how to change your academic name mid-career

Two years ago, I changed my name as a mid-career associate professor. Was it worth it?

Short answer: yes.

This post is about the process of changing my name on my academic accounts to ensure that people can find me with a new name and can see everything I have published. My fear from the beginning was that no one would know who I am and colleagues would have trouble finding my publications. Two years in, colleagues seem accustomed to my new name.

For more reading, check out my earlier post about the decision to change my name.

Changing my CV

The easy part was changing my CV.  The top of my CV says I am “Laura A. Albert, formerly Laura A. McLay.” My CV has links to my Google scholar page, Researchgate account, ORCID page, and SCOPUS author page so people can find what they are looking for. I put my name in boldface in all of my publications so it’s clear that I was an author. Easy.

Changing my publishing profile

I was concerned that others will find it hard to evaluate my research because the tools we use to do so in academia do not make it easy. Computing an “h-index,” for example, might be non-trivial if the systems used to do so assume that I have published under one name and could underestimate my research impact. I was not yet a full professor when I changed my name, and I was concerned this would affect promotion. Google Scholar allows me to add publications to my account under any name, which helps, but ultimately, I do not know whether anyone will use it (which is why I put links to my Google scholar profile on my CV).

I was able to update my names rather easily on my Google Scholar and ResearchGate, SCOPUS, and ORCID accounts, where I manually add publications across both names and merged author names in my accounts. Publishers get it.

Side note: The issues I raise here apply to everyone, not just people changing their last name. Anyone’s name can appear in different ways across different publications, so SCOPUS, for example, has to merge the names for a single author to correctly compute an h-index. It’s valuable for everyone to keep track of their publication impact because it’s very easy for these systems to miss a few publications. An h-index can only be under-estimated if it splits your publication across multiple author accounts.

Changing my name at the university

I asked staff to adopt my new name and they were wonderful in helping me make my transition.

University policy, on the other hand, made the name change extremely difficult. The UW system adopted a “Preferred name policy” that makes situations like mine more difficult than it should be to navigate. The policy states:

“The goal of the Preferred Name policy is a consistent preferred name experience across University systems and use of one’s preferred name wherever legal name is not absolutely necessary.”

The name change policy was originally designed to reduce fraud from students changing their email name to something else and to support those who go by something other than their first name. These are good goals, but the implementation of the policy meant that users cannot edit their last name in any IT systems. I had planned to change the name I used professionally in between academic years, but the IT systems changed my name when I changed it legally, which was mid-year.

Here is why the inflexible policy was a pain: If a professor planned to get married in September, for example, it would be easier if she preemptively changed her name prior to the beginning of the school year rather than have everyone learn her by her outgoing name and then call her the wrong name for the rest of the year. This type of problem occurs with an inflexible preferred name policy.

The implementation of the preferred name policy left a lot to be desired. I planned for changing my name by specifying a custom preferred name (“Laura Albert McLay”) in August before it changed legally to make what I hoped would be a smooth name change transition. However, I noticed that my preferred name was either not used by some IT systems or truncated by others, omitting the middle name I specified as my preferred name. As a result, not-preferred names showed up frequently in different forms–course catalogs, the online course management tools, teaching evaluations, Office 365 products–and I could not change how my name was displayed. Students inevitably called me by a name I did not prefer.

Changing various online profiles

I discovered that IT systems are not designed to accommodate name changes or email changes that reflect name changes. Sometimes old names and emails show up even after I made a change because they were pulling my email from a shadow database. Some accounts use an email as a login and did not allow me to change my email without having to create a new account. This is poor IT design and highlights the need for diverse teams in tech.

Finally, it was the most work to change my name on frequent flyer and hotel rewards accounts. They required more paperwork and justification than my bank.

What you can do when someone you work with changes their name

Here are some suggestions if you encounter someone who wants to change or is changing their name professionally:

  1. Changing my name was a pain, but it’s a personal decision. It may not be for everyone. If a student, for example, asks your advice prior to a marriage and you don’t feel like you’ve had the right experiences to have this conversation, introduce them to someone who can talk to them about the pros and cons.
  2. When in doubt, ask someone what they prefer to be called. Journalists are wonderful in this regard because it’s their job to get names right. Everyone else needs to take note. One way to bring it up is to say, “I noticed your name is sometimes written down as Laura Albert. How would you like to be addressed?”
  3. Years ago a colleague corrected someone else’s name that changed following her divorce. Without revealing the reason for the change, he simply said, “We’d better correct that because she is going by Jane Doe now,” and did not mention her divorce. I cannot imagine a better response.
  4. I am not a fan of being described as “divorced” in professional settings unless absolutely necessary. My marital status is rarely relevant in professional settings. Additionally, I’ve thought of myself as “single” as opposed to “divorced,” because the latter (“divorced”) defines me in terms of someone else, whereas “single” does not. It’s best to not define women in terms of her personal relationships to men in professional settings.

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