Social Media as Professional Development

“Social media…what a waste of time.”

“I don’t get that whole Twitter and blogs business.”

“I made a Twitter account, but I’m not really sure what do with it.”

“You’re pretty active on Twitter…is it worth the time?”

“What have you ever gotten out of being on Twitter?”

All of these are things that have been said to me since I started blogging nine years ago and joined Twitter nearly 5 years ago. Fortunately, I have some pretty good answers – whether the commenter is a colleague in my field or at my university or someone who knows of my pseudonymous on-line presence. For me, the benefits of blogging and tweeting have been pretty important to my professional development, and I think my case makes a pretty good argument for strategically using social media as a young faculty member. However, I’m also completely happy to concede that on-line interactions are not for everyone and that are other perfectly reasonable ways to get the same benefits out of other activities. But let’s take a look at how social media has worked for me. First, I’ll talk about the things I’ve gotten out of being on social media under my “RealName”* and then I’ll delve into the perhaps less quantifiable, but arguably equally important things I’ve gotten out of being SciWo online.

As “RealName”, I’ve blogged for six years and tweeted for five. I have several thousand Twitter followers, which isn’t enough for me to break into the white, male popularity contest that is the Science magazine top 100 list, but enough to guarantee that many of my tweets generate retweets, favorites, or replies from scientists, students, and journalists. What do I get out of it?

  • I’ve published a short paper with collaborators known via on-line interactions, based on ideas we started tossing about in blog comments.
  • I’ve written multiple proposals with multiple sets of colleagues whose work I got to know via Twitter and blogs – and who got to know me via Twitter and blogs. At least one of these proposals has been funded, and there are paper(s) in the works.
  • I’ve recruited at least one graduate student via Twitter.
  • Senior people in my field have told me that they use my blog as a teaching resource. Would those senior people even know who I am if they hadn’t been trolling the web for teaching materials and images?
  • My teaching is immeasurably strengthened and made more relevant by what I see in my Twitter feed. From current events to scientific papers, I’m able to follow a much broader and richer information stream than I would encounter if I limited myself to my preferred small stream of news outlets. Probably once a week, in class, I’m able to draw upon something I wouldn’t know about were it not for Twitter.
  • As more academics take to Twitter, I’m more often able to get scientific questions answered there. For instance, I made an odd observation in the lab on a Sunday afternoon, tweeted something about it, and got a colleague replying with a possible causal mechanism for my observation. That mechanism had not occurred to me, and who knows how long it would have eluded me had my colleague not been on Twitter. Hopefully, I am, on occasion, able to pass that forward with an idea or answer for someone else.
  • I’ve had more opportunities be an “expert” for the media than most Assistant Professors at R2 institutions. They find me on Twitter and my blog.
  • I have name recognition in my field internationally that was based initially on active engagement with Twitter. When I show up at a small international conference, I’ve got the double whammy of solid, exciting science and built-in name recognition.

As SciWo, the pseudonym I’ve used for nearly a decade on blogs and a few years on Twitter, I’ve also accrued a host of benefits. I’ve yet to write a paper or grant as SciWo, but I’ve gained friendships and mentoring that have seen me through rough times and helped me avoid pitfalls that could have derailed my career. Some of those friendships and mentoring relationships have become very tangible and very much off-line, but that’s not necessary for them to have been significant in my personal and professional life.

In my first few years as a faculty member, I often got asked how come I seemed so ahead of the game in understanding how granting, publishing, and other bits of academic mechanics work. I never knew quite how to answer, because a big part of my secret was all of the wonderful information and mentoring I was getting from blogs (and now Twitter). People like DrugMonkey, ProfLikeSubstance, Dr Becca, Chemical BiLOLogy, and now my coauthors here at TenureSheWrote have done an amazing job of sharing their experiences, perspective, and wisdom – and it’s all there, on the web, free for the taking. Their thoughtful commenters enrich the discussion by adding even more perspectives on whatever topic is at hand.

But I’m not just reading passively, I’ve found blogs and Twitter to be wonderful for combatting the isolation that sometimes come with being on the tenure-track or being an academic parent. I can share in the joys and frustration of my daily life (woohoo, I got a paper accepted! stupid university policies! my kid is having nightmares!) and find out that I’m not alone. I can get pep talks and reality checks when needed – sometimes both at once.

Yes, I have colleagues down the hall to whom I could go to for some of this – but my pseudonymous Twitter friends won’t be sitting in judgment of me when I go up for tenure or through annual reviews. Yes, I still need to filter my thoughts because someone could decide to pull back the veil on my pseudonym – but where is that I could or should say everything unfiltered – and at least as a pseudonym on Twitter I’m not directly representing my publication record, funding source, or institutional affilitation the way I am when I’m being RealName in person or on-line.

For me, the dual on-line identities has paid off in both quantifiable professional and sanity-saving personal terms. Being on-line does take some time, but so does everything worth doing in life. I’ve never seen any convincing data to show that strategic use of social media is any worse investment of my time and energy than any other thing I could do with those random moments of brain weariness or distraction when I find myself refreshing my Twitter feed or reading a blog post. Instead, the benefits I’ve listed above seem to make a compelling case for engaging with your academic peers on-line – just as you would outline benefits if you encourage networking at in-person at conferences. On-line I don’t have to wait for the one week per year my colleagues and I are mostly in the same place, I can interact with a broader set of colleagues, more frequently from my desk.

*Though I’d argue that my long-standing pseudonym is as much a true reflection of my life and personality as the things I share on-line under the name that the IRS uses for me.


10 thoughts on “Social Media as Professional Development

  1. I love this post! It’s so spot on in terms of my own experiences. I’m baffled that this still comes up occasionally from colleagues who knock social media without knowing anything about it.

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  3. This is really inspiring! I have a RealName account that I’m basically too scared to use much, and I’ve had an urge to post pseudonymously under another–some place where I can be honest about the stretches of research where I’m really not sure what I’m doing, where I can point out the male-only conferences in my field, and the sort of stuff that has to stay on the DL until I get tenure. With the RealName account, I mostly find I don’t have the energy to tweet about things others might find interesting… it’s too hard to pick and choose… but I guess this is all a symptom of being too worried what others think.

  4. I also agree with random PI that I find I am much more comfortable reading/occasionally posting under a pseudonym rather than my real name. I have a lot of benefits just reading what other scientists blog/tweet about, and I was never sure what I would write about if I were to create a RealName twitter account.. I would be too nervous as well!

  5. I confess I haven’t figured how to do social media, somehow. I can hang out with and around people but that doesn’t seem to catch hold into any kind of community. I don’t know what it is I don’t understand.

    • Share interesting things, respond with substantive comments to things people you follow share (more than just “great post” or “interesting tweet”), don’t be afraid to show some personality, and be patient. That’s the best advice I’ve got.

  6. Thanks for writing this! As a grad student, a lot of other students are baffled about why I “spend so much time on twitter”, but I’ve found it immeasurably helpful in terms of learning the nuts and bolts of academia that slip through the cracks in typical graduate training (especially, as you mentioned, “understanding how granting, publishing, and other bits of academic mechanics work”), as well as building a much broader community of mentors and colleagues. Another benefit I’ve loved is being able to “meet” and interact with colleagues before conferences… Building a rapport on twitter allows me to approach someone (especially someone senior) as a student they associate with interesting ideas and expertise rather than an “unknown grad student”, thus serving as a way to even the playing field and increase my own confidence.

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