicity for the instances that truly merit it, while making sure to keep performing and communicating excellent science our technical colleagues.  Keep your extrapolations of your technical work to a realistic level, but be mindful of how you might adapt your work to make a contribution to a larger vision.  Hopefully, in this way, you will gain the respect and trust of your colleagues, let the wider world that you are working on something exciting, and to be able to deliver on the promise of your work.