Updated: Jul 10, 2021
My workplace runs regular "info-tainment" sessions, co-hosted by a researcher and a trained actor. The aim is for non-academics to learn about what we do in a fun and informative way. When I volunteered for my first gig I didn't want to deliver a standard presentation. I wanted it to be fun and engaging. So, I tapped into the 7-years of drama training I had squirreled away from my youth and put on a performance. The session was a hit. We ran it again for a private audience on request, and I was invited to be part of another bigger "info-tainment" gig at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.
But it's what my colleague said to me after that first session that really resonated. He shook my hand and asked; "Have we met before? I don't think I've ever met whoever that was on stage?" I laughed and mimed putting a mask over my face as I introduced him to my secret identity, "Performer Kim".
Identity has always been a subject of interest for me. But since coming academia it's become far more pronounced. Academics are judged on three broad metrics: research (i.e. number of publications), education (i.e. student evaluations, if you teach), and engagement. Engagement is really anything you do outside of the academy. It's the number of citations, reads, and social media metrics on your publications. It's case studies where someone has used your research in practice or policy. And it's writing for or being interviewed by media outlets.
For introverts like me, engagement activities can feel very awkward - particularly if you also experience imposter syndrome. You're encouraged to set up social media accounts, spruik your work and expertise, engage with the media, and essentially build your own 'brand'. But what do you do when these things are outside your comfort zone?
My solution was to turn "Performer Kim" into my professional identity. Any time I needed to do engagement activities or sell myself as a professional I would put on the mask, pretend to be confident for a little while, then, when it was over, I'd take the mask off and revert to my secret personal identity.
When I got married it became easier to separate my two identities. Because I had already started to publish under my old name, I didn't want to change it completely. But I also didn't particularly care for it and was happy to take my partner's surname. The solution? Change it legally, but keep my old name for professional purposes.
Everything I'd been doing for work was already branded under my "professional" name - LinkedIn, journal papers, and media articles. So, I changed my name legally (because I'm a Millennial, that included Facebook). I also increased my privacy settings so that anything my personal identity said online would only be visible to my friends and family. I then signed up to Twitter, started a Facebook page, created a website, and published my first novel under my professional name.
Having two identities can be confusing at times. Like when I needed my boss to write a letter confirming my employment for a rental application and he didn't recognise my personal name. Or whenever I sign a document I have to pause and consider "who I am" in the situation. Attending the University medical centre is also tricky because I need my professional name to proove I'm staff, but my personal name to proove I'm an Australian citizen. Plus there was the time I almost couldn't sign for an online delivery because I used my old name on the order but my legal ID cards were in my new name.
Overall, compartmentalising my identities has been incredibly useful. I know that my professional self has an image to maintain, which actually takes the pressure off my personal self. I feel less awkward asking colleagues to share publications or media articles to help boost my professional 'brand'. Pretending to be confident and outgoing professionally has also become easier over time - to the point that most people don't believe I'm introverted at heart (e.g. I need several hours alone to mentally recover from social situations).
Of course, my approach won't work for everyone. But you'd be surprised how powerful the concept of identity can be. In behavioural science, we know that identity can be a powerful driver and barrier. People will purposefully avoid a behaviour because they think, "that's not me". So, if you ever catch yourself avoiding something that you know would be good for you or your career, maybe consider if there's a different version of you who could do it instead.
By Dr Kim Borg
(aka Mrs xxxxxxxxx xxxxx)