In 1972, the late comedian George Carlin included a track on his album Class Clown titled, “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” Depending on your sensibilities, the seven words (which we won’t include here) are either offensive or “much ado about nothing.” Carlin’s seven words did not include the term “brand,” but they could have since the term often evokes a negative, visceral reaction. For many, “brand” conjures up visions of a detached, corporate monolith or a vain, vapid individual (see Kardashian, Kim?). But is “brand” a dirty word? Is it a bad thing for graduate students to develop their “brand” as a means of marketing their skills and abilities? And what is your personal brand, anyway?
We hope to answer the first two questions as this post proceeds. The third question is answered best by Tufts computer science graduate alumnus Michael Sheeley, EG05.
“Your brand is how your industry, coworkers, and customers perceive you.” says Sheeley, cofounder and chief executive officer of Kicksout, Inc. “Every action you make, product you build, or social media post you publish is being seen by people around you. You are developing your brand whether you like it or not.”
In the first two posts of this series (A Graduate Student Guide to Developing Your Professional Profile—Part 1: For Careers Teaching in Academia and A Graduate Student Guide to Developing Your Professional Profile—Part 2: For Professional Careers in Academia) we shared best practices for landing a teaching gig or a professional position in academia. Some approaches suggested by our alumni and staff included publishing research and becoming “embedded” in an office at a college or university. The term “brand” didn’t come up, but it could have—especially if you agree with Michael Sheeley’s belief that we are all in the personal branding business whether we “like it or not.”
In this post, we leave academia and enter the worlds of industry, nonprofits, and other fields. These worlds are, well, different and, with help from Tufts Graduate School of Arts and Sciences alumni and alumni of the graduate programs offered by the School of Engineering, we hope to give graduate students the tools to not only navigate these spaces but to get noticed—and hopefully hired—by the people who inhabit them.
Don’t Be Someone You’re Not
Frank Abagnale, made famous in the film Catch Me If You Can starring Leonardo DiCaprio, was one of the most famous imposters in United States history. From 1964 to 1969, Abagnale impersonated a PanAm pilot (reportedly flying over one million miles free of charge); a teaching assistant at Brigham Young University (after forging a Columbia University degree); a doctor; and an attorney. Eventually, Abagnale was captured in France and spent four years in an American prison before being released to assist federal authorities with crimes committed by fraud and scam artists.
The lesson? If you try to be someone you’re not, you’ll eventually be exposed as a fraud. While it’s unlikely that graduate students who misrepresent themselves will be sentenced to prison or be the subject of a movie directed by Steven Spielberg, there can be repercussions if you market yourself as something you’re not.
The key to avoiding this fate is to heed the advice of GSAS alumnus Glenn Engler, A83, G89.
“When I guest lecture about digital and social media at Tufts and other institutions, I encourage students to share their passions,” said Engler, who earned a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Arts in economics from Tufts in 1983 and 1989, respectively, and is on Twitter and writes a blog “I remember asking one class if anyone had a blog. One person raised her hand and said she blogged about marketing because she felt it was what prospective employers cared about. Based on our conversation, I was not convinced that she had a passion for marketing and I would suspect that it came through in her writing. Contrast this with another student who said he liked to write about street art because he loved ‘everything about it.’ If I were hiring, I’d much prefer engaging with the second student because I could see what he was interested in and passionate about.”
Michael Sheeley adds,
“Don’t try to market yourself as someone who is experienced if you’re not. Instead use your inexperience as an advantage. If you’re a student or a recent graduate you’re at a place in your career where you can take some huge risks. Everyone who is experienced, myself included, wishes they were young and could take risks. Take career risks, don’t be afraid to fail, and learn from these big moves and share the experience. People will take note and probably wish they were able to do the same. You and your brand will then become something that is in demand.”
Be A Model Intern
There’s more to landing a job than having an awesome blog or a huge Twitter following, though. Face-to-face interactions through internships, for example, are a great way for graduate students to not only acquire essential skills, but to develop a professional reputation (i.e., “brand”) as well.
“The internship requirement of my graduate program helped me get my current position,” said Craig Nicholson, who earned a Master of Arts in urban and environmental policy and planning from Tufts’ GSAS in 2007 and is the director of sustainable development, LEED AP at Ajax Partners. “I knew my current colleagues on a limited basis prior to my graduate studies, as I had been an environmental consultant on a project they were developing in Boston. I can remember sitting at a table with these colleagues during my first year as a graduate student and sharing that I needed to complete an internship as part of my studies. Within a few weeks, I was working with Ajax as a part-time intern. I joined the team full-time a year later and have been there ever since.”
Eddie Aftandilian, a software engineer at Google who earned a Ph.D. in computer science from the Tufts School of Engineering in 2011, concurs on the importance of internships adding that,
“If I could go back, I would have done one or more summer internships during my Ph.D. It may have slowed down my research a bit, but it would have given me more perspective on job prospects outside of academia.”
