Putting the ‘Media’ in ‘Academia’

This article was also published on my personal blog: Microbe Stew

I’m writing this post on WordPress. Some of you will see it directly via the WordPress reader, but chances are most of you will be drawn here via social media – Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+ and so on… The relevance of this? Social media is important to academia (apologies for the rather cliched title!).

To clarify, by saying ‘academia’ I am not excluding undergraduate or even younger students. While research suggest “the fastest growing demographic on Twitter is 55-64 year olds“, in my experience, in the biosciences at least, this just isn’t true. So while this post is aimed at everyone, it is particularly aimed at the earliest of early career researchers. It is never too early to begin your academic career on social media!

My story as an academic using social media

Take my twitter page for example – @stewart_barker. This is where I do the majority of my career and academia social media activity. I started my twitter page out of curiosity, during the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics. I slowly got to know the app and website, and treated it like ‘another Facebook’ – which i mainly use for personal interactions. Then in January 2013, I went to my first Microbiology conference (the SfAM Winter conference). I was in my third year of my undergraduate degree, on my sandwich placement year, so still a ‘nobody’ in academic circles.

At the conference, I was shy, nervous, and struggling to network with people. At the start of the talks, i saw a slide featuring that familiar little blue bird, and a hashtag for the event! I immediately got my phone out (as i noticed a few others had), opened the Twitter app, and searched for the particular hashtag. My eyes were immediately opened to, if you will, an alternate reality of the conference, one being held online. I found brilliant academics tweeting about ‘how much they were looking forward to the day’, or how ‘their second cup of coffee had really helped with the early morning commute into London’!

Suddenly, I was simultaneously attending two conferences, doubling the value! I started to tweet snapshots, facts and my opinions on the talks. People responded. I felt the mini-adrenaline rush that comes with every retweet from an esteemed academic. People from all across the world were talking to me, and following my Twitter page, waiting for my next tweet. On social media, I made contacts and gained confidence at that conference, which allowed me to create and pursue an undergraduate representative position on the SfAM Postgraduate and Early Career Scientist Commitee. I served in that position for 1 1/2 years until i graduated, when i got promoted to Communications Officer!

Fast forward to March 2013. I attended my second Microbiology conference (the SGM Spring conference). Wanting to build on my success in January, I tweeted with that conference’s hashtag a week, a day and the morning before the day. This conference was special, i was presenting my first ever research poster – which I was ridiculously happy with, as it is a big deal for an undergraduate.

My confidence now boosted, I stood proudly by my poster, explaining my research to passing scientists (who flattered me with compliments like “so is this from the first year of your PhD?”). Once again, I benefited from the conference’s online alter-ego. A major publisher tweeted that they were awarding a prize to an early career researcher, if they tweeted a picture of themselves next to their poster. I grabbed the nearest person, and (politely) asked them to take a picture of me:

SGM picture

Me and my poster at the SGM 2013 conference

My social media engagement with this picture won me the prize! Which was a rather expensive brand-new Microbiology textbook, and one for my department! I had long lost this picture, but found it online, via the Pinterest account of Wiley Microbiology publisher. Interestingly, Twitter research indicates that tweets with pictures receive on average 35% more retweets.

Fast forward again to today. On Twitter: I have over 700 followers, and have tweeted over 11,000 times (since mid 2012). My most popular tweet was retweeted over 500 times!

tweet image

My most popular tweet!

I also co-run a second twitter account @Biosci_PhD, a forum for Biosciences students on Twitter. In addition to Twitter, I have a LinkedIn, Google+, and WordPress accounts – where i contribute to three blogs (including my own).

How social media can benefit academics.

It can help ease you into the difficult world of academic networking. Once you have talked to someone online, it acts as an icebreaker and makes it far easier to talk to them in reality. For early career and aspiring academics, this could be the way that you first connect with a potential supervisor.

Many people use social media to stay in touch with friends and family around the world. It offers exactly the same prospect to academics. I have contacts in the Americas, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Asia – everywhere really!

It is brilliant for sharing your work. Whether this is a quick tweet about how your day is going, or a lengthy blog on a subject that has piqued your interest – sharing this information and reading what others are saying offers the opportunity to regularly network on a daily basis.

Rather than trawling through the news and journal websites to find new stories and research, if you set up your social media accounts well, by following a wide range of well-read people, they do this for you, by recommending the latest must-read articles. Likewise, if you read a good paper, return the favour. Then, discuss the news, discuss the research. Add your own analysis. Get noticed! You never know who is noticing you on social media, and what opportunities it might open for you.

Whether it is job opportunities, finding a new collaborator after talking about your research, or winning a prize – you would be amazed at what people achieve using social media.

Embracing one form of media is something in itself, and it is a very good start. But things start to get really interesting when combining multiple forms of social media, reaching different audiences. My advice is to pick one, the one you think will be the most useful, and start with that, then progress from there. If you have reached this blog via Twitter for example, I would encourage you to check out just one of the other social media platforms i have mentioned here, and see how it could benefit you.

I personally prefer Twitter. Something pretty awesome happens when you combine 140 characters with scientific and academic concepts and comments. This was especially pertinent in the recent #sharemythesis campaign, which encouraged PhD students to summarise their PhD and why it’s impact was important, in just 140 characters! It is also brilliant practice for learning to write very concisely, a useful skill in academia, as ‘waffle’ is not appreciate in scientific publications.

Yet Facebook has it’s own charms! LinkedIn is superb, as it is basically a professional Facebook. My favourite feature of LinkedIn is that it acts as an online, interactive CV. You list your skills, and your colleagues can endorse you. Many jobs are advertised via LinkedIn, and recruitment agencies are VERY active on the site. While applying for PhDs, more than one potential supervisor searched for and looked at my LinkedIn page.

Even the more ‘media heavy’ social media platforms, are very useful to academics. Like to talk about your research? Why not create a short video and post it to Youtube? Have interesting photos from your field of academia? Post them on Instagram, Pinterest (or any of the aforementioned social media sites).

And then there is blogging. There are some absolutely superb academic blogs out there. Whether you just want to read, or you want to contribute, check out: WordPress and Blogger (Blogspot). A Google search for blogs in your area will give you plenty to read!  A blog can be a powerful academic communication tool, incorporating text, images, videos and documents.

Yes, using a new social media service can be tough to begin with, and building up your networks can be a grind, but do it right, and the opportunities are endless!

Thanks for reading,

Stewart Barker

One thought on “Putting the ‘Media’ in ‘Academia’

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s