Keep adding colour to academic online self-portraits

Junior scholars urged to develop robust profiles on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook to boost their careers and ward off risk of ‘shadow self’

January 8, 2015

Source: Alamy

Cone-spicuous: an academic’s social media skills helped to preserve the ‘crowning’ of Glasgow’s Duke of Wellington statue

If early career researchers are not curating their own online profiles, they run the risk that others may see unflatteringly incomplete sketches of them.

That is the warning from Chris Speed, chair in design informatics at the Edinburgh College of Art, who was speaking at a recent event for early career researchers in the arts and humanities.

While some might be tempted to go “off grid” and ignore the web, researchers who do risk leaving only “shadows” of themselves and their work on the internet, he said, and their lack of engagement and visibility could hinder their career prospects.

“Early career researchers have to keep their portrait public…An online presence is now critical,” Professor Speed explained to Times Higher Education after the event in Edinburgh, which explored the modern-day reality of early research careers.

The Skills in Action festival, which was funded by a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, looked at the challenges and opportunities for knowledge exchange given the increasing pressure for early career researchers to work collaboratively with a wide range of partners.

Organiser Gemma Kearney, Design in Action research fellow in Gray’s School of Art at Robert Gordon University, said that the programme also included a series of informal lunchtime discussions to share best practice in collaboration. “The festival offered a forum for discussion, sharing of insights, targeted training and networking opportunities to researchers from a diverse range of disciplinary backgrounds,” she added.

Professor Speed was one of the speakers who addressed the growing importance of an online presence to help researchers promote their skills and make themselves visible to potential collaborators.

“Early career researchers are probably in a position now where they have to develop an online profile through a number of programmes including, LinkedIn, Facebook [and] Twitter – these things constitute a type of public portrait,” he explained.

Junior scholars must create and maintain a positive image on the world through blogging and tweeting, Professor Speed said. “This allows all their metrics to go up and their stock eventually to go up. This is a different professional paradigm for academics.”

Researchers who choose not to do this may be at a disadvantage, he emphasised. “Anyone who is prospecting for you for a job is probably mining you already. If you chose to be off grid, no one can find [out] more about you, which might be a problem.”

A profile built on Lego

For archaeologist Donna Yates, Leverhulme early career fellow at the University of Glasgow and founder of the @LegoAcademics Twitter feed, an online presence has made her more visible to others inside and outside academia.

On the feed, Dr Yates posts photos of everyday research challenges faced by female academics acted out with the figurines of the Lego Research Institute. She started it in August, and it now has more than 44,500 followers.

This is not her only success online. As well as blogging, in 2013 she and friend Gavin Doig started an online campaign to persuade Glasgow City Council not to stop a tradition of people putting a traffic cone on the city’s Duke of Wellington statue.

Lego figure being eaten by dinosaur

The council had planned to raise the plinth that the statue rests on to make the monument inaccessible, but a petition set up by Dr Yates and Mr Doig, a computer programmer, argued that the cone on Wellington’s head was an “iconic part of Glasgow’s heritage”. The pair used Twitter, Facebook and blogs to promote the cause, and the petition got more than 10,000 signatures before the council backed down on its decision.

She told those at Skills in Action, which was held late last year, that her online presence had made her “unavoidable” among her peers. “Twitter and the blogs make my reputation precede me; they have totally replaced traditional networking.”

As a result, she gets most speaking and writing invitations because of her online activity, she said. “Several recent invited lectures and seminars I have given in the UK have been invites from academics who found me via Twitter or my blogs.”

According to Dr Yates: “We are at a point where academics must be ‘engaged’ and, for right or wrong, we have to justify ourselves publicly. I see my blogs and Twitter [activity] as being that public justification: the proof that my research has real-world implications.”

She added that although it still may be possible to follow a “traditional academic career progression” focused primarily on publishing in journals, it is becoming much more difficult. “Without an interesting presence online, you are just stuck with your black and white CV to fill you out,” she said.

For Dr Yates, her online presence is most helpful when she steps outside her immediate field studying the trafficking of antiquities. “It has brought me in contact with countless other academics in related but separate research areas and has seriously enriched my own research because of that,” she added.

Cross-border conversations

At Skills in Action, junior academics in the arts and humanities were also encouraged to think about interdisciplinary research. Gerard Briscoe, a postdoctoral research assistant at Queen Mary University of London, said that such work was increasingly important.

“When you are trying to understand and grapple with large problems such as sustainability or creativity it can be more difficult, not necessarily impossible, to address that from a single discipline,” he said.

But Dr Briscoe, who worked on an interdisciplinary PhD that covered computing and biology, said he would recommend that early career researchers focus on a single subject for their doctorate and save boundary-crossing work for afterwards if this is what they are interested in.

Working towards an interdisciplinary doctorate can mean you “exist between two disciplines”, he said. “It can be difficult making people from either discipline appreciate your contribution because it is partial to both.”

Dr Briscoe added that there was little in the way of formal structures available for interdisciplinary collaborations, which can make things tough for early career academics. “It takes effort, it takes goodwill from people on both sides, and if you don’t have that you won’t be able to build a disciplinary bridge,” he warned.

This additional workload may add to the time pressures of a group that is already stretched, so Dr Briscoe recommended joining networks that enable early career researchers to have a profile that can increase their visibility to potential collaborators and funders.

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