Why you should start building your personal brand now: lessons from the Venetian aristocracy

Last year, I attended a Postdocs meeting in Berlin. There, I met Dr. Amani Said during her workshop on how to better communicate. A few weeks later I enrolled on her website to attend a webinar on "personal branding". If you are a PhD in academia, the chances that you are familiar with the term Personal Branding is slim. I, myself, had never heard of that term, nor my colleagues.

The personal brand of a person regroups his or her skills, personality traits, passions, and motivations, all of which could be the solution to a problem. A personal brand allows its owner to be, in one word, identifiable.

For someone being in the academic jungle over the last 10 years, personal branding sounds counterintuitive for two reasons: it is personal and it implies being identified, which we do not practice enough in academia. Indeed, since I was a young science student, I was taught to refer to my work in the lab as a collective effort: we observed this, we hypothesized that, we concluded the other. Also, I got used to get identified by affiliation: don't we all refer to scientific articles using the corresponding author name?

It took me some time to assimilate the concept of personal brand. Actually, it was a trip to Venice and a guided tour that led me to that aha moment. The short and detail-less story I am about to share with you is different from my previous articles but I promise you I will make a point.

Hop on in a gondola with me and let's travel to Venice in the 8th century!

Back in those days, there were twelve aristocratic families in Venice. Only they could participate in the election of the Doges (someone like the president) and hence they were powerful. As life passed by, the members of those families married and had children. Then, those children grew up, married and had children, expanding their roots. One family, the Contarini, did that so well that by the year 1500 around 10% of the Venetian nobility shared this name. Imagine 10% of your city inhabitants had your last name! You would want to be identifiable and for that, you would need to differentiate yourself somehow. That's what the Contarini began to do, except they did not call it personal branding.

A Contarini family forged a huge iron door earning the name Contarini della Porta di Ferro that means “of the iron door”. Another family was known as the Contarini dagli Scrigni, which means “of the treasure chests”, because of their fortune and wealth. And the Contarini del Bovolo, which means “of the snail”, won their reputation after adding a beautiful spiral stair to their palace.

Of course, not all Contarini were interested in demarking themselves from others. They thought it was not for them --I have no information on whether they were academics. And something happened. A member of one of those unpreoccupied families punched a Doge on his face breaking his nose! He got executed and his family was forever known as Contarini dal Naso that means “of the nose”.

Our trip comes to an end here, so hop off the gondola and calmly come back to the lab.

Nowadays, we may have come to terms with sharing our last name with thousands of others. But when it comes to our career and profession it gets trickier. Search how many holders of a Biochemistry, Biology, Mathematics, or Physics diploma there are. Thousands every year! It is not a surprise that demarking oneself becomes crucial.

If you are new to personal branding, the whole "demarking oneself" may sound narcissistic and egocentric. You could see it like that. Or you could rather think of personal branding as a way of demarking each and everyone's uniqueness. Because yes, every person, every PhD holder, has a unique mix of skills, personality, passions, motivations, etc, that together can be the answer to a question or the solution to a problem. A personal brand puts you, and your uniqueness, out there on the map so that the rest of the world can find you.

Not yet convinced about creating your personal brand? Let me ask you a question. Haven't you ever felt furious when a government, an institution or even a friend asks for advice from unqualified sources? Perhaps they do because the expert that is able to solve that problem is unidentifiable. And believe it or not, you, PhD students, are experts on something. And the knowledge you hold is the answer to somebody’s problem. So, dive deep and pinpoint what makes you unique!

Defining your personal brand also means choosing to be known for what you love and are good at. And that is beautiful! Because you increase your chances of getting a job that fulfills you and gives you purpose –all while solving a problem! But in order for this to happen, you need to actively build your personal brand –like the Contarini del Bovolo. Not doing so may lead you to a Contarini dal Naso-like situation: to be identified by something that does not truly reflect your uniqueness!

Now, are you ready to start creating your personal brand?

You can start by reflecting on the next questions:

  • To what question are you the answer?

  • What are you passionate about?

  • What are you perceived as an expert on?

  • What have you earned the right to talk about?

Craving for more? Check out the events calendar of “Success Beyond the Lab”. Dr. Amani regularly offers personal branding webinars for scientists!

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