Academic PR part 1: What is Academic PR?

This is the first of a series of posts I’ll be writing on Academic Public Relations (PR). The thrust of these posts is to talk about Academic PR as a set of strategies for academics, young (graduate student, PhD candidates, etc.) and old (ABDs, post-docs, sessionals, etc.), who are looking to get their work noticed. All major post-secondary institutions will have PR departments, but this isn’t Academic PR. A university’s PR team governs their institution’s image in order to recruit students and increase public awareness, but Academic PR is the practice of PR by academic professionals seeking to network, disseminate research, and discover funding opportunities.

A teachable topicAcademia

The job placement rate of a given graduate program directly relates to that program’s prestige. And more prestige leads to more funding, more industry partnerships, and more growth in the form of course offerings, faculty specializations, and scholarships. So it behooves academic institutions to teach career strategies, doesn’t it?

You’ll recall an earlier post where I interviewed Carleton University’s Dr. Lara Varpio and she outlined the importance of networking for PhD students nearing the end of their studies. Dr Varpio told me that effective networking helped her land her a job, and that effective networking leads PhD students and post-docs to the coveted markers of academic success: publications, fellowships, scholarships, and, most importantly, jobs.

Graduate students are told to disseminate their work at conferences and to network; but they aren’t taught to put themselves on the radar of potential venues for their work. And while Dr Varpio had in mind the more traditional form of networking (face to face at academic conferences), it is my contention that graduate programs and graduate students fail to teach the networking possibilities afforded by the internet, i.e., Academic PR.

Hidden curriculum

So in this sense, Academic PR remains the hidden curriculum of graduate studies: there aren’t any courses taught on this subject, but you need to understand it if you hope to get a job. Why is this?

It could be that the practice of Academic PR is distinctly unacademic. The academy is about pure objectivity while PR is about overt and covert persuasion; the academy is about meritorious knowledge dissemination while PR is about strategic knowledge dissemination; the academy is about research and reporting while PR is about pragmatic, human connections. But the fact remains that many successful academics are practicing Academic PR, and the next generation of academics should learn to do the same.

What do you think? I can see this post generating a lot of disagreement, and that’s great! I’d love to hear your feedback in the form of a comment below.

10 thoughts on “Academic PR part 1: What is Academic PR?

  1. Hello, Al. Nice blog.

    “Academic PR” (as you call it) seems to be one of the unspoken areas of academic development that strong candidates seem to grasp, almost instinctively. Perhaps it’s left untouched within professionalization seminars and programs for grad students and new faculty because there’s an unspoken sense that established scholars shouldn’t have to prod newer ones to do what no one told the elder ones, and that to establish an “Academic PR” training seminar would be both corporatist and overly patronizing.
    Not exactly fair, no– but basic networking with ones colleagues should inform one of the need to network. And networking, with the right people, can be lots of fun.

    Personally, I’m not sure how much training seminars would help (although I don’t know if you intended to address those). Networking is a bit of a trial-by-error process. I guess it would depend on how the seminar was presented. But the thought of attending such a seminar is a little annoying.

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  2. Allan,

    Thanks for sharing this blog with me. Important subject although I’m thinking that your title, “Academic PR,” might be addressing the dozens of market dimensions and operations of contemporary universities (e.g., service learning, outreach, land grant missions, industry-academic relations, fund raising, grant seeking, and so on). Certainly most graduate programs do a poor job of preparing their graduate students for the professoriate and our emerging realization that the market projections for graduating PhDs are grossly optimistic doesn’t help any. Weidman, Twale, and Stein’s (2001) “Socialization of Graduate and Professional Students in Higher Education, A Perilous Passage?” (Jossey-Bass) does a nice data-driven job of explicating some of the unwritten rules for being a “successful graduate student.”

    For sure we know that none of its ever been objective, especially if our socialization’s taken root :-).

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  3. Thanks so much for your feedback Morgan. It definitely seems like an unspoken aspect of academia. Perhaps the PR aspect of things is overly coporativist, but this is really just following some thoughts I’ve had over the years and I REALLY appreciate the alternative perspective. Thanks!

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  4. That’s a great point, Brad. I’m sticking with Academic PR for a couple of reasons. You’re right, the word “academic” is multivalent and can be taken to mean the a given institution’s PR practices, including those that are unique to academia (i.e., land grant missions). But I think another valence of the term is simply PR practiced by individual academics. I think academic socialization conotes a whole other ball of wax that I really don’t want to blog about because, quite frankly, I don’t know much about it. I do know a bit more about social networking and wikis, which I guess would mean my posts should be titled “Tools for Academic PR.” But your reference and your comments have definitely given me some food for thought. Please keep em’ coming :-)

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