My Keynote at REVISE: Social Media is a Key to Personal Branding

On Friday afternoon, I gave a keynote address and three one-hour workshops on building a personal brand using social media at REVISE, an event organised by Steph Seagram, program director, Cossart Exchange in Hamilton, and Vanessa Sage, a PhD student in Anthropology (working on the James St N arts renaissance in Hamilton). The theme of the day was how grad students can and should look for opportunities outside the academy, given that tenure track appointments in universities and colleges are becoming more and more scarce. The Cossart Exchange was started by Jeremy Freiburger, founder of the Imperial Cotton Centre for the Arts in Hamilton, Ontario.

The event was an unqualified success. Steph, Vanessa and I had said that if we got 25 people out to the event it would be okay, 40-45 would be a great success. In fact, we had 60+ participants! It was fantastic to see so much interest. The crowd was very diverse: students from McMaster, Western and York, from every disciplinary area imaginable: from health sciences to fine arts, from physics to anthropology, from psychology to engineering. It was wonderful.

The crowd was also pretty realistic. They knew that opportunities for grad students are relatively limited in the tenured-academic stream.

My talk focused on why this has happened. I focused on two things:

  • grad school has moved from an apprenticeship model that was the norm 25 years ago to a “selection model” that is the norm today
  • the Ontario government asked universities to produce more graduate students in 1-year terminal Master’s degrees, but instead most universities responded by accepting more students into academic Master’s degrees.

The reason that we have moved to a selection model is simple: numbers. 50 or 25 years ago, there were many fewer graduate programs and their intake of students was smaller than before. When I joined the MA program in French Linguistics at the University of Toronto, my cohort only had 7 people – and I was the ONLY linguist. This has changed dramatically. Almost every department in every major university now boasts at least a Master’s, if not a PhD program. And the numbers of students being accepted is huge – our little MA in Communication and New Media in my dept at McMaster accepts 15 students per year, among a competitive pool of at least 80 applicants. And we have only been in business two years.

The second point is a little more complicated. The McGuinty Government for the Province of Ontario mandated a major graduate expansion in mid-2000s. I believe the Government wanted us to introduce more single-year “terminal” Master’s degrees to improve Ontario’s indicators in terms of grad school participation and also to build a more highly-skilled and specially trained pool of human capital in the workforce. The problem is that many university departments had an ideological and functional aversion to the idea of graduate school as an extension of the “training paradigm” and responded to the Premier’s call by simply expanding existing academic grad programs or building new academic program options. Did the Premier start the graduate expansion program because he wanted to train hundreds and thousands of new academic, tenure-stream professors? Certainly not. Universities interpreted his directive that way though, and now the employment statistics for grad students in university tenure-stream jobs are going from terrible to horrific.

Is this lack of tenure-stream opportunity necessarily a bad thing? No, not necessarily. When university faculty change their elitist attitudes, grad school will become an integrated part of the life-stream of the citizenry. Right now it is a misfit in the continuum of diverse education and training options that start in junior kindergarten and end with the PhD. Rather than offer more diversity, grad school has remained a privileged place that clings to an out-dated vision of its meaning and function in society. Because of this, grad school can be an alienating, lonely place for many students who will probably not find a tenure-track job and know it. For them, it can be a place that feels futile and isolating. A place that feels darwinian rather than collegial. This negative environment can be overcome, but as of right now, given that there is no culture-change on the horizon for academics, it is something that has to be overcome personally, in a personal struggle to gain inner strength and self-knowledge.

In the three one-hour workshops that I ran after my talk, I got the participants to ask themselves three questions:

  1. Who cares about your research?
  2. Who influences your professional and personal choices?
  3. Who can help you get your work and name out among those who are really receptive?

I made them answer a slew of other questions after that to paint a concrete picture of their existing personal brand and the network of their  relationships to receptor communities. I was happy to have Melonie Fullick, a former honours thesis student of mine there to help me run the three consecutive workshops post-keynote. Melonie is now a successful PhD student at York, as well as power-tweeter in the field of higher education policy.

After the self-knowledge exercise, we talked a lot about social media and Twitter in particular, since Facebook is not a very useful as a tool for professional personal brand-building (it’s more of a friends and family thing). I explained that social media can be a tool for building a personal brand, and that personal brand-building is extremely important to professional success in the contemporary world. In the world of wage labour, or rigidly structured workplace cultures, building a personal brand is not so important. In the world of the Academy, or any other professional environment, a strong personal brand is the key to mobility, workplace satisfaction, status and recognition.

Twitter is a great way to achieve this. It is a means of connecting with like-minded people across the world and being informed of the latest and most relevant ideas from your field. It is also a way to build a personal relationship with highly placed people, or “ideas people”, who can help you hone your core self, as well as help you disseminate your message to others. You have to learn how to use Twitter right, and this takes time and practice. It goes without saying that you have to be very careful what you put out on Twitter as well, everything you put out in social media is part of your permanent personal branding exercise.

Using social media to build an effective personal brand can give you greater personal satisfaction as well as more professional opportunity in a highly competitive job market.

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1 Comment

  1. Alex,
    Wonderful to read this. Another confirmation that this dialogue and extended support is is necessary for the grad/post grad student.
    And thanks for one more notch in my digital footprint 😉
    And i like the challenge – this culture change – that you have thrown up into the air. As well as some interesting light thrown on the political decisions that have affected higher education for – it seems – too long.
    Change!! Hmmmm.

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