Graceful Self-Promotion

My mentees often ask me what they can do to optimize their chances to move forward in their careers and achieve leadership positions and sometimes express frustration that, despite their best efforts, they are not being chosen for positions for which they are qualified. Like any other area in medicine, career development discussions and recommendations are best illustrated by example.

A Case Study

So let’s start with a “case study.” Dr. X is a graduate of a highly ranked medical school and completed her residency and fellowship at well-respected institutions. Eight years out of residency, her current position involves 50% patient care and 50% research time. She has several publications in relatively high-impact journals and has secured independent funding for her research. She would like a leadership role in her department’s research initiatives and for the past three years has been frustrated as her more junior and/or less well-published colleagues have secured such positions.

What is she doing wrong? Dr. X is not promoting herself and her accomplishments in a way that helps her own career advancement.

She is relying on the idea that hard work and talent always lead to success, especially as this has been the case for her during her medical training. However, in the “real world,” career success is not automatically “granted” to those who are talented and hard-working alone. If leaders are unaware of an individual’s accomplishments and the time and effort they dedicate to their work, they will not be in a position to think of someone as particularly suitable for promotion or leadership positions. The bottom line is that we cannot sit around waiting for someone to notice our accomplishments – we must make them known, but in a positive and helpful way. This is the heart of “graceful self-promotion.”

Self-Promotion Strategies

Self-promotion is difficult, and may be particularly difficult for physicians. As individuals trained to be empathetic, compassionate, and selfless when it comes to the needs of our patients, a physician’s first response to the idea of self-promotion is that it is selfish and antithetic to these core values and therefore something to be avoided. However, when done right – gracefully – self-promotion is a useful tool to advance one’s career in a meaningful way without being selfish or antithetical to other traits of compassion and empathy. Graceful self-promotion is the art of emphasizing one’s best attributes to others in a positive, effective way taking into account the culture of ones’ profession and workplace.

Here are some strategies I offer to improve skills at graceful self-promotion:

  • Reset your view of self-promotion from “selfish” and “egotistical” to “professional:” if done correctly, you are educating others about yourself and your interests/accomplishments, not selling yourself to them
  • Practice your “elevator pitch:” A 2-3 sentence description of who you are, what you are passionate about, and what your next career goals are
  • Create a “power map:” Identify people who could impact your career, including those who have power over you and those you can work with to help one another
  • Network strategically: Join local and national committees, become/stay active on listservs and social media networks related to your interests, and meet with leaders in the field
  • Promote your colleagues: Find a network of colleagues committed to each other’s career advancement and promote each other to your leaders (if a colleague gets a grant funded or a paper published, email your division chair and congratulate your colleague; nominate each other for awards)
  • Align your successes with your institution’s goals (“I know that one of our division’s priorities is research in area XX, and I’m so thrilled to receive a grant to study area XX and hope this will help move our division’s mission forward”)
  • Do NOT minimize your accomplishments: When you receive praise for your work, avoid saying things like “It’s only a small grant” or “I was really lucky to get this” as this not only does you and your work a disservice but also minimizes the person who is trying to offer you praise
  • Be comfortable in your personal style but seek to improve: Know your personality traits and your strengths and weaknesses, and ask trusted mentors/peers to provide feedback on your style and what portions of your behavior and presence you could improve in presentations and meetings; be willing to make adjustments but not radical changes based on this feedback

Overcoming Obstacles

Lastly, as a passionate advocate for the career advancement of women in medicine, I find that self-promotion can be particularly difficult for women. We often suffer from both external and internal messaging (reflecting antiquated societal norms) that “self-promotion is too aggressive” and that a woman who tries to promote herself will be seen as excessively forward or eager. Women also tend to avoid applying for positions or promotions unless they feel they are 100% qualified whereas men may be more wiling to “take a chance” even if they do not meet all of the recommended qualifications.

While I cannot deny that this may be the case in some situations, I encourage trainees and junior faculty to develop relationships with trusted mentors and peers and use traditionally “female” skills of communication and networking and social awareness to network and promote one another. I also encourage leaders to be particularly mindful of the fact that women may find self-promotion difficult and to take this into consideration when discussing career development (readiness for academic promotion, applications for leadership positions) with their female faculty members and trainees.

All physicians should work to develop skills in graceful self-promotion as ultimately this skill is part of one’s own responsibility for successful career development!

Ariela Marshall, MD
Hematologist specializing in disorders of thrombosis and hemostasis

Published June 2021

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