For a similar thing, see this thread, where Jay Wacker managed to get people to call him by the name Jay even though he didn't need to get a legal name change. I'm not sure how to go about this though.

The main problem with me is that I have such a frustratingly common name that a lot of people cannot find me when they google me. So many of them simply don't notice the middle initial that I always use in between my first and last names, and this could actually become a major issue in academia, since people have little time and are prone to giving up quickly if they want to look for me (or for my papers) and can't find me at all (I know this having seen how several academics use the Internet and how they look for people's names). This, in turn, could easily ruin my citation count in the future (it's not just that - it's helpful to others when I have a less common name so that they can more easily locate my stuff). I already know at least several people who specifically told me that they tried to find my email but that they couldn't find it (and this isn't limited to just them - there are many, many more - including long-lost friends who have wanted to talk to me for a long time, but who couldn't find me due to said ultra-common name). Of course, people can go through the respective university directories, but how many people really do that? From my observations (when I've seen people look for someone else), very very few do it. Hell, there are even several people at my OWN university who share the same exact first+last name as me.

In Academia, this is even a bigger problem because the vast majority of your connections will be people who only vaguely recognize/know you, so they may know most of the search clues. Even a "full name" + university won't solve all the problems, because I may switch universities and people may only remember the old university that I was in. I'm also very very interdisciplinary, so I want to be searchable to people outside my field as well.

And even if I fix the issue for Google with a massive SEO operation or whatever (that may even be impossible for my ridiculously common name), it's still not going to fix the problem for all of the other ways that people use search.

I'm currently transitioning between undergrad and grad school, so now may be the perfect time for a name change? But I don't know what to do. Is it better for me to change my first name or my last name? The problem is that a citation like "Chen 2011" is going to produce so many entries that no one will ever find them, even though they frequently do google things like that (and I simply cannot prevent people from googling something like that). Chen is so frustratingly common that even a "Chen and Name2 2011" paper could come from some random medical paper rather than from something I wrote.

As an additional complication, the % of Chinese people using the English Internet is exponentially rising, and I can only expect the problem to get worse in the future because of that (and not just for my first name, but even variants of my first name too).

  • 1
    Good question, and it's a frustrating situation. Anecdotally, though, I'm not familiar with anyone who resorted to a name change to solve this problem.
    – eykanal
    Mar 2 '12 at 15:20
  • 3
  • 2
    Do you have a middle name, and/or a Chinese first name which you could use as a middle name? If you consistently go by "Alex [Something] Chen" I imagine that would make you easier to find.
    – Anonymous
    Jul 27 '13 at 16:41
  • 1
    That's actually a very good idea. I've been thinking of consistently going by my middle name instead (instead of just the middle initial). Jul 27 '13 at 19:52
  • 1
    You just ("just", like it was that easy) need to make you work good and visible enough that people will not think of you as Alex Chen, but the Alex Chen. My own doctoral advisor was Cheng, which is about as common as Chen, but her papers have always been influential enough that, when you drop the name "Cheng" in a conversation, she is the first Cheng person that people think of.
    – Koldito
    Jan 8 '15 at 8:49

I think people stress too much about the "what if people can't find my papers?" problem. That's what CVs are for. Don't overestimate how often people will actually try to find all of your papers outside of hiring situations. It won't be often. By the time you are established enough to accumulate a significant number of publications, you will be connected to a research university or institute which will make it easy to link you to your publications.

If "the vast majority of your connections will be people who only vaguely recognize/know you" you've got a problem that changing your name will not solve.

I'd especially like to hear from someone who have had this cause a career problem. My (legal) first name is one of 10 most common, and my last name is in the top 20 (within the US). While this is annoying, it has not caused me any career issues.

  • 3
    Thanks for the reply. The thing with the CVs, though, is that they won't be able to find your papers if they can't even find your CV to begin with. And CVs are not exactly the most user-friendly way to find some paper that you're looking for. Mar 3 '12 at 3:47
  • 1
    Regarding the career problem - the thing is - no one is aware of what opportunities they missed due to other people not finding them. I do know of cases where people have looked for someone else's paper and have given up due to said person having a very common name. Mar 3 '12 at 3:48
  • 4
    If people gave up every time they came across a common name, there would be no successful John Smiths in science. If you want to spend the time and money in court to change your name, that's fine. People do it all the time for lots of reasons. If you're doing it because you want people to find your papers easily? I'd say there are better ways to use your time to further your career.
    – Amy
    Mar 3 '12 at 6:40
  • 1
    Obviously as someone with a VERY common name I have very personal opinions on this. And as a woman, it irks me that after all the fighting for ladies to choose to not change their names when marrying, it's now expected that women in science NOT change their names to make it easier for other people to find their papers. We're all smart people here, right? Common names/name changes should not be such a vexing problem for academia.
    – Amy
    Mar 3 '12 at 6:46
  • 2
    "it can possibly prevent some collaborations from coming up" - this is conjecture. My conjecture is: your career will not be based on or affected by de novo searches for you on the internet.
    – Amy
    Mar 3 '12 at 15:31

If you are going to be very practical, you're right, you should change Chen. But there might be emotional reasons against that, of course. It's a personal choice.

I'll note that you need to be very consistent, professionally; but you can still use whatever else personally/legally. You can choose a professional name like an artist chooses a stage name.

If you start now, always referring to yourself professionally using whatever you choose, and publishing &c under that name, people will know you like that. It's really that simple.

I always spell out both my first names in print, but I never insist that people treat me like that in person. My Portuguese friends tend to, but more random encounters sometimes do, sometimes don't and it's fine.


Name changes are a significant and sensitive issue for many people—particularly female academics who get married, and then have to determine whether to change their name professionally, or to use one name for legal purposes and another for professional publicity purposes.

An extremely common last name is certainly a difficulty in finding you; however, changing your first name won't necessarily improve your visibility, because, as you mentioned in your question, first names aren't normally included in citation searches. Therefore, whatever you do will need to be done to your last name.

Perhaps you could add a hyphenated extension to your last name; whether this would be a legal action (requiring a visit to a court, in most venues) or just unofficially for your profession is for you to decide. (However, it should be pointed out that a legal name change can have major implications on your everyday life, and should not be entered into lightly.

  • Ah thanks very much - I like the hyphenated extension idea! But it's hard to choose one, especially since some people (especially Chinese people) are rather sensitive to last name changes. Especially one that would still sound "normal" and not weird. Is it possible to use one last name for legal purposes and another last name for professional publicity purposes? Usually, nicknames only refer to first names. Mar 2 '12 at 18:30
  • 2
    As I mentioned above, married women do it fairly frequently: they will keep their maiden name as their "professional" name, even after marriage. This is particularly true if their last name is much more unique than their last name.
    – aeismail
    Mar 2 '12 at 18:36
  • I know someone whose parents did this. Their last name was a very common name in Israel, so they changed their last name to middlename-lastname to make it easier to find in listings. Jul 27 '13 at 17:20

One small suggestion:

Set up your Google Scholar Citations page. This will make your publications and name more visible in Google scholar.


Certainly adding (or just making up) a middle initial to your name will help to differentiate you a lot if someone if looking for your papers specifically. But you have to be consistent and use it everywhere professionally. I work with someone who inserted a made up initial in his publications just for this purpose and says it works quite well. I don't believe that he visited a court or anything to do this.

For hiring purposes, your CV (as mentioned by others) and a "publications" page on your professional website will be the best. If you don't have a website, something like ResearchGate.com or Academia.edu will work in a pinch.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.