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Your Professional Brand Is Academia. 5 Questions To Change It

What’s your professional brand? 

As a researcher, my conclusions are based on proven facts and quantifiable results. The concept of something as subjective as brand or image had never felt particularly relevant to me. 

I’d heard the question, of course. When you’ve been looking for a job for over a year, you’re bound to come across the idea. 

But now, face to face with a recruiter who had turned me down for a job, I was really trying to come up with an intelligent answer. 

“What’s my brand?” I asked. I guess feigning ignorance was one way to go. 

“Yes, your professional brand,” she said, not offering anything else. 

“My brand is…um…you mean like my elevator pitch?” I chuckled, a nervous habit. 

“Something like that,” she said. “The person who founded Amazon, Jeff Bezos, says your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room. Have you taken the time to figure out what your professional brand is?”

She had me. I most definitely had not. “I’ve given it some thought,” I started, “but to be honest I’m not 100% what one is or… what it’s for, exactly.” 

“Well,” she said, “you wanted to know why we didn’t call you back? You were a strong candidate – you have all the experience we’re looking for and we were impressed to have a PhD applicant. But the truth is that you weren’t memorable.”


“At the end of your interview, we only knew more about your qualifications. We didn’t have a sense of who you were or how you would fit with our team. A professional brand is what makes you unforgettable.” 

What Is A Professional Brand? 

I wish I could say that I rallied after this – that I gave her a rousing, off-the-cuff version of my professional brand that blew her away and got me the job I thought I’d lost out on.

But that’s not what happened.

Instead, I gave the best impression I could muster of someone grateful to be getting good advice. I shook the recruiter’s hand and drug my wounded ego home with me, asking myself the whole way home: 

What IS your professional brand? 

I had a loose understanding of what it was: 

A professional brand is the way others perceive you in your professional field, and branding is the way you influence how other people see you. 

It is a combination of many things like your skills, experience, personality, and values. 

And, according to at least one recruiter for T-Mobile, a strong professional brand can help you to stand out from the competition.


To establish yourself as the expert that employers are looking for, you need to define your personal brand. And how do you define your personal brand? By determining your audience, your value, and your priorities. 

PhDs don’t have trouble figuring out their audience: it’s hiring managers in industry, recruiters, and anyone they would consider a peer. 

But actually determining their value and their priorities is what trips most PhDs up. 

Analysis paralysis sets in quickly as they try to determine what, exactly, they want to be known for. Most eventually land on an overly complicated description of what they’ve done – usually one that doesn’t address what they want to do at all.

This failed attempt at professional branding leads to nothing but missed opportunities. 

You want a personal brand that helps others remember you. Not just you, but the best possible version of you.

Why Brand-Building Matters

Let me answer the question you’re asking yourself right now – the same question that dozens of PhDs ask me every month: Is all this really necessary? 

Absolutely. And here’s why:

Building a brand is something you’ve been doing your whole life. It’s synonymous with your reputation – it’s how your family, your friends, your professors, your coworkers know you. 

People are forming opinions about you every day, everywhere you go, whether you like it or not. Deciding to build your professional brand is deciding to take control of how you appear to others.

When you decide to consciously create your brand, you do three things: 

  1. You give others an idea of what to expect from you
  2. You make yourself memorable and differentiate yourself from others
  3. You define your accomplishments and set an intention for your goals

Once you have established your brand, you’ll begin to notice a difference in your professional life. For one, you’ll be more visible. A strong brand can help you increase your visibility and reach a wider audience. This can – and does – lead to more opportunities in industry.

For another, a strong brand can help you establish credibility and trust. This can make it easier to develop rapport and to build long-term relationships. Over time, this will lead to being more marketable, more hireable, and more successful.

And, once you’ve made a conscious decision about how you want to be seen, you can act accordingly. You’ll have a consistent identity – which can be a real comfort if you’re on the timid side of the social spectrum.

