Social media is rapidly becoming integral to many professional fields and industries, and there are signs, like the creation of social networking sites for scientists, that the same could soon be true in science. But until that day, social media—which is praised by some as an invaluable addition to one's work and vilified by others as a huge time sink—presents a dilemma for many early-career scientists. Should they stay on the sidelines, risking missing out on valuable opportunities? Or should they lay it all online, risking harming their scientific credentials and professional reputations? Fortunately, at least for now, either choice is fine. In an informal survey of recruiters and academic scientists on hiring panels, most said that a candidate's decision to participate or not in social media wouldn't change their hiring decisions.
They did admit, however, that their view of candidates was influenced by the social media content those candidates chose to post online. As such, it's important for young scientists to know how social media could affect their research and career. Use it wisely and it may open up networking opportunities and even help you land a job. Display your drunken exploits online, or get involved in nasty, narcissistic online battles, and you may seriously damage your professional reputation and career prospects. Like most other tools, what you get out of it depends on how—and how well—you use it.
Social media can be a good source of information and contacts, both of which can help you do your job better. "I've learned about papers I might have missed, and funding sources I might not have explored as early as I have. But most importantly, I've developed a cohort of people I can lean on for advice, which has been incredibly helpful for my career development," writes proflikesubstance, who is a pseudonymous blogger and self-described "junior faculty member working in a field of evolution" in the United States, in an e-mail to Science Careers.
Twitter has also helped Haley Gomez, a lecturer in astrophysics at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom, to raise her profile. "A presence on Twitter means you, and your research, are in people’s minds, and you get known for something. I get invited to more seminars, and am more visible in my community," she says.
CREDIT: Gail Whittle
The exposure social media provides can also help you find work. CK Science, which is based in Chesterfield in the United Kingdom and specializes in recruiting people for the chemical, biotech, and pharmaceutical industries, uses Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, and Google Plus to find potential candidates with specific skillsets. This can be done either via searches, monitoring or interacting with users of online forums, or answering questions from job hunters who get in touch after watching the career advice videos that CK Science posts on its YouTube channel. Jonathan Hart-Smith, managing director of the firm, advises job-seeking scientists to regularly post valuable content on whichever social media sites they use and keep their LinkedIn profiles complete and up-to-date. "If you’ve done a Ph.D. and specialized in a particular area, you need to explain what you’ve worked on" on your LinkedIn profile, he says. If you do that, "you’re much more likely to be approached by someone looking for an expert in a particular field."
Mark Allatt, a marketing, communications, and branding consultant in London, recommends using LinkedIn to alert people to your articles, papers, and conference talks. "Getting endorsements within LinkedIn is important in terms of establishing independent recognition of you as an expert," he adds.
CREDIT: Mark Allatt
To have a chance of getting hired, you need to make a professional impression online. "If I am inviting someone to join my lab, of course I'm going to use whatever public means available to ensure they are someone I think will contribute positively to the science and the lab dynamic," writes proflikesubstance. "How you define that is going to vary from person to person, but signs of public immaturity or disrespectful behavior are not going to be viewed well."
Alan Gunn, subject leader for biosciences in the School of Natural Sciences and Psychology at Liverpool John Moores University in the United Kingdom, writes in an e-mail to Science Careers that members of job-interview panels are likely to be significantly influenced (and not in a good way) by images of a job candidate in a compromising position or under the influence of alcohol. Aspiring scientists can avoid such problems "by simply having the sense to keep quiet about the more boisterous aspects of their social lives," he advises.
Ruth Shiner, head of the Department of Biomedical Science and Physiology at the University of Wolverhampton in the United Kingdom, writes in an e-mail to Science Careers that while she "doesn’t tend to use social media to look at staff candidates prior to [an] employment interview," she does Google candidates once they have been appointed. "It may make me look out for certain behaviours during the probation period if I was concerned about aspects of what they had written," she writes. "My advice to any young scientists when publishing material on the internet in any form is not to write anything that you would not want a future or current employer to read."
CREDIT: Alan Gunn
Bad language and poor grammar would put Hart-Smith off of a candidate, he says. "If you are going out into the job marketplace, you need to be thinking about how you want to position your online brand and whether this stands for someone intelligent, dynamic, smart, interesting, and innovative, or for someone who is not."
But while it makes sense to be careful about what you write, don't be a phony. "In academia, it really grates if someone has a presence on Twitter that is very carefully cultivated and they are not being themselves," Gomez says. "People just won’t follow you. I would rather people be honest and see some swear words and feel their passion about their science."
Whether you're writing on personal or professional matters, don’t be narcissistic. "I think an online presence can be overdone. No one wants to read perpetual irrelevant drivel," Allatt says. "I believe you say something when you’ve got something of value to say."
Be willing to invest time, but think long-term. "Create something that is sustainable for you, so you can build your credibility over time," says Nathalie Nahai, who is a London-based speaker and blogger on Web psychology. Also use that time well. "If you're spending your research time chatting with your friends or trying to impress people just for the sake of trying to impress people, you're probably not helping your career," Marc Kuchner, an astrophysicist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland in the United States and author of Marketing for Scientists: How to Shine in Tough Times, writes in an e-mail to Science Careers.
CREDIT: Nathalie Nahai
Also, make sure that the people whose opinions matter for your career value—and are aware of—your online activity. "If you're a PhD student and you're out there social networking with the public and your advisor isn't part of it, you probably aren't getting much credit for it," Kuchner writes.
Don't take the bait
And don't get sucked into nasty public debates with people whose opinions don't matter—specifically, Internet trolls, Nahai says. "If someone makes a criticism, you take it on board and send a response back, and then if it is clear they are not interested in any sort of reasonable exchange of ideas and just want to get a reaction, check their feeds to see if they are behaving like this with other people. If they are making lots of obnoxious comments, just ignore that person."
Gomez adds this suggestion: Wait 5 minutes after writing any response before pressing the send button. But if you do fire off an instant reaction you later regret, what then? "If you have done something that’s offensive and that has caused a problem, apologise unreservedly, withdraw that comment, and leave a sensible period of reflection and time-out before re-engaging in a different tone," Allatt advises.
Perhaps the biggest risk for young scientists is to forget that social media is not a replacement for more traditional professional activities. "It may seem hypocritical, but I don't think the use of social media is a good way to establish a scientific career at all," proflikesubstance writes. "If I'm at a conference, I want to be approached by someone who says 'I really liked your paper' and not 'I really like your blog.' "