Thursday, June 10, 2010

Branding Your Research (and Yourself)

In honor of being at EC, a post on branding.

In theory, your research will be judged and appreciated based on its intrinsic quality, and your scientific reputation will follow accordingly.

In practice, unsurprisingly, branding helps, both you and your research.  I certainly wouldn't claim to be an expert, or even particularly good, at branding, although I'd acknowledge I've benefited from it throughout my career.  So you should take this as a starting point, rather than a final word on the subject (and comments are very, very welcome).

By branding I mean any of the sorts of things that might be considered marketing.  Perhaps one of the most basic methods of branding involves something as simple as choosing project names.  Well-chosen project names are a simple way to get people to remember your work -- when we hear PageRank, Chord, smoothed analysis, or XORS in the Air, for example, it resonates;  they've become lasting brand names.  Picking good names is hard, though -- it's easy to go overboard, or come up with something that just sounds ugly.  (I should note that networking people, perhaps because they build specific systems, seem much better at and more aware of this kind of branding than theory people in my experience.)  I'm not sure if cool-sounding project names can help you get research funding (Robobees!), but my guess is it doesn't hurt. 

Another basic approach is to become associated with a certain type of research -- especially, if possible, if you've started a chain of research, although you can certainly become well-associated with a line of work you didn't initiate.  Often this is a certain subarea -- "they do online algorithms", "they do network coding" -- or can be a certain technique "they're expert in their use of martingales."  Perhaps best, early in your career, is to be associated with something fairly specific -- "they work on cuckoo hashing."  This is why, as a graduate student, you're very strongly encouraged to find a thesis topic where you can write multiple closely thematically related papers --  it helps you to get known for something, which is an important benefit in a competitive job market.  One can argue whether it's really a good thing that people's work is reduced, at times, to such a shorthand, but when dealing with dozens of potential candidates, having a natural and memorable label is truly helpful.

Indeed, the other major time in academia that branding seems important is when you come up for tenure.  I was explicitly asked what I was "known for" when I came up for tenure.  (Hint:  if what you're known for is just your PhD work, that's usually not a good sign.)  It makes sense, when your case is being prepared for a broader audience outside your immediate field, that your work be summarized in your tenure case -- preferably into key "brand names", easily describable by key words and phrases (power of two choices, low-density parity-check codes, Bloom filters, etc.) --  that will match the summaries that come in from the external letters.  This follows the principle (that I try to emphasize to my students) of making it easy on the people who are grading you.  If the letters match your case description, that's good positive reinforcement.    

Of course, another aspect of branding is standard self-promotion -- giving talks, for instance.  Or writing a blog -- shameless, but effective, self-promotion.  (I definitely noticed I was invited to give more talks after starting the blog.)  Writing a blog is certainly not for everyone, but you should find other ways of promoting yourself and your work.

One perhaps underestimated and lesser-utilized but powerful branding method is to write a survey -- or, if you're up for it, a longer treatise, or even a book.  I've written several surveys, and besides being useful for myself, I've been amazed how many people seem to read (and even cite) the things.  It's possibly been my most powerful consciously used branding tool (outside the blog).  I'm already thinking now of the next survey I want to write.     

An eventual goal, of course, is to obtain many brands that are associated with you -- different research topics, in potentially different areas.  This is helpful because of the obvious reason: if you're known in multiple contexts, you'll get more chances for any specific individual to know you.  Of course this takes time.  As a graduate student, it seems to make more sense to work on developing a single, strong self-brand rather than many.  (That's not to say that you just work on one thing -- some breadth is generally appreciated and looked for at hiring time -- but there's usually a clear focus on one line of research.)  Once you become a faculty member, you can start developing more brands.  If you have many students, this may happen naturally -- each student will (or at least should) be trying to develop their own brand, which you may be associated with as an advisor.  In some sense, your students can be a brand extension, although hopefully they can also become their own independent brand.  

I've been fortunate, I think, to have over time apparently developed multiple brands in multiple areas.  It's fun for me that when I visit someplace to give a talk, the theory/networking/information theory people all seem interested in talking with me.  One thing that's clear is that people see your brand from the context of their own work, which is worth keeping in mind.   Sometime after I wrote my survey on power laws (and another associated paper on power laws), Barabasi (of various book fame --  Bursts and Linked) invited me to come give a talk to his group.  He nicely introduced me as being most famous for my work on power laws -- something that was, I imagine, certainly true from his perspective.  People will generally know at most one or maybe two of your brands, and that's fine.

So what are the downsides of branding yourself and your work?  You do run the risk of getting pigeonholed, like a child star, known for a small bit of your larger body of work.  I'm still widely known as the "balls-and-bins" guy.  Worse yet, you may start to believe yourself that you're tied to the area you're known for, and become afraid of trying something else.  Becoming "the expert" in an area means you'll get asked to review many of the papers in that area.  After all, all the papers cite you, and that's what the editors see.  And, of course, branding is a time-consuming activity, that takes patience and energy.  Still, for most people, a little conscious attention to research branding efforts can probably go a long way.  

I'm not sure how far this analogy can go.  Can you develop brand loyalty for your research?  I think so -- there are certainly researchers I try to follow regularly.  Can you re-position brands?  Parallel algorithms are new and exciting again, right?  Are there any "iconic" brands in research?

I'm sure some of you think spending a whole post on branding is somewhat silly.  For the theorists, let me point you here.


Anonymous said...

Why all of a sudden all Harvard CS faculty members have started blogging???

Anonymous said...

First anonymous: Branding!

Anonymous said...

Hahahha.. and the brand is that the tenured professors at Harvard spend all their time blogging :)

I have observed that after the retirement threat michael has only started blogging more :)

Anonymous said...

retirement threat?? psst.. fast.. fast..

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

I quote from

"There are conferences (STOC, EC, ISIT) to blog about in the immediate future, some papers in the pipeline I hope to have a chance to discuss, and probably some issues in the back of my head that I'd like to blog about before stopping. That's a couple months more of posts."

Alan Fekete said...

For an older but still valuable explanation of branding in academe (particularly database research) see Richard T. Snodgrass, Merrie Brucks: Branding Yourself. SIGMOD Record 33(2): 117-125 (2004)

Anonymous said...

Prof Mitzenmacher,

A lot things u say in tehi blog make sense in managing your career. But, what about people who never did this, didnt realize it in time, is their any redemption. How about a blog post on someone trying to mend a research career that has produced a string of papers, nothing absolutely brilliant. In theory, a student or postdoc can control his research but this is not true for many.

Anonymous said...

Professional academics should be concerned about trifling ephemera such as branding. Intellectuals need not. Is there a result with any historical significance that has a corporate-like brand attached to it? To associate a theorem or result with a brand is to instantly trivialize and date it.