Academic Profiles – top tips and seven common faults – how to improve

Surprisingly, given the common sense of most business practice, universities are often less than excellent in communicating their greatest asset.

What most people want from university is to engage with staff, staff who will help make an experience for us, who will transfer to us their interests, wisdom, contacts, scope, skills, enthusiasm and brilliance. We come, whether as students, collaborators, employers or employees, looking for intellectual and professional charisma and while we may find it when we get there, it’s not always evident in the preliminary online offering.

There are two main online access routes through to the university world. One is the academic product itself, traditionally in the form of arcane texts but increasingly evident in films, sound files, activities or interventions. The other is the digital marketing brochure, rich in smiley seminar sessions, well-sampled sound bites and buildings forever washed in sunlight.

There’s an opportunity however to develop better practice in what lies between these, to show a broad, non-specialist but intelligent readership what differences the university system makes to the world and what part its individual staff members provide.

This is not an altogether straightforward task. To begin with there’s a slippery tightrope between the many audiences, which range from prospective students to prospective peer reviewers. There’s also a far too easy slide into the dry, mechanical horrors of a CV listing, jammed unreadably with ISSN numbers, colons and a subtitular warren of similar-sounding publications and conferences.

As a best aim, an academic profile should demonstrate how staff members engage with enquiring minds at all levels, giving a true sense of scholarly achievement and its wider beneficiaries, while at the same time showing you as an individual to be a model of intellectual agility, enthusiasm and scholarly generosity.

Or at least it should be something that you, as an academic, spend time on and take pride in. As a check list or an initial push towards improvement, here are a few common failings observed ‘in the field’, including one or two tips, quick wins and seven deadly and all too familiar profiling sins:

1 – The Corpse – profiles that are not up-to-date

There are plenty of dead profiles in the digital world, often because the academic has moved on and institutional systems can’t cope with absences. It can also be caused by a failure of ownership in institutions where academics have either no direct governance or are not encouraged to feel that the institutional representation is also a personal one.

Sometimes profiles are just a victim of general busyness, most evident in those that have been overworked at one moment in time with no ongoing regular commitment – “My current research will be presented at the state of the future conference in 2010…” etc.

It is good practice to make sure that any profiles that are created link back to something that is regularly updated. Try to avoid building just for the here and now; be careful with “in progress”, “going to”, “soon”, “this summer”, “current”, and so on unless you need to use them because, one, you know you have an audience that will be regularly checking back and, two, you are personally committed to efficient updating. Otherwise, be as time neutral as possible and do enough basic gardening to make your plot looked lived in.

2 – The Invertebrate – profiles with no spine

It’s common to describe airy activities without showing actual scholarly substance, even more common to assume that the audience will grasp the substance from bald specialist reference points.

Somewhere, the description of your work needs to have convincing and accessible evidence of originality, rigour and significance. Not just what activities have been undertaken, but what effects you have had. Test what you’ve put on the page against basic questions: What have you changed? What have you created or developed? Who has benefitted? How great is your reach?

Beware of just listing titles for a start. That’s not to say the CV of papers, books and conferences doesn’t go up there somewhere, but apart from the length of the list, what’s being demonstrated to those who haven’t read the papers themselves?Spare a thought for the visitor to your pages, the audience that comes from outside your specialism. Be very clear as to the basics of research activity: What are the questions your research is trying to answer – why is it important to answer them – what contribution are you making to a step change in the debate?

Imagery, moving image or sound should function as part of the delivery of this. When using audio-visual material, check how it contributes to the audience’s understanding of what your contribution is to a scholarly or research base. If an image is viewed as merely decorative then does it need to be there at all.

Originality. Rigour. Significance.

Share the passion… with evidence

3 – The Ivory Tower – academic profiles with no teaching

This principle isn’t just for research. In teaching, what originality and rigour do you bring? What evidence of classroom impact do you have? Or outside the institution, what professional bodies or communities benefit from your work?

Profiles tend to be driven by research, partly for institutional and partly for personal reasons. Traditionally, universities were proud not to teach as such. Learned doyens expatiated to attentive listeners who then taught themselves through scholarly diligence. New university structures, methods and institutions now have professionalised teaching at the core of a modern university experience and uni teachers are expected to be more than just experts on their pet subjects.

Acronymous titles of seminar-series, lists of modules developed, or dry reflections on the patterns of pedagogy in the tutorial environment are less engaging than something that really demonstrates teacherly skill. Videos, audio recordings or just plain text, whatever the method, show that passionate, inspiring, effective teaching is part of your academic communication.

