Managing Your Academic Reputation: How Not to Suck in Grad School

Managing Your Academic Reputation: How Not to Suck in Grad School

SR Shaw

This is the hardest blog post I have tried to write. In fact, this a failed blog post, but prefer to be transparent about it (there is much to be learned in sucking). I typically write one of these blog posts in about an hour and take maybe another hour to read it over before posting. This post started the same way, except about 30 minutes into writing and I realized that most of it was garbage. The entire concept of academic reputation may be important to many, but that does not stop it from being extremely silly idea. So here are shreds of ideas that are not fully baked.

I am not a great student of literature, but I do have a library card. And I remember Othello:

“Reputation! Reputation! Reputation! O I have lost my reputation!” –Cassio

“Reputation is an idle and most false imposition oft got without merit and lost without deserving.” –Iago. Iago is correct, but the context was that he was being manipulative. (spoiler: Iago literally stabs Cassio in the back.) Being overly concerned about reputation makes one vulnerable to manipulation and betrayal by others.

Academics are obsessed with their reputations. This is reasonable as academic reputations are the commodities that are used to recruit students, achieve promotion and tenure, gain collaborators, and acquire research funding. Efforts to quantify reputation are inherently flawed and certainly have significant non-random error (i.e., bias) whether they be teaching evaluations, H indices, citation counts, total grant funding awarded, formal awards and recognitions, and other metrics. All academics desire a good reputation, but often we are unclear as to what that is or how to achieve it. Figurative backstabbing over reputation is not uncommon in academia.

What Is a Reputation?

Reputation is defined as the beliefs or opinions that are generally held about someone or something. Reputation is largely about marketing. We all know academics who spend far more time on marketing and expanding their fame and influence than teaching, research, or service to the university and profession. Likewise, there are outstanding researchers, influential researchers, and university leaders who spend no time on marketing. Somewhere along this continuum is the degree of reputation management that works well as a function of your personal goals and the needs of your system.

Reputation can be thought of as desired breadth and quality. Breadth of reputation concerns whether the focus of your reputation will be specific to your subspecialty or whether you want to be influential with the public. To some degree this is field specific. It is unlikely that a great mathematical advance would merit an appearance on The View. Whereas a psychologist, nutritionist, or physician can generate widespread interest. Quality of reputation refers to the standing of an academic by people respected by that individual. To be held in high regard by people whose opinion you value is a hallmark of reputational quality. Breadth and quality are not orthogonal. Popular and public scholars are often dismissed as dilettantes or opportunists and are not respected by scholarly peers. Those without breadth of reputation are considered dusty and irrelevant outside their specific field.

Mindful Approaches

Reputation is more than good or bad. Academic reputation is how you are perceived as a professional. We know professors who are perceived as odd geniuses, supportive aunties, father figures, work to exhaustion machines, social and friendly, people know how to game the system, charismatic performers, hyper competent, innovative, or fit a host of other evaluative terms. Academia is a broad field. The freedom to select our reputational goals is exciting for some and terrifying for others.

Given how difficult it is to gain a tenure track position or any position in academia, invest a lot of time in thinking why you are taking this career track, what you want to accomplish, and how cultivating a specific reputation can help you accomplish goals. Also important is to consider how having a specific reputation can improve or diminish your well being (e.g., a reputation as a driven and tireless worker is nearly impossible to sustain).

What Is under Individual Control?

Reputation is not always under the control of the individual. Reputation is the area in which sexism, racism, subtle and not so subtle anti-LGBTQ views, and other prejudices rear their heads. Fighting for a positive reputation and against prejudice is exhausting. It is not helpful simply to state that this is a situation that should not exist. Obviously, but it does.

So You Want to Be a Rock Star

If you are one of those people who has become an academic because you want to be famous, then you are a top-drawer looney. I would recommend selecting a different career such as Instagram model, professional right-wing troll, porn star, YouTuber, or some other activity with higher status than being an academic. The more attractive and charismatic among us often attempt to parlay research findings into Ted talks, frequent news releases, media events, becoming a guru or cult leader, and other approaches to increase visibility. None of these activities is especially problematic. However, the real problem arises when the goal of academics is to attempt to find the next big thing to gain more and more attention. Anytime a scholar is committed to the results of studies going in only one direction or thinking designed to garner attention over scholarship, then there is potential for trouble. In this case, there is incentive for scholars to deliver results that are most likely to yield attention. This is fundamentally anti-science, anti-intellectual, and is destructive.


Abraham Lincoln said, “Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” Be the real thing. The shadow will change, come and go, but the tree remains and grows. The best way to maintain a positive academic reputation in breath and quality is to align your desired reputation with what you do. Attempting to promote the specific type of reputation that is not consistent with your behaviour will certainly backfire and make you disreputable.