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Rebranding your professional persona post PhD.

Often, we get caught up presenting ourselves as a well accomplished academic. However, if we’re looking to move out of academia it’s vital that we start rebranding ourselves and our skills in a way that feels more tangible and translatable. Here’s how.

It’s not uncommon for PhD students and academics alike to get caught in a particular ‘self-image’ with regards to their professional career. We’ve covered it elsewhere on this site, but it’s completely understandable given that from a young age the idea of ‘being a scientist’. ‘a researcher’ or the ‘academic one in the family’ can shape how we make sense of who we are and see the world – either consciously or subconsciously. To really begin to move away from the academic space, not only do we need to re-learn who we are and what we bring to the world or de-programme ourselves from a particular academic mindset, but to also begin rebranding how others see us in a professional context.

We can think of this process to rebranding ourselves as a way to change how others perceive us. In essence, it’s just an exercise in marketing – but in this case you yourself are the product (or to be more politically correct, a candidate for an employer). It’s actually quite difficult to really make sense of this, because it’s a nuanced and subtle change in language, presentation, and your persona. To make matters more confusing, it’s a classic case of you don’t know what you don’t know. If you’re used to emphasising your publications, academic contributions, or other skills, which are relevant for the academic world – it can take some time, and a lot of practice to figure out how to change this and start emphasising the things non-academics want too here. Unfortunately, non-academics are less interested in your publications, what your PhD discipline is in (to some extent) or how many conferences you’ve attended. Instead, they’re going to focus on other attributes and qualities.

We’re not going to bang on about your transferable skills as much in this post. Transferable skills are categorically the most important part for the career change and job search process, however it’s not the only piece that’s important. That’s where rebranding comes in. Rebranding consists of presenting your transferable skills in a more ‘industry’ friendly way, and this extends to all areas of your professional persona. Whether that be your CV, cover letters, within job interviews or within your LinkedIn profile – it needs to be everywhere.

So, let’s dive into it. What does ‘rebranding’ actually look like. First and foremost, the language you use to describe yourself is extremely important. In academia, we’re often use to playing down our achievements in efforts to not come across as too smart. Even our work is required to have caveats or limitations. Adopting a critical mindset is an advantageous skill to have, but only in the right context. If you’re not careful this can start to seep into how you evaluate yourself and communicate that to others. For example, in spaces where your persona is communicated in a written context (i.e., CV, cover letter, and your LinkedIn profile) you might use certain phrases like ‘some understanding of X’, ‘reasonably comfortable doing Y’, or perhaps ‘knowledge of X, and to a lesser extent Z’. Language like this is easy to miss when you’re proofreading any written pieces of personal branding, but to a lay reader it may hint that you’re not confident, not as competent as you claim you are, or quite simply don’t have the skills needed for the role in question. These simple sentences can be reframed ever so slightly to; ‘a good understanding of X’, ‘reasonably comfortable doing Y’, and ‘knowledge of X and to a lesser extent Z’. Eliminating some words or tweaking the language slightly can help rebrand you in a way that is more appealing and attractive to an employer.

It sounds kind of simple, but let’s face it, transitioning out of academia isn’t a walk in the park. You could argue you already are embarking on a small uphill battle, so trying to convince someone to take a chance with you and interview with you means you have to give them as much reassurance as possible. If the employer already is a bit hesitant, hearing you doubt yourself slightly in your written communications isn’t going to help.

This is the kind of energy you need to bring.

To extend this further, the next key area to focus on in your branding is to pay attention to how you position your past experiences and your skills. Generally speaking, a key barrier for PhD students is that employers simply don’t know how your skills translate into the workplace. This can be compounded further by the fact that ‘academic work’ may hold a small degree of stigma, or at least, not sound as meaningful and impactful compared to more ‘tangible’ working examples. We all know this though right. Work experience and practical knowledge always has more weight than a theoretical understanding of something – especially outside of academia.

To get over this hurdle then, we need to adjust some of our experiences and skills in a way that feels more ‘tangible’ in the real world. For example, whilst in your PhD you may have done some teaching/contributed to course development. This is a good skill, and you may be inclined to highlight it as ‘during my PhD, I wrote and created course and revision notes for the students’. This is great, but it can feel very disconnected from a real-life situation. Instead, you might benefit from framing it as ‘I’ve successfully designed and created core content as part of learning modules to help improve the university’s offering’. Another example might be changing ‘I’ve taught a class’ too ‘I’ve delivered specialised training’. The change again is subtle and small, but it can really help sell your competencies and strengths further. At the end of the day, employers don’t know how your PhD is valuable, so you must help connect the dots and reassure them. The most effective ways to do this is by focusing on your tangible skills and articulating them in a tangible way.

You can actually go one step further and cherry pick your experience. If you have any opportunities or roles that are not in an academic space – be sure to include them. This could include any employment history outside of academia, employment on the side/during your PhD, any consultancy or freelance work, or even deliberately omit some academic experience as to not come across as ‘purely an academic’.

In essence, the core focus for rebranding your professional persona is to make it sound more formal and more professional by changing how you market yourself. We want to move away from ‘being an academic’ to being recognised and understood as a ‘valuable employee’ – where your skills and competencies translate smoothly into the working world. The more successful you are in doing this, the more likely you are to be perceived as a real candidate, which will facilitate new and more opportunities for you!


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