Man walking past Lady Gaga posters

Branding isn't just for celebrities like Lady Gaga

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Building your personal brand

Recently I spoke with a hiring manager about her process when considering a stack of job applicants. Of course, she reviews all the CVs put forward by her human resources teammates, she told me, and she reads the notes that a screener or recruiter provides. But she also takes it a bit further before she reaches out with a phone call. "I know that I can learn more in a phone or Skype interview, but that takes time—45 minutes or more in order to learn anything of value," she said. "So, before making that commitment, I like to Google the applicant and see what I can find. It’s always interesting to see their personal interests, or how they talk about themselves in public places. I develop a gut feeling from there about who I need to call."

But what does she mean by public places? Your first thought in this context is probably professional sites like LinkedIn, or perhaps ResearchGate—but what you may not realize is that her quick search is also going to turn up that Pokémon GO forum that you were active on a few months ago. It could also point her to your Twitter feed, your Facebook posts, your blog about collecting beer cans, or other (potentially embarrassing) social media. The sum total of all of this easily findable information creates what marketing gurus call a "personal brand," which plays a major role in determining how potential employers view your candidacy.

I’ve found that job seekers are either very conscious of the brand they are building or completely oblivious. Sadly, there are a lot more of the latter. I’m not sure why that’s the case when we’re so aware of its importance in other aspects of our lives. If you have a pending blind date, you are likely to comb the internet for information about that person before you meet. If you’ve got a plumbing problem, you’ll read about the company you select before you make the commitment.

The same principle holds for job seekers. The hiring managers you are hoping to impress are going to do a search to see what they can learn about you and to help figure out whether you’re the right person for the role. They may wait until 10 minutes prior to your face-to-face meeting, and it might just be a glance at LinkedIn to see your smiling face and how you describe yourself, but one thing’s for sure: It’s going to happen. So it’s important to establish a personal brand that works for you, not against you.

How personal brand works

Recently, a client asked me to take on an assignment in a hot field where life science meets another technology. That combination is a niche that I didn’t know, but I decided to take it on. As I dove into this new field, I found out the hard way that many people in that area throw around the jargon and acronyms of the field as if they are experts, even when they’re not, and was reminded of the importance of a strong personal brand.

Candidate A was clearly a good fit, I thought. Her LinkedIn profile included liberal use of all the terms of the trade. I was pleased to be able to present her as a candidate for further consideration—but later found out that most everything in this person’s background was hot air. Googling her pulled up only the LinkedIn profile, and her writing seemed to consist of empty self-promotion without any foundation or substance. The client noticed right away that her brand was lacking and didn’t consider her further. 

Wanting to come back strong with the next candidate, I went much deeper than Google’s first results page. LinkedIn was still an element of my search, but I wanted to find someone whose personal brand was intimately linked with the technology, so I focused on people whose names came up in multiple places.

Candidate B, who emerged from that process, had—much like candidate A—a LinkedIn profile that liberally used the terms of his trade. But beyond that, this guy had also extended his personal brand in a dozen other ways. I read his blog about the subject, which his employer had used as a jumping-off point to create an annual conference. My search also revealed that he had been an invited speaker at other meetings and that he had started a website about careers in the burgeoning world of his particular niche. So, even though he had fewer years of experience than the client thought they needed, I put him forth as a candidate, confident that no matter who would later sit down to investigate this guy’s brand, they would only come up with more evidence that he had a strong foundation and presence in this growing field.

This anecdote highlights a crucial point: Branding requires a long-term commitment. A grad student isn’t going to suddenly start receiving invitations to speak at major conferences, and a Google search for a postdoc is unlikely to reveal that long list of references that signals to recruiters and hiring managers that they’re the right person for the job. But, if you don’t start at some point, you won’t get there at all. It’s doable; candidate B went from zero to industry expert in 6 years. So what are you waiting for? Start putting yourself out there in positive ways that enhance your brand.

Getting started

For many readers, the most difficult piece of starting the brand-building process is likely to be the required self-promotion. First, the good news is that, as a scientific or engineering job seeker, you don't need to be as glib or comfortable with self-promotion as a sales rep does. Nonetheless, expressing what you do well is a critical part of personal branding. Unfortunately, how to self-promote is not taught in graduate school, and a lot of people don’t do it well.

Let’s get it right on the table: It’s OK to self-promote by telling people what you are good at and how you might benefit their team. Ethical self-promotion is expected, and as long as you don’t cross the line into puffery—making things up or blowing them out of proportion—you’ll be fine.

Once you’re comfortable with the idea of self-promotion, the next question is where, exactly, to advertise your strengths so the people who matter will see them. Although it’s important to think beyond LinkedIn, the truth is that the platform’s "Summary" section is almost universally seen by branding experts as the place to start building a personal brand. In Focus on LinkedIn, author Richard Lowe Jr. offers some advice for how to use this crucial piece of writing to establish your brand. "Before you write one word of that summary, visualize the people who will be reading what you have written," Lowe advises. "Who is going to hire you, or engage with you in some way? Keep them in mind as you plan and write a summary."

And don’t just take the easy route of copying and pasting from paragraphs you’ve already written for your CV, he adds. It would be so easy, but don’t be tempted! The language on your CV is too stiffly formal and too detailed for a summary of the sort that should be on your LinkedIn profile. You want something with a bit more first-person discussion of your strengths.

Sometimes your photo, headline, and summary are the only elements of your LinkedIn profile that someone will actually look at, so don’t miss out on this opportunity to share a few paragraphs about what you do. Speak to readers as if you were in conversation with them. Use natural language, not trumped-up verbiage that doesn't come up in everyday communication. Be yourself. This is an important first step as you begin to establish your personal brand.

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