Answer These 5 Questions To Build A Strong Professional Brand

If you want to build a strong professional brand, the only way to do it is with intention. Your brand is doomed to fail if you’re trying to describe a vague half-idea of who you are and what’s important to know about you.

You need to understand a) which qualities are important to hiring managers in your target position, b) which values and goals you have and how you hope to achieve them, and c) what your strengths and values are. 

Whether the idea of a professional brand is new to you or you’re looking to strengthen the one you have, there are questions you need to answer in order to create one. 

Here are five important questions you need to ask yourself in order to build a thoughtful, authentic brand as a professional PhD.

1. What makes me unique?

It seems like the easiest question to answer until you sit down to answer it: what is it that you do unlike anyone else?

But, once you give it some thought, what is it that you do that others don’t?

That’s when most PhDs start to draw a blank. I’m a great researcher… but am I a better researcher than anyone else? It can be easy to go down a rabbit hole of despair as you realize that you have much more in common with your competition than not. 

The best advice I can give, as you answer this question, is to go long. Look outside of academia and beyond work experience. Your personality and your past are the gateways to answering this.

Do you speak two languages fluently? 

Have you lived on four continents? 

Are you an outstanding swimmer?

The insights you come up with may not be brand-statement material – that’s okay. They will help you consciously decide which parts of your personality you want to be a part of your public face.

Also, human beings are naturally drawn to novelty. Will your incredible butterfly stroke make you a better UX designer? Probably not, but it does make you interesting. And people like to get to know interesting people.

2. Who needs to know me if I want to achieve my goals?

You can’t really build a brand without understanding who you need to influence. Obviously, employers and recruiters come to mind. While you’re looking for new opportunities, this group of people is what you would call your target audience.

But you won’t spend your entire career in job search mode. You’ll want to consider your support system as well – the people that you can rely on to help you along the way. 

Some of the people you’ll need to consider when you’re creating your brand as a job seeker include:

Your target audience: This is the group of people you are trying to reach with your brand. You need to understand their needs and wants in order to create content that is relevant and valuable to them.

Your peers: These are the people who work in your industry or field. They can be an important source of support and feedback as you build your brand. Associating yourself with those who have a strong brand strengthens yours by proxy. 

Your mentors: These are the people who have more experience and knowledge than you do. They can help you navigate the challenges of building a brand and provide guidance on how to achieve your goals.

Your network: This is the group of people you know and interact with on a regular basis. They can help you spread the word about your brand and connect you with new opportunities.

The key to influencing these people is to be authentic, helpful, and positive. When you focus on adding value to others, they will be more likely to support you and your brand.

3. What are my goals? What is my passion?

As a PhD leaving academia, you may not know exactly what your career goals are right now. That’s okay. 

But it’s hard to build an effective brand without understanding what you want to do. So spend as much time as possible giving this question real thought.

Ask yourself: What do I want to do? Is there anything, in particular, I am excited about? What kind of impact am I hoping to make? Is there anything in particular I want to accomplish in my career?

Of course, you want to do what you excel at to be front and center in your brand. If you’re moving into a Data Scientist role, for instance, which of the skills that that role requires are ones you, specifically, are good at? What is your superpower? 

But there’s more to your brand than just your professional goals. You also need to consider your values – the things that matter most to you. 

This can be a tricky part of your brand to navigate because, of course, it’s tempting to lead with values like strong communication, excellence, or integrity. But do those values ring true to you as an individual?

Something I find helpful in identifying your values is to first consider your pet peeves. What things have you encountered in academia or your personal life that you are committed to rising above? 

Another helpful device is to consider what you think other people would say about your values if they had to define them. Maybe you’re always the first to lend a hand. Or maybe you’re the type to volunteer a kind word or show empathy.  

4. How can I demonstrate my brand?

Now is the time to start thinking about where you’re going to spread your brand message. You may have had LinkedIn in mind as you read this – you know you want to start by creating the perfect professional summary.

