Texas Tech University

The Significance and Fragility of Professional Reputations

By Marianna Evola

"It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it." - Benjamin Franklin

A good professional reputation is critical for building an academic career. Furthermore, it takes years or decades of work to build a good research reputation. Students are often unconcerned about their professional reputation. They feel that concerns about their reputation should be addressed in the future, when they attain a faculty tenure track position. In actuality, it is a good professional reputation that earns you the faculty tenure-track position.

From the first day of graduate school, if not before, students begin to build a professional reputation. Faculty, mentors and fellow graduate students are the first professional network for all graduate students. This network of people will contribute to student careers and will serve as references for students as they begin to take critical steps in to meet their career goals. However, this early network will only contribute to student career development if the graduate student has demonstrated that they have interests, skills, integrity and professionalism that are worthy of endorsement. Thus, students need to be aware that their current good and bad deeds are building their professional reputation right now.

Comparably, student reputations are more adaptable than faculty reputations. Because of their student status, misdeeds are generally forgivable and students can recover from mistakes because as students, they are still learning and growing as professionals. I remember when I was a postdoc, I attended the dissertation defense of a male graduate student in our department. The student's mentor was speaking about the evolving professionalism of his graduating doctoral student. Apparently, early in his training, the student had developed a reputation for being lazy and the mentor had frequently been frustrated with him. However, a bit later in his training, the student got married and the mentor was dismayed to watch his "lazy" student mature and rapidly become a highly focused and productive professional. The mentor attributed the student's marked change in performance to his new responsibility of being married and overtly thanked his student's wife during the dissertation defense. Thus, students can notably alter their reputation by altering their focus and performance. That being said, students should be aware of patterns in their performance that could impact their reputation. Frequent or severe mistakes could undoubtedly begin to impact a student's professional reputation as well as the valuable recommendations that are needed from the student's first network of colleagues.

Comparably, the professional reputation of faculty can be much more fragile. Although productive faculty may have a strong reputation in their professional network, questionable behavior, especially behavior linked to misconduct, is largely unforgivable. Because of their status as faculty, their peers expect faculty to understand the professional ethics and expectations of their discipline. Thus, misdeeds are not attributed to human error or lack of knowledge. Questionable conduct and especially a guilty finding misconduct can immediately and irreversibly shatter the professional reputation of faculty and they will no longer be trusted by their academic colleagues. As such, faculty are often very cautious and sometimes controlling when they train students because student misdeeds and even mistakes could negatively impact faculty professional reputation as well as the reputations of their entire team.

One of the best ways for students and young researchers to enhance their professional reputation is to build a broad repertoire of skills and knowledge that will contribute to good decision making. Furthermore, as careers naturally evolve, it is critical to continue to develop these skills because researchers will find themselves encountering ethical challenges that were not addressed in their early training. Unfortunately, coursework often does not provide instruction on skills that are critical for building and preserving a strong professional reputation. For example, students in the human sciences often receive considerable training on the ethics associated with conducting research on humans. However, researchers that began their careers in the basic sciences or engineering may have never received intensive training on the ethics associated with using human participants in research. Hence, when a new research interest or collaboration moves their work in this new direction, researchers may lack the basic knowledge for conducting research in a highly regulated field. During these types of challenges it is very easy to underestimate the regulatory culture and make a critical mistake that could negatively impact their professional reputation and career. Therefore when faced with a new research interest that is highly regulated, such as research with humans, it is imperative for researchers to seek out training so that they understand the complex regulations and ethics rather than dismiss the bureaucracy as arduous and unnecessary.

There is no shortage of skills that are critical for building a strong research reputation. As I pondered the type of skills that contribute to building a research career it took me no longer than 5 minutes to construct a rudimentary list of skills that are generally not addressed in coursework. Professional ethics, data management, quantitative methods, personnel management/teamwork, teaching, communication, branding, promotion, networking, collaboration, negotiation, critical reading/thinking, mastery of literature, writing, stress management, avoiding procrastination, etc. all contribute to a productive academic research career. I've previously written on resources on the TTU campus that can help students develop professional skills, but students need to voluntarily attend these training workshops. Graduate students should realize that it is their responsibility to seek out training opportunities for developing skills outside of their coursework. It is their professional obligation to take time out of their busy schedules and take advantage of training that is available on campus, just like their faculty mentors seek out training.

When faculty and professionals attend seminars, they independently choose to do so to enhance their knowledge and professional skills. Faculty are rarely directed to attend training seminars. Rather, they are internally motivated to maximize their skills and keep their knowledge current. As an example, I recently took time out of my day to attend a training seminar on professional communication. Although I regularly give public presentations on responsible research to audiences of students and faculty, I am always looking for insight and instruction on ways to improve my communication and presentation skills. Similarly, senior researchers attend seminars and conferences to maintain and enhance their expertise in their disciplines and their professional skills. However, sadly, when I attend many of the skills development presentations on the TTU campus, there are few student attendees. Students do not seem to realize that they need to seek out training beyond the classroom. They do not realize that it is part of their professional responsibility to independently develop their skills.

Students need to realize that they need to monitor and build their professional reputation right now in these early stages of their professional careers. They can build their career by developing professional skills that will enable them to work efficiently and make good research decisions. There are opportunities for students to develop these skills by attending professional development training sessions on the campus. However, students need to realize that they need to independently seek out training that is not contained in their coursework or provided in their immediate research environment. It is a critical part of their professional development.


Marianne Evola is the director of the Human Research Protection Program in the Office of the Vice President for Research. She is a monthly contributor to Scholarly Messenger.

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