Many interdisciplinary students and graduates can relate: effectively communicating what you do and what your unique value is can be quite challenging. This topic also captured the attention of Helena Eharand, a graduate of IDBM BIZ, former IDBM Community Manager, and now a Sustainability Consultant, who wrote her thesis on "Navigating an Interdisciplinary Personal Brand", based on insights from IDBM alumni.
Last fall, we were happy to have her join us for an interactive workshop to explore the challenges faced by interdisciplinary graduates and students in personal branding as well as how to tackle them. Now, we’re sharing the insights we got from Helena’s workshop in this blog post.
Personal branding: Why should you care?
Personal Branding was popularized at the end of the 1990s by the business management guru Tom Peters in quite a provocative article “The Brand Called You”, in which he argued that every person has their own brand, whether they like it or not - or whether they are aware of it or not.
Peters argued, however, that our task should be to take matters into our own hands by becoming one’s own marketers, in order to close the gap between the “desired self” and perceived identity.
In response to today's competitive job market, personal branding has become an increasingly powerful tool for setting oneself apart from the competition by showcasing one’s distinctive professional identity. When done well, personal branding can enhance credibility and reputation, reduce vulnerability to job loss, and help open doors to diverse career opportunities.
Challenges Faced by Interdisciplinary Graduates
Helena's research identified two primary challenges faced by interdisciplinary graduates in personal branding:
1. Constructing and communicating a simple, clear, and/or concise personal branding message
This challenge stems from several factors:
Possessing mainly soft skills rather than hard skills: While the literature suggests that soft skills should be the key to employability, Helena’s study highlighted that possessing mainly soft skills has made it challenging for IDBM graduates to construct and communicate their personal branding message, as these skills are hard to convey.
T-shaped vs. generalist skill-set: Despite the goal of educating T-shaped professionals, IDBM graduates often perceive themselves as generalists, which poses challenges in the specialized job market.
Transitioning between fields: It is not rare for IDBM students to switch fields. However, as the studies are a short timeframe for completely reinventing one’s professional identity, those graduates might find themselves struggling to formulate their branding message.
2. The lack of general awareness of the benefits of interdisciplinary education
This challenge presents itself through several aspects:
The need to promote interdisciplinary education: As interdisciplinary programmes are less common, the graduates felt that instead of merely showcasing their value, they also need to be able to communicate the value of interdisciplinary thinking.
Simplifying the value of interdisciplinary education: As a result, some graduates admitted to sometimes oversimplifying their education, to make it more comprehensible. While simplicity is crucial in personal branding and may involve excluding certain aspects, excessive oversimplification might inadvertently constrain the opportunities that come your way.
Finding jobs that utilize interdisciplinary education: Lastly, some graduates pointed out the challenge of securing jobs that fully leverage interdisciplinary education, indicating that perhaps the job market is lagging behind academia’s efforts of educating interdisciplinary graduates. It's crucial to emphasize, however, that this observation is subjective and based on individual perceptions.
Helpful Elements for Constructing a Personal Brand
Understanding the challenges, the following elements were found to be helpful by interdisciplinary graduates:
1. Understanding oneself, the program, and the job market
Self-Awareness: Aligned with the literature on personal branding, IDBM graduates emphasized the importance of self-reflection for building a strong personal brand. Before attempting to communicate your personal brand externally, it's crucial to first crystalize your competencies, interests, and future career goals to yourself.
Gaining insights into the job market: In addition to gaining self-awareness, the participants found it helpful to gain an overview of the various job possibilities as well as an insight into the skills that employers desire. This aids graduates in positioning themselves effectively in the job market.
Intentional degree design: Additionally, participants advised balancing curiosity in exploring courses with intentional degree planning. Reflecting on and seeking guidance for choosing the courses needed to build a strong brand can be worthwhile for developing a stronger personal brand. In practice, this might mean enhancing your overall skill set by choosing your minor or elective courses to acquire specialist knowledge or to complement your soft skills with relevant hard skills.
2. Contextualizing knowledge
Showcasing skills by concrete projects, examples, and stories: As the skills possessed by interdisciplinary graduates are often intangible, almost all participants agreed that using concrete projects, examples and stories has been the most impactful way to convey their skills.
Adjusting personal brand based on the context: Even though conventional personal branding advice warns against creating multiple brand stories, interdisciplinary graduates found it helpful to tailor their message depending on the target audience. However, it is important to note that although this approach was deemed beneficial by the participants, it may also be connected to the challenge of creating a clear and concise branding message.
3. Leveraging existing awareness
Establishing and utilizing networks: As the lack of awareness about interdisciplinary programs can create challenges for personal branding among interdisciplinary graduates, it is even more essential for these graduates to take advantage of any existing awareness. The participants suggested utilizing existing networks, as people who know IDBM often appreciate the education.
Highlighting popularized aspects of the master’s program: Furthermore, the participants suggested highlighting the popularized aspects of IDBM such as interdisciplinary teamwork, creative problem-solving, and design thinking.
4. Adopting an iterative approach
Incorporating feedback: The participants emphasized that building a personal brand is an ongoing process. While it can often feel uncomfortable, seeking feedback can help you understand the way your personal brand is received, and allow you to make iterations.
Learning and gaining confidence through practice: And finally, the participants reflected that, ultimately, it was only through practice that they were able to learn and gain more confidence in communicating their value.
Getting Started: Reflective Questions
We recommend utilizing the countless resources online that guide the process of building a personal brand.
To help you get started, however, we want to leave you with some self-reflective questions Helena shared with us to start constructing your personal brand.
Don’t look for perfect answers (remember, it is an iterative process)! Rather, see it as an opportunity to get to know yourself and “audit” how far are you on your personal branding journey:
What are your core strengths and skills? What unique qualities, experiences, or perspectives do you bring to your field?
What aspects of your work or studies do you find most fulfilling or enjoyable? What tasks or projects energize you?
What values are most important to you in your life and career?
Who is your “target audience” or ideal employer, and what do they seek in a professional like you?
What long-term goals or aspirations do you have for your career? Where do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years?
Navigating an interdisciplinary personal brand can feel challenging but by understanding the challenges and adopting the helpful elements into your personal branding process, you can differentiate yourself in the job market, and pave the way for diverse career opportunities.
Authors: Nicole Hußmann, Helena Eharand