4 – The Lionskin – profiles with bold claims

Not many academics are great spin-jockeys. In a profession built around truth-seekers it’s usually unwise to resort to buzz-words, fudging or lies. “The prodigious twenty-year-old’s internationally-renowned, world-leading, paradigm-shifting debut essay due out next month…” etc

“World-leading”, “international”, “influential”, “ground-breaking” are phrases to use sparingly and advisedly, especially about yourself or your project, especially when unsubstantiated. It sounds obvious, but there are plenty of suspect claims of stardom out there. A download from Fiji does not make work “internationally acclaimed”. A unique niche topic does not of itself make the investigator a “world leader”. Leadership implies followers and breaking ground implies that others will be building on it. Everyone who counts is likely to already know you’re world-leading if you really are; if they don’t but they should, try showing rather than telling.

Calmly excellent is what an academic profile should be – quieter confidence beats bombast and hyperbole in most rigorous research circles. Let others judge and let them judge by the evidence you give.

5 – The Shaggy Dog – overly chronological tales

There’s often a fair few paragraphs of early career development to get through before you make it to the meat of a profile. “Having won the handwriting prize in my first year at St Hildegard’s I took a keen and early interest in mathematics especially subtraction…” etc.

Yes, the profile is a narrative of sorts. It’s worth reflecting however on the journalistic trend that produced the inverted pyramid of “best stuff at the top”. Your audience isn’t captive so don’t waste time gradually working a narrative that builds towards that late career professorship and Nobel prize.

Whatever is best about your career to date, put a couple of neat references to it at the top.

6 – The repeat groove – failure to edit …

The trouble with being an expert is you’ll be called upon to repeat your best stuff at many a live interaction. Chances are a developing essay has five conference presentations around the same issues. Consultants will be consulting regularly on what they’re known for.

The quick fix for an academic profile is a CV-style list, often chronologically delivered, and similar work comes up again and again in a range of forms. Many profiles – as with many CVs [resumes] – seem expecting to be judged by their length rather than their clarity or quality. Beware of padding out with minor activities, especially in early career. Try to think who will be trying to read the page, how you might help them through with digestible parcels of information, and what impression of quality and significance they might be carrying away with them.

A strong recommendation is to have clear titles, bullets where necessary, structured themes and an excellent summary first sentence for each section.

7 – The open-mic of Euphues – profiles of inappropriate tone

Originality, significance and rigour should be shown as though writing for an intelligent but non-specialist audience. This is true of any communication of academic work outside the peer group. Strange that it is not in more evidence on university websites given that funding bids and conference places and publishing deals require exactly this.

The most extreme problems are either that the tone of a profile replicates a job application, through which professional restraint and bland adherence to protocol are thought optimal tactics, or it replicates a half-remembered philosophy lecture with a fuzz of large and very woolly words.

What tone to employ, what style, what rhetorical devices? Well, there’s plain English and there’s English so plain it fails to function. There’s academic phrasing and there’s obstructive pedantry. Yet, between the Sestos and Abydos of the tonal spectrum, between pleonastic Heroes and the off-duty parataxis drivers, there’s ample space to sound scholarly without sounding an arse.

Your style will be your own but there are basic rules: try not to repeat phrases especially not at the beginning of every sentence, (Dr X wrote this, Dr X then wrote that); try to avoid vocabulary that ties you to a bygone era or excessive lucubration; and never, ever try to sound cooler than your undergrads.

Your academic profile – concluding notes

Profiles come in many guises, from those that are out-of-date copies of a CV to those that throb with un-evidenced marketing spin. In between are some that are confident, informative and interesting.

Most include the right basic material but many are incomplete, poorly ordered or poorly edited. If you’re responsible for a profile then give it a health check. Have you got, for example:

  • A short, effective opening statement showing excellence and compelling further engagement
  • A brief, engaging and focussed overview of your career
  • A statement of research interests appreciable to a non-expert
  • A means to make immediate contact
  • A set of premium, recent research achievements, suitably delivered and connected to further reading and contact
  • A sample of how you use your teaching skills to communicate your expert knowledge
  • Evidence of the esteem in which your research is held beyond the institution
  • Evidence of the (potential) value of your research to those outside the direct scholarly circle
  • Clicks outward from well-edited lists of outputs that allow for download or further information.

Unfortunately the academic profile is the last thing on many people’s lists of things to get right and the institutions that require them often provide little direct help.

Some academics have no profile at all, which seems slightly neglectful, if not ungrateful. Others have a fat paperback’s-worth of information that may prove undigestible for human beings.

Maybe the world-wide few who can fully appreciate your scholarly work will not be judging you by your academia.edu, Linkedin.com or institutional page. However you may be able to make the most of your next circle of influence and, in between the PhD studentship and the Nobel Prize, there is a ladder of recognition that might be easier to climb by avoiding one or two of the most common errors.

Do make time to do something – and a bit more time to do something good.