A practicum in a different field can also be a good move for graduate students interested in making themselves more marketable.
“During graduate school, I sought out opportunities for experience in fields I wanted to be involved in,” said Beth Jackson-Gagne, who earned a Master of Science in occupational therapy from Tufts’ GSAS in 1995 and is the founder of Baby Stay Asleep, LLC. “I applied for grant money and did an extra practicum in the pediatric field. The practicum helped lead to my first job offer.”
Network, Network, Network
Professional networks come in many forms. There are those you develop online and those created through internships, practicums, and other field experiences. These networks, composed of people in your field of interest, can play a pivotal role in you career trajectory—since it does matter “who you know” and “who knows you.”
A great way for graduate students to get noticed and expand their professional network is to attend conferences.
“Attending conferences let me network with people in my field, which is incredibly important,” said Eddie Aftandilian. “At the Ph.D. level, the research area is small enough that you’ll get to know many of the people working on the same problem. Chances are you’ll continue to run into these colleagues throughout your career.”
But Aftandilian does offer one piece of advice.
“Students often have negative associations with the term ‘networking,’” he said. “But networking in an academic sense really just means talking to people and making friends. Don’t ‘clump’ together with people from your institution. Sit with new people at lunch and interact with them.”
In the end, though, it’s all about the work you produce.
“I can’t stress enough the importance of building and maintaining your network regardless of the industry,” said Tufts GSAS alumnus Gabriel J. Lopez-Bernal, a senior transit planner at TranSystems who earned a Master of Arts in urban and environmental policy and planning from Tufts GSAS in 2010. “However, it’s important to remember that networking is only part of the equation and that your professional reputation is built upon a strong work ethic and high quality work. While making new connections is a critical aspect of advancing your career, you have to be able to perform at the capacity that is expected of you.”
Be Online in A Big Way
Here’s an experiment. Start a stopwatch and then type your name into a web search engine. Now look at your stopwatch. How long does it take to find out where you went to college? Where you work? What your interests are? Ten seconds? Twenty seconds?
Of course, there are no perfect answers to these questions. What is beyond dispute, though, is that we all have an online presence. And one of the first places a prospective employer, potential colleague, or future client will go to find information on you is the web. Therefore, it’s critically important to be present and active online.
“You have to maintain a professional profile that people will find when they search for your name online.” said Eddie Aftandilian. “Also, wherever you choose to be on the Internet, you need content there that explains what you do and lists your accomplishments.”
This active online presence can take many forms, but Glenn Engler believes that one thing is essential.
“A LinkedIn profile is a must,” said Engler, who is CEO of the Digital Influence Group. “A blog may be a good idea, too. If you blog, you don’t need to write thousands of words—a 400-word blog post or a few images on a Pinterest board can tell a lot about who you are.”
Michael Sheeley, for one, thinks blogging is a good idea.
“When I started there wasn’t social media like there is today,” said Sheeley, who is on Twitter and has a blog. “I started my blog in 2007, almost seven years after my career started. I took a lot of risks when I started out—and I still do today—but I wasn’t able to share these experiences as they were happening. I try to share these experiences now, but they lack the true authenticity that they could have if I had been writing about them as they were unfolding.”
But if you do choose to take the social media plunge, it’s important to connect with the people who follow you on Twitter, comment on your blog, and “like” your Facebook page.
“I interact with people, and I try to give them a reason to read what I’m putting on the Internet,” said alumnus and author Brendan Halpin, who earned a Master of Arts in Teaching from Tufts GSAS in 1993, and is on Twitter and has blog. “So I try—not always successfully—to be funny and to link to things that I find interesting. If you’re using social media to just broadcast, you’re doing it wrong. I never bought a book because an author just tweeted links to me. But I have bought books from people I’ve interacted with because I want to support people I like.”
Naturally, there may be some trepidation about writing a blog (“what if no one reads it?”) or joining Twitter (“what if no one follows me?”), but the key to being successful is having web-related content that resonates with your target population.
This is an approach Gabriel J. Lopez-Bernal followed with some great results.
“When I was an undergraduate at the University of Florida, I decided to launch my own nonprofit advocacy group, TransitMiami.com” said Lopez-Bernal. “Transit Miami gave me a platform to affect change within my home community, Miami, and helped me develop my skills in writing, policy, and community outreach. At first, the site was just a place for me to express my opinions, but Transit Miami grew beyond my expectations. It turned out that people in the industry I wanted to break into—local politicians, urban planners, and other peers—were reading my writing and, after delivering a speech to a fellow nonprofit group, a local transportation consultant offered me my first job in the industry.”
We want to hear from you! Do you have advice for building your professional profile? Are there any best practices that we missed? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.