Michael Patrick Rutter, Senior Advisor for Communications in the MIT Office of the Vice Chancellor, oversees strategic communications and advises on student initiatives. Previously, Michael was the Director of Media Relations in the MIT School of Engineering, and he held several executive communications roles at Harvard University. He began his career in academic publishing, acquiring and editing books, journals, and digital products focused on the brain and biological sciences.

What should graduate students consider in communicating their identity digitally?

The reality is, we are all digital now. Unless you are using incredibly restricted networks (e.g., only open to users you can determine), a Tweet, share, post, or any artifact in the digital realm is essentially a public postcard. Anyone can read it and find it with relatively minimal effort. Keep in mind, that this postcard may also be permanent, or recoverable even if deleted. I’m not saying this to scare folks, but to make sure they are conscious of the realities of using any platform—and to actively monitor and curate your content footprints.

A lot of networks are just social and fun, and that’s fine, but a good rule of thumb is to take a moment to think before posting and ask how might this be received. Would I be okay if a future employer saw this? Or could this be misinterpreted?

Of course, if you are making a deliberate choice to editorialize, speak about a given issue, then various tools (e.g., Medium) can be fantastic to engage an audience. Or you can use them to showcase your talents (e.g., Github or Etsy). There’s not really an easy answer here, as everyone has multiple digital identities. I would just say, be deliberate. Know the platform you are using and what is appropriate to post on it. Think through what you want to convey and why.

How can graduate students build their brand?

I really dislike the idea of ‘personal brands’ — unless you are a YouTube personality or social media star. Instead, I would suggest students think about how they might use digital tools to showcase their work and interests. This is, basically, the modern portfolio.

For example, a personal website can list a CV, but also showcase papers, articles, videos, blog posts that allow visitors to get a picture of an individual. The same goes for various platforms—Instagram might be an ideal place to show off artwork or perhaps even amazing microscopy images. If a student does have particular expertise they would like to share, digital tools are a great way to do that. I think of our graduate bloggers at MIT who write posts about their lives that can serve as resources for those considering graduate school. Likewise, I know a student who does improv comedy on the side and they post their videos to showcase their talents. In short, figure out what you are trying to do and why and then align that with a given platform or tool.

In your view as a communication professional, what does communication encompass?

That’s a big question. These days, everyone is a communicator some of the time. What we say or do not say matters, especially in an increasingly connected world. I like to think a lot of it is the ability to synthesize complex information from a variety of resources and to distill it into various formats that meet the needs of difference audiences.

A lot of the work is messy by design — and the process itself of figuring out what to say (or not to say), how to say it, and when to say it, is as valuable if not more valuable than the end product. It’s basically thinking out loud or rehearsing well before you commit to pressing send. While comms is often associated with “marketing or selling” or persuasion, it is both a process and a means.

Why is communication an essential professional development competency?

Knowing your audience and how to communicate to that audience is not just about figuring out how to pitch your next big innovation or idea. Being clear, transparent, thoughtful, and inclusive are all parts of being a good communicator and are essential across a variety of roles and situations—personal and professional.

Especially in leadership roles, being a good communicator is what can motivate teams and keep people engaged. The simple act of asking, “Does this make sense?’ or checking-in, “I think what you are saying is …” or reaching out, “Does anyone have something to add?” goes a long, long way. Time and again, employees report that “poor communication” is often what most frustrates them about where they work. I think in all arenas, folks want to know what is going on, why particular decisions were made, and have the sense that they can be trusted. And as important, they want to be heard and see themselves as part of the process. Deep down, communication defines us as humans—and when done well, demonstrates care and respect.