Recently I’ve been looking at crafting your digital identity and associated issues alongside discussing different career options for social scientists. In this post I look at my experience of trying to engage beyond the academy, particularly how a well defined social media strategy and online identity can enable early career researchers (ECRs) to undertake consultancy giving them a an opportunity to gain vital experience to make them stand out.
This time last week I had just returned from a trip to Brussels, this was my second trip with the Education Representative from BSI (British Standards Institute) to the CEN/CENELEC (European Committee on Standardisation / European Committee on Electrotechnical Standardisation) Joint Working Group on Education about Standardisation (JWG-EaS). Here I have been working with BSI to create a social media strategy for communication and collaboration for the group and individual members. Increasingly institutions and funding bodies are looking at how we, as researchers, can engage beyond the academy, create impact and show our work has concrete practical applications. Engaging in consultancy and advisory work gives us an opportunity to do just this.
Social scientists, as I have said many times before, both here and through other online publications, have a variety of skills that make them well prepared to engage beyond the academy and offer a variety of advice and guidance. I have worked with a range of different organisations doing a range of different things from qualitative textual analysis work and writing reports and designing questionnaires to guiding on social media strategies and web design. All of which have added to my CV and made added an extra level of ‘variation’ to my CV. It illustrates that you are a good team player and can engage with people from a range of backgrounds and career levels, a key part of gaining any job, not just an academic one. It also facilitates greater opportunities for face-to-face networking introducing the ECR to new possibilities for employment as well as just general experience building, publication development and international recognition as an ‘expert’. I still find it very humbling to be classed as an expert by anyone – thus I tend to argue that reason for my expertise is because my field is small with more sheep than people! (I am forever selling myself short). Another thing that ECRs can gain from consultancy is the ability to communicate their ideas to non-technical specialists, another point to be ticked off of the person specification list. So how do you promote yourself as a consultant? I did my first piece of work as a PhD student with the UNEP and have done various different things since then, post PhD the majority of opportunities have come from social media:
1. Network: Both face-to-face and through mediums like twitter. I met the BSI Education representative through twitter. You need to become ‘known’ for having certain expertise or advice. Always make sure you have your business cards with you and remember lunch is not just about eating!
2. Involve yourself in online conversations: To network online you don’t just collect followers (although I passed the magic 1000 last week) you need to use hashtags like #highered, #lovehe etc and those relating to specific debates so people begin to recognise your ‘voice’ on certain issues. Its the virtual version of standing by the water cooler or making coffee.
3. Contribute to blogs: You never know where this will lead – I was recently invited to speak at a conference in Denmark in November because of a post I had written.
4. Be prepared to do (some) work for free: This is something which I know is somewhat controversial and I am not advocating that qualified researchers who have spent hours working to gain their PhDs should be seen as free labour but in engaging with some projects for free I have had the chance to meet more people and have gained paid opportunities directly from those initial projects that I would not have had otherwise. There is a balance between immediate financial gain and that which may occur over a longer period of time and gained through increased recognition and prestige from being associated with certain projects. Ultimately this is something which the individual has to decide. I have done a combination of roles that has worked well for me.
There are a number of downsides to consultancy or independent research work and it relates to availability of opportunities. I’d be interested to hear comments from people who have worked independently for a long period of time. I have done it in tandem with other part-time positions to allow me to have a diverse career path and gain more experience after being involved in full-time study for such a long time. What have others done to gain opportunities outside academia? I believe this is an area which still needs further exploration …