An elevator pitch is a great place to start, too. An elevator pitch is a short-and-sweet explanation of your personal brand that helps make you memorable to others. It’s very short – often just two sentences long – but it’s an important part of the brand-building journey. 

Those two opportunities are a great place to start, but there are many mediums where you can share your professional brand. The best way to spread your brand message is highly individual, and you should choose the means and method that you will enjoy the most. 

That can include public speaking, social media, blog posts, guest articles, and print journalism. Professional promotion happens literally anywhere you communicate with others.

Whether it’s a blog post, your resume, or a guest lecture spot, there are some things you should keep in mind to create strong, effective brand messaging:

Consistency: Use the same keywords and phrases across all of your online profiles. For example, if you’re a marketing professional, you might use the keywords “marketing,” “advertising,” and “social media” in your website, social media profiles, and email signature.

Authenticity: Share your personal stories and experiences on your website and social media profiles. This will help people get to know you and understand your values.

Visibility: Attend industry events and conferences. This is a great way to meet new people and network with your peers.

Helpfulness: Offer to help others in your field by writing blog posts, giving presentations, or mentoring junior employees.

Positivity: Be upbeat and enthusiastic in your interactions with others. This will make you more memorable and likable.

5. How will I measure my success?

It’s not enough to have a professional brand. You also need to ask yourself what you want to achieve with your professional branding? Once you know your goals, you can track your progress and make adjustments as needed.

Unfortunately, there is no single metric that can definitively measure the success of your professional branding. You will need to use a combination of metrics to get a big-picture view of how your brand is performing.

If you have a personal website, you can use a variety of tools to track your website traffic, social media engagement, or email subscribers. However, few PhDs have the need for a personal website. 

But there are other ways to track and measure engagement. You can use your LinkedIn SSI score, track the number of messages you receive replies to, or the number of new connections you’ve made.

It’s up to you to determine what goals you want to achieve and follow through on those goals. But, once you have some data, take the time to analyze it and identify trends. This will help you understand what’s working and what’s not.

Don’t feel as if you need to build your brand in a vacuum. You can ask for feedback from your peers and the professional network you’ve been hard at work building about your branding. T

You can also compare your results to other professionals in your industry by observation. This will help you see how you’re doing relative to your peers. There is no reason not to learn from the successful brand strategies of those you respect – just don’t plagiarize any content or blatantly copy anyone else.

And, most importantly, be patient. It takes time to build a strong professional brand. Don’t get discouraged if you don’t see results immediately. Creating great content. Engage with your peers. Create connections and share industry insights. Eventually, you will see the results you’ve been looking for. 

Concluding Remarks

If you aren’t articulating a clear professional brand with your resume, LinkedIn profile, cover letter and other practical parts of the job search, employers will pass you up for another candidate who is. The key is to invest in knowing yourself by asking yourself what matters to you and the people you hope to influence. Focus on the specific values and skills that both you and that audience care about. Once you know how you feel and think, you’re more likely to come across as genuine. As a PhD transitioning from academia to industry, it’s important that you put in the work to rebrand yourself. You want to be seen as a credible industry professional, not an academic researcher, and creating a strong professional brand can do exactly that. But your professional brand isn’t only for job seeking. It creates a consistent identity for all seasons of your professional life, elevating your credibility and visibility for years to come. 

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Dr. Isaiah Hankel is the Founder and CEO of Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by millions of PhDs and other professionals in hundreds of different countries. He has helped PhDs transition into top companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, Intel, Dow Chemical, BASF, Merck, Genentech, Home Depot, Nestle, Hilton, SpaceX, Tesla, Syngenta, the CDC, UN and Ford Foundation.

Dr. Hankel has published 3X bestselling books and his latest book, The Power of a PhD, debuted on the Barnes & Noble bestseller list. His methods for getting PhDs hired have been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Nature, Forbes, The Guardian, Fast Company, Entrepreneur Magazine and Success Magazine.

Isaiah Hankel, PhD

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