PhD students run professors close in Twitter popularity contest

Study finds that, while senior academics tend to have the most followers on social networking site, the most junior researchers are not far behind

October 20, 2015
Men using smartphones against Twitter logo backdrop
Source: Reuters

When it comes to competition between researchers, professors might not expect doctoral students to be the ones breathing down their necks.

But a study reveals that, when it comes to social media at least, traditional academic hierarchies are being reordered.

Katy Jordan, a PhD student at the Open University, analysed the Twitter followings of 55 academics and found that they had an average of 777 followers each.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given their seniority, it was professors who tended to have the most followers, with an average of 844 each.

Not far behind, however, were PhD students, with an average of 798 followers. Lecturers and academics in research posts were the ones in the middle, typically with 600 and 388 followers each, respectively.

Ms Jordan said that, while the strong performance of PhD students might be explained in part by generational factors, there was also evidence that academics in different positions felt different degrees of freedom to express themselves and engage with others online.

“There’s a perception that, as a PhD student, part of the job is to build your networks and get yourself out there,” she said. “Equally, professors possibly feel more secure in their job positions and more able to express their opinions.

“Researchers such as postdocs, working on other people’s projects, might not feel as free to engage; and there is definitely an awareness with lecturers that, by engaging with these platforms, particularly Twitter, it might blur boundaries with students, so there is perhaps a tendency to be on the cautious side.”

While PhD students tend to have a lot of followers on Twitter, Ms Jordan’s research suggests that they have to work harder to build that network, following an average of 710 accounts themselves.

Many other academics’ follower counts tended to be significantly higher than the number of accounts that they followed, with professors following an average of 493 accounts each, compared with 302 for lecturers. Only those in research posts tended to follow more accounts (419) than followed them.

Nevertheless, Ms Jordan said that Twitter offered opportunities for PhD students to raise their profile much more quickly and widely than they would have done prior to the rise of social networks.

“It provides a mechanism of seeing potential connections in your field that would otherwise have been hidden unless you happened to go to the same conference as somebody,” she said.

Ms Jordan’s study, which was shared at a seminar hosted by the Society for Research into Higher Education last month, also sheds light on how academics use different types of social networks differently.

In contrast to the large networks found on Twitter, and the use of this site to exchange ideas with diffuse communities, academics tend to have far fewer followers on specialist websites such as and ResearchGate – an average of 68 each – and often use these platforms as a type of online business card.

Networks on these sites also tend to be more tightly clustered, with linkages between academics often representing face-to-face relationships built up through departments, institutions and research collaborations.

Academic social networking sites also seem to preserve traditional academic hierarchies more rigidly, Ms Jordan said.

Professors have an average of 131 followers each, compared with 60 for lecturers and 68 for researchers. PhD students, in contrast, have an average of just 31 followers each.

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