Writing a bio-note


Most of us have to produce bio-notes. The bio-note is a little verbal selfie that goes with a book chapter, a journal article, or sometimes a conference presentation. Book authors also have to provide brief bio-notes which might go in their book as well as on the publisher’s website. The bio-note tells the reader some key information about you, the writer.

Most bio-notes are short. They often have a word limit of 100-150 words. So there is not much space in a bio-note to communicate a lot about you. And there’s not much room to be creative with them either.

Many doctoral and early career researchers struggle with bio-notes – they think that they have nothing to say about themselves that is particularly noteworthy.

But quite often, when you look at bio-notes, say in the beginning of an edited book where all of the contributors are listed, it is the early career researchers who write most. The more experienced researchers write less about themselves. This is perhaps because they don’t feel anxious, or maybe they figure a lot of people already know who they are.

However, those newer to publication, the people who write all the words, can be read by mean readers as trying too hard to make something out of not much, or of elevating publications or activities to a level of prominence they don’t quite merit. (Am I making this up? No, I’ve heard this said, a lot. There’s a lot of mean out there.) But I think that the problem of not knowing what to write is not about this. I reckon it may be related to understanding the bio-note.

So what’s the bio-note actually about?

Bio-notes do lots of work, but they’re not primarily about self-promotion. They’re not an opportunity to tell people everything you’ve done and how good it all was. They are not the best place to peddle your wares, if you are so inclined.

The bio-note serves multiple purposes including being (1) a small service to the reader and (2) a way of adding ‘street cred’ to published writing.

Let me explain:

  • Bio-note as a service to the reader. The bio-note helps the reader to situate the writing – be it chapter or paper or book. When the reader understands key points about the writer, they have an idea of where the argument in the text is coming from, and perhaps something of the reasons the text has been written. In finding out the writer’s motivations and experiences, the reader can, if they choose, see the text as something that is located in time, space and an ongoing research agenda.
  • Bio-note as a service to the publisher. Publishers like to show that the books that they publish are written by reputable people who have conducted research in a real university or social research organisation, or they are a legit independent researcher. One way for publishers to do this is to use the bio-note as a kind of assurance – as a way of showing the provenance of the text.

And of course, thinking about the reader additionally points to the fact that there might be different bio-notes for different readers.  Bio-notes not only change over time, as the work you do changes. They also change because different readers may be interested in different things and it may be important to foreground some things and not others.

I’ll just make this personal as a way of illustrating this point.

While all of my bio-notes start much the same way, with my name, what ‘s in and comes after varies. For instance, when I am presenting at a conference or writing about academic writing, I always mention my blog in my bio-note. If I am writing about schools, I sometimes mention my former life as a headteacher. And if I am writing about the arts, then I signal the ongoing research I have been doing and the arts organisation partners I have been working with.

Here’s three of my bio-notes, to show what I mean, written for different readerships and to different word lengths.

  • Conference keynote about the doctoral contribution, for a postgraduate audience which included a lot of part-time professionals.

Pat Thomson PSM PhD FAcSS FRSA was a headteacher in Australia for twenty years. After a brief stint in a senior public service position she hightailed it into higher education. She has been a Professor in the School of Education at The University of Nottingham for the last fourteen years, researching entanglements of school and community change, the arts and creativity and alternative education. She also researches and writes about academic writing and doctoral education. She has twenty-one published books, a further four in various stages of completion, and she dreams of her very own library bookshelf. She blogs at patthomson.net and tweets as @ThomsonPat.

So here I’ve highlighted my qualifications and esteem factors to show that the university I am speaking at invited someone who knew what they were talking about. And I talk about my own professional history as a means of connecting my experience with that of the audience, but I also say I’ve been in higher ed for quite a bit of time too. And I’ve tried to be a bit lighthearted to indicate that the presentation might not be completely dull.

  • Edited book – editor – book about alternative education – publisher’s website

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education at the University of Nottingham, UK. Her work centres on the ways in which educational practices can be made more equitable; her research currently focuses on arts and cultural education in schools, communities, galleries and museums. She is a former school leader of alternative and disadvantaged schools.

Again as this is a book about practice, I am saying that I know about this topic from both research and practice perspectives. And that while alternative education is not my main area of research it fits with my broader agenda.

  • Edited book – description in a book about arts and creativity, in-text bio-note.

Pat Thomson is a Professor and Convenor of the Centre for Research in Arts, Creativity and Literacy (CRACL) at the University of Nottingham, UK.  Pat is known for her interdisciplinary engagement with questions of creative and socially just learning and change.  Much of this work has been in collaboration with Professor  Christine  Hall.  Pat has had a long-term research partnership with Professor  Barbara  Kamler with whom she writes about academic writing.  Her academic writing and research education blog  ‘patter’  is archived by the British  Library and posts are frequently republished elsewhere.  She tweets as  @ThomsonPat  and has an academic writing  ‘patter’ facebook page. Her research activities can be seen on a range of websites  –  the TALE  project,  the  Signature  Pedagogies project,  I  worked at  Raleigh,  the Get Wet project, Performing  Impact,  Cultural  Value and  Live  Art, and Quality in Alternative  Education.

More words here, but written in anticipation of a reader who might also be interested in academic writing as well as arts and creativity. I’ve established my street cred by listing a research centre and a number of research projects. I’ve also laid claim to inter-disciplinarity, again like the reader I imagine buying the book And there’s talk about long-term collaborative work, something that is key to a lot of arts activities.

I’m sure you can see in my three bio-notes that I’ve deliberately selected some things to say and some to leave out. You’ll also see the difference in the formality of the writing.

But how does knowing this help you, if you are wondering about writing your first bio-note?

Well, first of all you need to concentrate on a bio-note which helps the reader. Forget the publisher, forget self-promotion. Think about your reader.

The reader wants to know a bit about where you are, and perhaps how this particular text is related to your research track record and your general research and/or professional interests. They may be interested in other things you do that are related to what you’ve written. Or they may like to know about your long-term research agenda.

The conventional bio-note format meets these readers’ interests. It says who you are, your stage of career (position) and any institutional affiliation you have. Then there is something about how this text relates to other work – your research interests, current projects and any other publications. The bio-note signposts all these things – but it doesn’t explain them in great detail.

So what’s the content you need if you are an early researcher writing a bio-note?

  • name, maybe qualifications if it’s relevant and /or expected
  • current institutional affiliation if there is one, and what your work is. If you are working casually ???? then say what the work is you’ve done and are doing – researching, teaching, administration etc.
  • your doctoral research and its topic, together with where it was done
  • your wider research interests.
  • your previous professional history if it’s relevant.
  • a publication, if there’s more than one, list the best one or two. (If this is your first publication, don’t feel bad. We all have to start somewhere. And we all had a first publication. Pat yourself on the back and move on.)
  • social media – put that down too!

String that information together in a few sentences and that’s it. Bio-note done.

And because the bio-note is just headlines, it doesn’t have to be long. It doesn’t have to take up all the words. It’s not all there is. It’s not all you’ve done. It’s not all there is to you. It’s just a verbal selfie taken on a particular day to do a particular job.