How do you describe the academic work that you do?

Think back to the last time someone not in your career field asked you to describe recent projects you were working on. Or to the last time that someone unexpectedly asked you to share your current CV, academic portfolio, or website….

Were you able to clearly and succinctly (no rambling!) describe what you were working on? Were your comments engaging and interesting? Bonus points if you found you were able to do so in a way that was engaging and interesting to someone not familiar with your research area(s)!

As someone who conducts research on topics (academic libraries, educational technology, assessment, learning analytics) and areas that are related but not explicitly commonly positioned within my Ph.D. area (Instructional Systems/Instructional Design), I used to really struggle with this. Because, let’s be honest, pre-dinner chats with folks not in academia that start with the typical, “So what do you do?” question aren’t the easiest to respond to.

I mentally crafted a few versions of what I hoped was a relatable response (unfortunately, relatable seems to typically translate to “less serious” in many social circles), but the shortest explanation I typically came up with was something along the lines of,

I research academic library-related topics such as information literacy, assessment, data privacy, learning analytics, specifically their intersection with educational technology tools and how use of these systems and tools can contribute to academic achievement and retention.

I typically had one of two reactions to this:

  • Awkward silence / immediate topic changing (most common) or 
  • Follow-up questions trying to figure out what all of this meant that were sometimes close to the work I was doing, but more often than not which resulted in more explanation. Note: This also resulted in me feeling awkward because my goal of “fitting in” during casual social chats by coming across as “less serious” was definitely not accomplished. Which also led to me quickly starting to feel embarrassed because I believed my response made others think I was socially awkward.

Discussing my academic work: An evolution

Over the years I’ve become significantly more comfortable and confident with talking about my research areas.

Comfortable. Becoming more comfortable talking about my research was a simpler evolution for me. As of 2020, I’ve researched the same topics for several years now. This means that I’ve also presented and published on these topics in a variety of venues, from academic to more mainstream media (including online webinars on knowledge management and productivity such as this recent webinar with Marie Poulin on Academic Productivity for Notion Office Hours). 

As of 2020, I’ve also been working in academia (in some capacity) for nearly twenty years. This means that if I’m not 100% positive about something that comes up in social conversations related to research interests, I can likely think of some sort of related connection to make and if not, I’m also comfortable admitting that. 

Confident. While I never expect others to 100% understand the work that I do, or for that matter, be interested in it, it took me some time to realize that my lack of confidence was very visibly on display every time I felt the need to make my research or projects sound “less serious” to “fit in” social conversations. 

While I believe my increase in confidence with describing my work was at least partially due to the passage of time – practice really helps! – I strongly attribute the vast majority of this improvement in my personal confidence to crafting a strong online presence for myself which clearly (and briefly) describes my current and past research projects using the Notion Academic Portfolio template that my research partner, Russell Michalak, designed for us. Entering those details into Notion to create our online portfolio served 

What are Academic Portfolios?

“Traditional” Academic Portfolios

A recent Google search for “academic portfolios” brings back a variety of sources, most from a variety of institutional websites geared towards helping pre-service teachers in crafting the most traditional or typical academic portfolio – a physical or (more commonly now) digital collection of the pre-service teacher’s best works and reflections as related to teaching and learning experiences to date with the goal of helping the pre-service teacher to secure a job. This was closely followed by websites and other rather dated articles (most 5-10 years+) that discussed the importance of academics (nearly always only mentioning faculty roles) maintaining an academic portfolio for tenure and promotion.

Peter Seldin and J. Elizabeth Miller, in their 2008 book, The Academic Portfolio (the only book I found on Amazon related to this topic), shared the following definition of academic portfolios:

“An academic portfolio is a reflective, evidence-based collection of materials that documents teaching, research, and service performance. It brings together, in one place, information about a professor’s most significant professional accomplishments. It includes documents and materials that collectively suggest the scope, quality, and significance of a professor’s achievements. As such, it allows faculty members to display their accomplishments for examination by others. And in the process, it contributes to sounder personnel decisions as well as the professional development of individual faculty members.” (Kindle edition location 443).

Peter Seldin and J. Elizabeth Miller

Seldin and Miller’s definition certainly lines up with the majority of the resources I found with my Google searching (physical binders, printed materials). It also brought me mentally squarely back to spring 2002 when I pulled together a physical, printed, teaching portfolio for my elementary education class. That was also the last physical academic portfolio that I ever produced.

“Modern” Academic Portfolios

There’s been a definite shift from the traditional idea of academic portfolios as physical binders of ‘best works’ collected exclusively to share with one person or small groups of people for new jobs or promotion to the idea that you need to manage your online identity by creating and maintaining professional website(s) that include examples of your current and past work. This shift to what I’m mentally calling the modern academic portfolio approach is definitely more in line with advice and tips that I’ve often seen shared in the personal branding space.

The only book that I’m familiar with that discusses this new approach to developing academic portfolios is Dr. Katie Linder’s recent book Managing Your Professional Identify Online.In her book, Katie describes several reasons why academics should consider developing and maintaining a web presence related to their scholarly activities, from simply wanting the ability to create a “a stable online space that you can control” to the increasingly more common practice of academics promoting services, products, and publications through their personal entrepreneurial ventures outside of (or instead of) traditional institutional activities.

Our Personal Take: Why You Need an Academic Portfolio

Our take on this:

Academic faculty & administrators need to establish an online presence that is 100% theirs and not controlled or influenced by others. 

Monica Rysavy & Rusty Michalak

Linkedin, Twitter, Instagram, and other social presences are great (and I’ll certainly always advocate for grabbing your names on these platforms), the algorithms used by those platforms greatly impact what others see when you post – specifically how often they see what you post. A website (with or without a full portfolio) that is your site (preferably with YOUR NAME DOT COM as the URL to help with search results) establishes a professional presence for you online that is not connected to another business platform (such as the previously mentioned social media platforms) who has very different goals for their business that you have for the content you are sharing online). 

There are different ways to establish an online website. Just one year ago I would have said that you can go from the super simple template models all the way to advanced websites that you design and maintain or pay others to create and maintain for you. 

Now, thanks to our favorite app, Notion, Rusty and I have another recommendation: creating an academic portfolio with Notion! It’s super simple to maintain, looks polished and professional, and helps you establish a web presence or if you don’t already have one or can be integrated into existing web presences. 

Looking Ahead

Over the next several weeks, Rusty and I will be sharing more about our thoughts on academic portfolios, including how we are using Notion for our academic portfolio, steps for building your own (including a template you can purchase from us if you’d prefer to start with some ready-made that you can customize to suit your needs), and extra credit content related to how you can extend your Notion portfolio with both plugins (sometimes called “power-ups”!) and a variety of other embeddable content like personal video introductions and infographics and charts to help visitors to your site getting to know you.