Promoting your work as a new scholar

I got tagged on a Twitter thread, and since I hadn’t thought about it for awhile, I didn’t have anything intelligent to say about it.

Anyway, how to promote your work as a new scholar. There are several ways to go forward, and some of these strategies will suit you better than others.

1. Write well in the first place about important problems. This is here the gold standard, and it’s very hard to live up to that every time, so we have some corollaries, including what I call the “George Harrison” strategy.

Some things do not need a lot of explanation. Good writing on important urban topics is a pleasure to read, even for busy people. We remember and appreciate it when we get it.

Now, not every paper is a major contribution paper, and I don’t think it’s a great idea to swing for the fences every time you go up to bat. Until you get some experience, it’s hard to know what is major and minor. Do your best, try to get help from mentors, etc.

The good news is that I can say without reservation that even work that isn’t all-that is better circulated than not. Maybe I am weird, but if I have somebody who sends me a badly written paper on something, I will *at least* register the thought “oh, so-and-so is working on topic X”. This is useful in a couple ways:

a) it means I might return to the paper to cite it, even if it is poorly written, if when I do slog through it, it has good social science work in it; I also might note to somebody else “oh, hey, so-and-so is working on topic X.”

Both of these are solid doubles in self-promotion.

b) it’s enough for me to see somebody’s name cross my desk frequently enough with journal articles. This is a solid single. (Sorry for the sports analogies, but this seems to be what I have this morning.) Even if I don’t know what your specific contributions are, it’s good to have established scholars thinking “Boy, so-and-so is productive.”

Ok, so now for the Freakonomics and Un-named Urban Scholar problem: status-quo reinforcing bon-bons written up in a click-bait style of “oh, there’s a new science of the city and you won’t believe what it finds!” way. And then it’s some puff piece about predicting fuel consumption and emissions. One thing is for sure: it’s not upsetting in any way to anybody in power.

I may be in the minority on this, but I am willing to put up with some of this if there is good, solid scholarship elsewhere in your record. If this is all you produce, you will honestly probably do fine in today’s world where superficial treatments of every topic are very, very popular for everybody: audiences who don’t like to think; journalists who don’t like to do any work understanding difficult analyses (sorry, there are great journalists out there, but all of us know there are lazy ones, too); journals that are hoping for something a little different to boost up the eyeballs on them; deans/provosts who are happy to have press attention but not the type that makes their usually conservative business donors squinky; and students who like to rub elbows with star proffies.

As a matter of research ethics, however, I suggest new scholars, who have to exist in the world I just described, try what I call the “George Harrison” approach. Harrison’s solo albums tended to be cerebral and full of music that wasn’t really radio-friendly. Whether it was good, hell, I dunno. But he usually had one radio-friendly one on there to get people listening and paying attention. “I’ve Got My Mind Set On You” I swear has only six words and 1 chord in it, but it paid the bills for and carried a lot of the rest of the work into the mainstream. Do one for “Them” as they say, then do a bunch of work you think truly matters whether anybody is willing to look at it or not. And then do another one for “Them.”

Just be careful with what you choose to simplify. This is not an easy strategy and you can really hurt people by over-simplifying policy or planning.

2. Engage with established scholars online. You will certainly gain followers if you snark at them, but it’s probably not worth it. But many, many scholars do have Twitter accounts, and while they may ignore you, many of us are simply, captivated by interesting ideas. “Hey, ImportantScholarBob, do you have any book recommendations to read now that I am done with your book? What are you reading these days?” It’s sucking up and we all know it, but it’s still kind of nice and there are lots of genuine interactions you can have with people without necessarily gushing or going overboard.

3. Networks upwards. You all know this already. This is very hard because many established scholars are jerks about it. Nonetheless, I have colleagues who are great at this. If there is a Famous Scholar(TM) anywhere in the world, she will find a way to get to know them, charm them, and leave them worshipping at her feet.

I can’t. I am weird and awkward and in general, nobody wants lumpen me pushing myself into their lives. My homely appearance and awkwardness mean pretty much that only the academics with the biggest hearts wanted to mentor me when I was young. And I am also dreadfully, dreadfully shy. So if you come and hit me up at conference, I can sound super-unfriendly when really I am just overwhelmed and want to cry. This is one reason why chatting with me online is not a bad idea. IRL I am a generous person and I like to help people. I just have real problems with face-to-face interactions unless you happen upon me on a really good day.

If you can do this one, though, good on you. Managing up is a job skill.

4. Ask your advisors and mentors to circulate things for you, or ask them if they would let you guest blog on their platform. Or whether they might be willing to introduce you to somebody at a major online outlet or Op-Ed editor who might be willing to let you write for them. (This will mean your best writing.)

I’m always amazed that my students blow me off when I ask them if they want to guest blog here. I know not everybody reads everything I put up here, but I have quite a few subscribers. Every bit counts.

5. Use your university PR people for what they are there for. These folks are hungry for well-written content, and if you publish something interesting and can talk about it in human terms, most PR people at universities will be happy to help you put together and circulate press releases.

6. You can use the money in your faculty account to purchase services from a publicist. I won’t tell. I have colleagues who use publicists, and the strategy has worked very well for them. I’ve not done so (yet), so I don’t really know how it all works, but publicists stay in business for a reason, and that reason is they do what they say they can. They are very likely to help you get agents, and trust me, I’m pretty sure NOTHING is more satisfying to your ego that being able to say in response to an invitation “You’ll need to check with my agent.”

(yech. but again, you didn’t make this rotten world, you are just tryna live in it.)

7. Ask your dean or chair for resources to do some of these things. I’m not into bullshitting. Like everything in the academy, privilege favors people in self-promotion: Men over women, pretty people over homely people, white people over everybody else, etc etc.

And absolutely. It’s way easier to get media attention if you study and work in a place with large media outlets. Geographic privilege works in that manner, too.

It’s a lot easier to have a publicist if you have money, and it’s a lot easier to use whatever research allowance you get from the university if a) you get one and b) you don’t have to use to fund travel, students, etc.

But if you have a book coming out, it’s not like this happens every other month. Asking your dean or chair for a little money to promote the book is a reasonable thing to ask. They will probably say no but you won’t know that unless you ask. If they do say no, they likely will feel a little bad and maybe offer to do something else or get you something else, and that’s often better than nothing.

Good luck, friends.

One thought on “Promoting your work as a new scholar

  1. +1 to all of the above. I’m going to add another one whether you are a new/old or in the middle scholar… make a point of saying people’s names aloud in meetings/on line and referring people to their work. Be deliberate and active about when you are out and about. It’s a good collegial habit and if everyone did it, then we’d have to less self-promotion. Be that person too.

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