Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Social media strategy for early career researchers

Image from pandodaily.com
Yesterday I ran a course for PhD researchers in my faculty offering some insights into how they could use social media to develop their academic profiles. As part of running this course I spent some time gathering resources from other academics together and developing some of my own perspectives on social media use for early career researchers, so I thought I would share these here while it is still fresh in my mind. So here's my two pennies worth! You can also access the handout I developed for my session which includes links to other relevant information on social media use for academics here.

I started by talking about the pros and cons of social media use for academics. I would summarise the main arguments for academic social media use into three categories

  1. It supports and enriches traditional academic activities, from paper writing and promoting, to academic networking or finding conferences and events
  2. It is a way to help your work reach new audiences whether they are policy-makers, practitioners, members of the public or simply people outside of your immediate field, and increasingly it can help to open up data sets and other parts of the research process
  3. Social media capabilities and a strong online presence may increasingly become a necessity for academics, especially as old publishing models struggle or are superseded 
As an aside for early career researchers in particular, I have found that social media use and blogging can be a useful way of bridging the awkward first few years of any academic career where you have little or no publications but still want to share your work and ideas with others. It has also helped me to keep abridge of developments in the universities sector as a whole and the politics of particular departments in a way that did not used to be possible for early career academics. And finally it has been a great way of connecting to other PhD students and benefiting from peer support networks when dealing with difficulties in my PhD. 

Potential pitfalls of social media use for academics include:
  1. Issues with data privacy and (over)disclosure
  2. Time management and procrastination
  3. Effort and resources needed to maintain social media platforms
  4. The risk of experiencing bullying and abuse online
  5. A lack of support and recognition for time spent engaging with social media
  6. Buying into a broader political economy of knowledge production and transmission which requires you to give vast amounts of data over to private companies. 
To help the participants in my course to come up with their own personal social media strategies, I used the social media honeycomb from this paper by Kietzmann et al which is actually aimed at businesses rather than academics. What I think is good about the honeycomb is that it highlights the different decisions you need to make when planning a social media strategy. For example, the extent to which you want to give details about your self and your personality, whether you just want an accessible online presence or whether it is important to be able to share and receive information or have conversations with other users. I also suggested a further set of dimensions which academics might like to add to this honeycomb, including: how much you want to link your social media use to your specific subject area; whether you only want to share information and talk about your specific research project or issues of broader relevance; to what extent you might also want to reflect on academic life and practice; and how much information you want to give about different parts of the research project you are doing. Asking yourself such questions can help you to work out which social media platforms are the best for you, and can also help you develop your own distinctive voice and approach. 

To help the participants think through what they wanted to get out of their social media strategies I suggested a few academics who I think have very successful but also very different strategies, including Alice Bell, Stuart Elden, Jennifer Rohn, Jon Tennant and Deborah Lupton. I also should have included masters student Simon Cook in this list, who published a fantastic blog post on his experiments with social media on the morning I gave the class. 

Some of the participants in my course were disappointed that I didn't give any more concrete advice on developing a social media strategy. This is partly because I was trying to make the point that there is no formula for using social media as an academic - it depends on your subject area, your personal skills and resources, and what you want to get out of your social media use. But it is also because it was the first time I had run the course and I didn't know exactly what people would be hoping to get out of it. So if I was pressed to give guidance on developing a social media for early career researchers, this is what I would say:
  1. Try to find other people in your field who are using social media - this will show you which social media platforms are mostly commonly used by the people you want to interact with, and once an initial connection has been made it will be a quick way of finding other relevant friends, contacts, followers, etc. to become part of your network
  2. Set up a google scholar profile. This is a basic page where you can add your papers and track citations and is an easy profile holder for people trying to find you online
  3. Give twitter a go. In my opinion this is the most versatile social media platform so can be good for trying different strategies out and will allow you to connect with others very quickly. In my experience this is a good way of finding out what other social media platforms might be useful for your work and finding other researchers whose social media strategy you want to emulate
  4. Set up one profile page on a specialist academic social media platform - Academia.edu and Researchgate are the most popular. This allows you to upload details about your publications, talks, slides and blog posts as well as giving basic information about your institution and previous work. I have also found this can be a good way of connecting with more established academics who are less likely to use sites like twitter.
  5. Learn from other users, and constantly think about what this means for your own strategy - can you emulate how that researcher promoted her blog post through twitter and got lots of feedback from other researchers? Can you use pinterest in a similar way to a researcher in a related field, or can you transfer his strategy to a similar platform such as scoop.it or bundlr?
  6. Remember what it is that you were hoping to get out of social media use. You aims and motivations are likely to change as you discover more about the platforms you are using and interact more with other users, but reflecting on your aims can help you stop wasting time maintaining a sparse and unpopular Flickr account when what you actually wanted to use social media for was connecting with other researchers in your field, or getting feedback on the work you have been doing on your literature review. 
Any comments or feedback on this material would be greatly received. I'll hopefully be running the course again, so will be working on improving it in the meantime. 


