Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Using social media for building an academic & professional network

Posted by Lynne Forrest

As part of a general session within our Institute on using social media for research, I was recently asked to talk about using social media for building a professional network. It was a good chance to reflect on why I think Twitter is such a good tool for doing this, particularly for those at the start of their academic career, who are lacking in publications, a wide academic network and an established reputation.

I first joined Twitter at the beginning of the second year of my PhD and, initially, I really couldn’t quite see the point. It wasn’t until I wrote a couple of posts for the Fuseblog and starting picking up some followers that I began to realise what a useful tool it could be. Now, over two years later, post-PhD I have a twitter network of around 600 people (large enough, but not too big as to be unmanageable), am on 23 Twitter lists ranging from Women in Science to Academics at Newcastle and Tweeting Epidemiologists, contribute regularly to the Fuseblog, and am a total social media convert.

Twitter has been a brilliant medium for connecting with other PhD students (and now early career researchers) in order to ask questions, get advice and generally provide moral support during what can be quite an isolating experience. It’s also been of practical support in highlighting interesting epidemiological and public health research I might never have found myself (the fabulous @SCPHRP is great for this), advertising jobs and conferences, sharing resources (a list of viva questions has done the rounds of my twitter network), raising my profile, and connecting me with a wide network of like-minded people in public health and beyond.

As someone who can come across as quite reserved in real life (despite the fact I am actually fairly stroppy and opinionated), I do find the whole networking thing quite stressful. I realise it’s a necessary part of academia and I need to get better at speaking up more, but in the early stages of academia it’s easy to think you’ve got nothing useful to contribute, as well as the worry of saying the wrong thing and looking stupid. But Twitter has again been an excellent tool for this sort of thing. Blogging has given me an academic voice and Twitter has allowed me to interact with senior academics that I’d be far too terrified to approach blind at a conference. As a recent member of my Twitter network said ‘Twitter is networking for people who hate networking’ (thanks @PhDGeek for allowing me to pinch this for my talk!).

So, if you do plan to use twitter to build an academic network what should you do? I’d advise keeping your personal and professional identities mostly separate. I do tweet non-work related stuff but decided fairly early on to stop following David Tennant, various members of Duran Duran and the cast of Merlin (no-one needs to know about my love for dodgy 80s bands and kids’ tv programmes). Use your profile to detail your research interests and help others find you. And use a sensible twitter name. I initially just planned to lurk so chose a daft name that I’ve now changed. Also, if you’re using other academic resources such as Researchgate and google scholar citations it seems sensible to have a consistent professional online identity.

The best way to build up a twitter presence is to start interacting and not just re-tweeting. If you are going to re-tweet then occasionally add some comment or opinion. Tweet from a conference or seminar. If your Institute or department has a blog then contribute to this. There’s only so much you can say in 140 characters and a blog post allows you to talk about your research or other aspects of the research process in a lot more detail. Reply to interesting tweets, start conversations and, most importantly, engage. There’s a great network of academics out there, you just need to find them.


  1. I find the boundary between work and personal life on social media an interesting one. I'm somebody who doesn't keep the two particularly separate online. I have some boundaries, but at times I even cross into being one of those irritating people who posts pictures of their lunch from the same account as they have professional discussions.

    I've actually found it to be more beneficial than harmful. When I've met other professionals who follow me on Twitter, they more commonly refer to non-work related tweets than work-related tweets in conversation, and I find it helps to quickly build relationships and rapport. I suppose this might partly reflect my willingness to talk about out-of-work stuff in a professional setting, and clearly people have different boundaries around that.

    On the other hand, I know that there are fellow professionals I've unfollowed or muted because they decide to post about politics, football or similar for weeks on end, and perhaps others have had a similar reaction to my tweets. I regularly post really bad book reviews on Twitter. I've always wanted to be able to write great, well-crafted reviews, yet I know I really, really can't. But I enjoy trying, and sharing my efforts, and getting feedback and comments from various communities (on Twitter and beyond). Maybe that puts people off.

    I suppose any approach has advantages and disadvantages. I think the amount people share, and which spheres of life they share, is down to what is comfortable for them. I, for one, would use Twitter a lot less if it was all about people's professional identities (it would get too LinkedIn), and also if it was all about personal stuff (it would get too Facebook).

  2. I would agree, it's about getting the balance right. I actually like reading the odd, random, non-work related tweet as it makes people seem more human. But endlessly banging on about one topic (football, cricket etc) is a definite no-no. Occasional mentions, fine. And, as someone who has recently tweeted about Edinburgh trams, cardi-wearing and Postman Pat (definitely niche-interest topics!), I clearly don't follow my own rules about keeping the personal and professional separate...