What is a persona and why do I need one?
A research persona is remarkably similar to a company’s brand, a point which I discuss later in this post. It’s a generalized representation of how you wish you and your research to be perceived by others. Who are you? Why should people care about your research? This research persona, encompasses the scientific questions that drive you, your approach to answering them, and the research philosophy or personal traits that define you. As a young scientist you have, for most of your scientific career, been defined by the research of your mentors. As you start to forge your own trajectory, devoting time to considering your research persona will help you to refine the goals for your own research. It also enables people who’ve read your materials, talked with you, or seen you speak to remember you and be able to clearly describe you and your research program to others. Leaving a clear impression will be incredibly helpful as you try to climb the academic ladder, work to secure grants, and seek to be invited to speak at meetings or participate on study sections.
When to develop a persona
As a postdoc, there were two occasions on which I found it particularly useful to develop and refine my research persona: when I was writing my K99 grant, and when I went onto the academic job market. For the K99 grant, one-fifth of the score is based on the candidate, so I needed to communicate who I was a scientist, what drove me and interested me, and why I was worth investment by the NIH. As I began my academic job search, particularly the interview stage, it was important to be able to communicate my vision, my approach, and what I would be like as a colleague. If hired, I could be around for decades, so interviewers were really trying to get a sense of whether I’d fit in and what I would do. Clearly communicating my long-term research vision and who I am as a scientist and colleague in my seminar and in one-on-one interactions was critical for landing my assistant professor position.
In preparing to start my own lab, I now need to take the next step in developing my persona: broadening it from a personal one to that of my lab. I hope to ensure that Ward lab members will be able to communicate what questions drive them, their approaches to scientific problems, who they are as scientists, and how their projects and experiments contribute to the broader lab enterprise. I also plan to work with trainees to help them develop their own distinct research personas as they progress through my lab. Having a compelling elevator pitch accessible to the lay public can raise the profile of my work and my institution to potential donors, which is increasingly important in a tight funding climate. You never know when these opportunities arise, so having a compelling pitch that flows almost unconsciously can be a useful skill.
How I got started
The development of my research persona was fomented by a UCSF Office of Career and Professional Development (OCPD) course on elevator pitches. We were prompted to describe our research, to a complete stranger, in 3-5 sentences. This was incredibly challenging at first and it took me many iterations to perfect. I tested my elevator pitches out on 3-4 colleagues, and my (very patient) wife. I had several variations of my pitches: one for people in my field, another for scientists outside my field, and others for the lay public. My goal was to communicate clearly and compellingly who I am, what I do, and why people should care. I aimed for a punchy, one sentence statement of my brand. I wanted a simple, elegant and jargon-free statement that was accessible to a very broad audience.
Some of my strategy was also shaped by a recent binge listen to the outstanding podcast “Start-up”. In season 1, Alex Blumberg documents the trials and tribulations in starting his media company. I was struck by the similarities between the start-up world and selling a vision of your research in the academic world. In starting his company, Blumberg develops his brand and mission statement, refines his values, and identifies his “unfair advantage” - that one thing that he does better than anyone else and that sets him apart from the competition. All of these concepts resonated with me, and I found that thinking of my career in terms of a start-up was provocative.
I worked on my persona for about a year, and it involves: i) my research question, which aims to discover how cellular behaviors are regulated by transcription factors during development; ii) my approach, which is to use genetics, microscopy, in vitro biochemistry, genomics, and proteomics; and iii) my unfair advantage (or scientific niche), which is that I study this problem using both C. elegans and a human parasitic nematode, B. malayi. I highlight my interests in both basic discovery-based biology and in translating these findings to combat neglected tropical disease. I also present myself as a highly collaborative researcher, who believes in communicating research rapidly and openly, using pre-print servers like BioRXiv and publishing in open access journals. My current version of a punchy description for my work is: “the Ward lab is interested in how the remarkable complexity and noise of gene regulation is converted into the beautiful and precise cellular behaviors that drive animal development”. This description will continue to change and simplify as I test it on an increasingly wider audience. Importantly, my brand is not static, but will continue to evolve lockstep with my research.
Getting my brand into the world: advertisement
Once my elevator pitch was perfected and I’d crafted my research persona, the next step was to integrate it into my scientific identity. This process included incorporating my persona into my website but also into all presentations, seminars, grants, and even in publications. In my opening and closing slides I communicate the big questions that motivate me, how I approach them, and why I think they are exciting. My hope is that the audience will not only understand the work that I present but also how it fits into my long-term scientific vision and approach. As a postdoc going on the job market, I created a personal website to help enhance and control my presence on the internet. Social media platforms, especially Twitter, were very useful for communicating my persona to a broader audience, getting scientists to check out your website, and also learning about cutting edge science. I will discuss how I built my website and how I use Twitter in future blog posts.
Some general tips and advice