  1. Good overview. This is tangential to the thrust of your post, but I'd argue that there is a 7th pitfall. I think social media is a bit of a Trojan horse for academia. While the benefits are unquestionable, they carry with them a high cost. Increasing incorporation of social media into academic practice results in an extreme acceleration in speed and quantity. It has become one of the many 'extras' that academics ignore at their peril. And consequently all the usual inequalities and structural disadvantages are compounded. Female academics trying to hold onto a career while raising children will be even further excluded. Early career academics who are getting by on fixed term teaching contracts while trying to research on the side will struggle. Some uses of social media are not particularly demanding of time, but active blogging and discussion online definitely is so. The 'speeding up' also has repercussions. If we're required to produce more material, more frequently, in more constrained word limits, is it so far fetched to think that we might begin to suffer some of the problems that have plagued journalism over the last 30 years? A trade off between quality and quantity is likely to apply, not so much at the individual level, but the aggregate. We also need to think about how it will bias measures of success. It is already the case that some of the most recognised academics are successful because of their style, turn of phrase and 'charisma'. (Read: their cultural capital). Increasing incorporation of social media will privilege the most engaged and visible, and exacerbate the degree to which others are overlooked, irrespective of whether their research is of higher quality. And we should expect to see definite patterns of inequality with respect to which people shine through this medium. Finally, the simple matter of fact is that this sort of engagement is free labour. And the more we advance a culture in which these additional practices are expected in academia, the more we are being exploited.

    Of course this has very little to do with the value of social media for any individual early career academic or PhD student. We have already progressed to a state where engagement is essential. The above commentary is not meant to advocate disengagement. And I would like to reiterate my appreciation for the many benefits that social media brings to the table. All we can do at this stage is to be aware and reflexive, and to start having a conversation about how far academia is 'buying into' a late modern hamster wheel of unsustainable output, frequently demanding substantial amounts of free labour. Perhaps if we're critical and aware, we can reduce some of the damage.

    1. Hi Richenda! Thanks for the comment and I do largely agree with your point about the potential dangers of encouraging early career academics to engage in yet another one of these little 'extras' which soon become expected or even necessary work.

      On the point about this damaging those already at a disadvantage such as female academics and/or single parents, I agree that this might be a potential result. However, I would also say that social media doesn't necessarily need to take up more time, and this is precisely why it is a good idea to engage with it whilst doing a PhD so that you can learn how to use it effectively whilst you have more time. It is difficult to say, but I don't think my use of social media has increased in the amount of work I have done over the past few years, rather it has just reallocated time that I might have spent doing other 'extras' or taking longer over other tasks. I think social media usage can also even help to save time or help you use your time more effectively in some cases, e.g. for finding references and relevant academics. I find that blogging and micro-blogging are also useful intermediate stages between sorting through my initial ideas and writing a proper academic piece based on them. But I accept that this experience will be different for different people. There is a similar argument made in this blog piece http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2013/09/25/how-to-be-a-scholar-daniels/ and Mark Carrigan has also argued this on his blog. But if social media use and blogging enriches one's work, then it matters less that it is effectively free labour - many have argued now that it is an integral part of academic work.

      I think your point about how this might change academia is also a fair one. And it seems to have been the topic of much recent discussion. But the point for me is that academia is changing - as a result of the internet but also as a result of government reforms, a more educated population, etc. All we can do is be involved in trying to steer it, we can't stop it happening. So a useful coping mechanism is to make sure that we have the basic capabilities to operate in this possible future. And yes, this has potential negatives in terms of research quality and the ability to filter out irrelevant information, but there are also ways in which it could potentially help to improve the quality of some kinds of research and help academics to engage with others outside of universities.

      This is why I was trying to stress the importance of having a strategy and making sure that social media use works for you, rather than just doing it for the sake of it. But I'm not suggesting that everybody has to get involved.

      Thanks very much for getting a more critical/cynical perspective on these developments on this post. I agree that it is important to have these conversations and to be aware of the potential damage.


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  3. like it lots.I share it with others. Thanks.

  4. Thanks for sharing such a positive outlook, Helen. Most of us just think of the malicious side of social media without taking a look at the advantages it brings us. Making connections is really what it takes to become effective on the field that we are in. Just imagine our condition today if Facebook or Twitter were not created. I can't even begin to imagine it. Haha!

    Clwyd Probert

  5. I guess the key thing when dealing with optimizing social media is to simply reach out. I know it may sound like a no-brainer response, but what will be its extensive reach for, if we are not going to scour its distance? How will we benefit from really trying and knowing why people like and share, how they go by it, and where? There's always records of places with highest concentrations of activity. It would be beneficial if we zero in on those, and really look and research about these and their properties, so we'll know where to train our sights for building our brands.

    Viper Online

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