We all know that academic hiring is cut-throat at the best of times, and even more so now that COVID-19 is hitting higher education institutions hard. A key question for budding academics at the moment, therefore, is how to transform amazing ideas and expertise into a coherent academic career narrative attractive to employers. One key tool for achieving this is your academic portfolio.
What is a portfolio?
Traditionally, your portfolio is the collection of your publications, presentations, and other produced pieces of work, together with documentation attesting to awards, grants, honors, and other achievements. It might include positive reviews from students and colleagues as well. These documents showcase both your expertise and your prestige. Employers assess your portfolio during annual reviews and use it as a basis for promotion and tenure decisions. When applying for a new job, your portfolio helps the hiring committee assess not only whether you are qualified for a position but also how you will fit with the current profile of the department and whether you adequately fill gaps in that profile.
A traditional paper portfolio can run to many hundreds of pages, and I have seen colleagues staggering under the weight of a “binder” that weighs more than they do. However, the distancing rules that COVID has brought with it have made the production and assessment of such paper-based portfolios more difficult: it is difficult to access office space and equipment to produce them, difficult to meet colleagues to deliver them, and difficult for assessing committees to get together to review them as a group.
Alternatives to a Paper Portfolio
As a result, some institutions and many individuals are beginning to investigate the potential of online portfolios. These might take the form of a private online collection hosted on a site such as Interfolio or The Chronicle of Higher Education Community, or it might take the form of a public collection on a personal website or a social media platform such as LinkedIn or ResearchGate.
There are many benefits to having an online portfolio. In the first place, online portfolios are easy to maintain and update. As most of us produce and store our work and documents online these days, having a digital portfolio cuts out the tedious step of printing, arranging, and re-printing paper documents. It’s also kinder to the environment and your department’s printing budget.
Digital portfolios are also easier to share with others: the click of a button or two is all it takes to deliver your portfolio to an employer or colleague. A hiring or promotion committee can view your documents easily and without the need to meet in person.
While private portfolios, such as an Interfolio dossier, offer these benefits and more, to my mind, public online portfolios offer far more exciting opportunities.
The Benefits of an Online Portfolio
Look for an artist or creative professional you admire online, and you will almost certainly find that he or she has a website showcasing amazing work and prestigious awards and honors. Increasingly, this model is being used by academics, and for similar reasons: to both highlight and make public the findings and productions of highly individualized and unique careers.
Like any other form of digital portfolio, a website portfolio is easy to update, maintain, and share. There are other benefits, however, that are uniquely tailored to an increasingly digital, pandemic-reactive HE industry.
First, a website portfolio is a highly visual medium that offers you the opportunity present your career in a creative manner uniquely tailored to your personal style. Your portfolio can become an expression of your professional persona as well as a showcase for your expertise.
In designing and maintaining a website portfolio, you also demonstrate a number of soft-skills valued by employers across the board: web writing, web design, graphic design, and so on. As more and more of academia moves online, displaying your ability to present digital content clearly, creatively, and effectively will make you an attractive prospect.
Creating a web presence also allows you to form connections and relationships to other industries. Web content is easy to access and familiar in form to, for example, organizations with which you are negotiating service-learning partnerships or internships for your students, research partnerships, or non-profit work. It may also prove invaluable if you chose to work outside of academia, as a freelancer or within industry.
Finally, a web presence will make you more accessible to other academic colleagues. For example, journal editors seeking peer reviewers or researchers seeking partnerships will have an easy means of reaching out to you to gauge interest, even if they have never met with you in person.
How to Create a Website Portfolio
Think about the websites you find most attractive or effective. Most have an “about” page (providing an overview of the organization), plenty of visual content (such as images and videos), links to relevant outside sources, opportunities for interaction, reviews, and testimonials, and lists of products, services, events, and so on.
Treat your website portfolio in the same way. Be sure to include an engaging “about” page that explains who you are and what you do. Remember that the most engaging online content is visual, so consider how you can break you text up using visual organizers, images, and so on. Consider creating separate pages for different aspects of your career: you might, for example, have information about your research, your teaching, and your community service on different pages.
Feature key publications on your site, but always be mindful about the copyright limitations pertaining to your books and articles. If you do not have copyright permission to share full-text versions, link to the abstracts for your work in databases or on journal websites and to Amazon or WorldCat listings. Again, remember to keep it visual—books and journal covers make great visual content.
You can also showcase your research presentations by asking colleagues to capture photographs and/or videos during your conference presentations (always, of course, with the permission of the organizers and any other individuals in the shot). Include images from the conference program and links to the conference website and any subsequent publications.
You may also want to consider including a blog as part of your portfolio. This informal venue offers you the opportunity to present your work in a less formal format, more appealing to colleagues and partners outside of academia. It can demonstrate your ability to communicate to the non-specialist public and can generate interest in your work. It can also be a good venue for exploring and developing ideas for later, formal publication.
If you are lucky enough to have students and colleagues who value you, consider asking their permission to include testimonials from student reviews, classroom observations, and so on. You want to show that you are not only an amazing researcher but also someone that others value working alongside.
Finally, include opportunities for interaction. Whether this takes the form of links to social media profiles, comments on blog posts, a contact form, or even a forum page, supporting interaction will help you leverage your website’s ability to engage you with your professional community.
There are a ton of excellent options available if you want to build an online portfolio. Free website builders are readily available and allow you to easily create a slick and professional site without any knowledge of coding; some of my favorites are Wix, Weebly, and WordPress. If you are happy to pay for a service, Squarespace also offers an extremely user-friendly interface. And, if you are not confident about website and graphic design, you can find a pro to help you out on sites like LinkedIn, Fiverr, or MediaBistro or hire an independent freelancer like me.
Like it or not, digital looks like being the future of academia. Embracing digitality may well provide you with the opportunity to present yourself as a researcher comfortable with online content, engaged with digital communities, and “linked in” to the cutting edge of your industry.