The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

A grad student’s guide to using social media as a tool for Doing Science

I’m finally back from an incredible whirlwind tour of entomology conferences. I’ve travelled from Ottawa, Ontario (ESO) to Edmonton, Alberta (ESC) to Knoxville, Tennessee (ESA). I am pooped and my brain is saturated with awesome science.

I was invited to give a talk as part of a special symposium at the ESC meeting: “From the Lab to the Web”. It featured other awesome people like Morgan Jackson, Dave Walters, Adrian Thysse, Greg Courtney and Chris Buddle. In my (not-so-) humble opinion, I think it was a highlight of the conference proceedings. My talk was called “A grad student’s guide to using social media as a tool for Doing Science”.  

You can check out some voiced-over slides here, but if you don’t feel like sitting through the entire 30 minutes, here’s a quick round-up of the main points:

1. Social media doesn’t need to be scary or overwhelming. Try to think of it as “hallway talk” – the informal socializing, networking, collaborating and community-building that we do as grad students every day, already.

Our peers are using social media at work. You should too. Image from:

2. Half of Canadians have a social media profile: social media is an important part of the way we communicate and build communities. Academics, especially new faculty, are using social media as a work tool. 90% of academics in the US report using social media – this is nearly twice the average for all other fields of employment. Grad students not using social media in a professional capacity (perhaps especially those considering careers in academia) need to get with the program.

3. Social media can help you:

    • Improve your communication skills. You can practice using non-technical language that anyone, even non-specialists, can understand. Blogging and microblogging are great platforms for this, because your audience is the entire world (and most of them don’t understand your crazy jargon).
    • Get stuff. Like inaccessible journal articles (try the #Icanhazpdf hashtag on Twitter), data (you can tap into citizen scientists from all over the world) and funding for projects (the #scifundchallenge on is well worth a peek if you’ve never heard of crowd-funding).

My Twitter followers. How global is your professional network?

    • Network. Not just within your institution or field of expertise – you can develop a diverse international network of collaborators and colleagues. Being involved in social media allows to you tap into a community of scientists that WANT to engage with you. You will find mentors, friends, allies, and informants in places you never thought possible.
    • Get noticed. By your school, the media and other sciencey organizations. These people are looking for cool research and passionate scientists to feature on their web sites and in articles (which, by the way, can get thousands of readers). You can also use social media and networking sites to get the attention of other academics and boost the citation counts on your articles.

4. Important people – like future thesis advisors, future employers, and faculty search committees – will Google you. Seriously. They’ll do it to learn more about your professional and personal activities. If they can’t find you online, it looks suspicious. Grad students need to take the time to create and cultivate a professional online presence so that the right people can find them when it matters most.

This will not impress your future graduate advisor.

5. Although you want to be Google-able, don’t get caught doing dumb things online. What goes on the internet stays on the internet forever (screenshots can easily create permanent records of stuff you’d rather delete). First impressions are important, so be smart about what you put out there for the world to find.

Criticism is part of the job. Learn to deal with it professionally.

6. Sometimes people on the internet are jerks. You could fall victim to a creepy online stalker (yes, this happens to scientists sometimes), so keep your private, personal information private and personal. Same goes for that of your friends and family members.  Other people might not be creepy, but they might be critical of you and your research. Learn to stand up for your work and practice responding to criticisms in a professional way.

7. Developing a professional online presence takes time, and the upfront investment can be steep, but it’s well worth the effort. Schedule some time in your to-do list to engage with other members of the online science community, and start building your network.  You’ll be glad you did. I know it’s paid off big-time for me.

Again, if you’d like to hear more details, please check out the video.

I know that I’m probably preaching to the converted already, but I’d love to hear about your own experiences (both positive and negative) with social media, either as a grad student or as someone in the workplace (scientists and non-scientists alike!)

7 responses to “A grad student’s guide to using social media as a tool for Doing Science

  1. mauriceabarry November 19, 2012 at 5:29 PM

    Yup–#5 is especially important!

    • TGIQ November 20, 2012 at 11:15 PM

      I’m inclined to agree with this. A poor showing on Google is more likely to hurt you than a good showing is likely to help you. The recent example of the neuroscientist who wrote a boneheaded comment about women on his Facebook page is a good example: the thing went viral and is now the main subject that pops up on a Google of the guy’s name. Big mistake.

  2. Jon Quist November 19, 2012 at 6:27 PM

    This is great! Over the short time I’ve been writting a blog and have had a bugguide account, I’ve met a hefty handful of entomologists, a couple of which I’ve added of fb. This truly does bring friends together, and the best part is you can still be unique. I think some people won’t get connected simply because they are afraid of comparing themselves to young, (maybe a bit immature) teenagers.

    • TGIQ November 20, 2012 at 11:16 PM

      I think you’re right: many people are hesitant to get involved in social media because it often carries really unfortunate connotations (Twitter’s a great example – most people think it’s a place for celebrities to talk about what they had for lunch, but I’ve found it to be the best resource of all my social media stuff in terms of networking and collaboration! There’s a really awesome science community on there!)

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  4. Barbalink November 25, 2012 at 8:59 AM

    Great post! By the number of similar articles/blogs I’ve read recently – I feel like the universe is hinting that I should get more social media inclined! And there are obviously many positives to come out of a greater (smart) online presence as you pointed out. My biggest hurtle is how to do so AND fulfill my personal goal to spend as much time away from computers and other screens during my free time and more time outside, physically active and getting together with friends (the old fashioned way). How do you balance it all?

    • TGIQ November 26, 2012 at 8:07 AM

      The truth is that it IS a bit of a balancing act, but it really just boils down to time management – something we need to develop and hone as grad students anyways. Incorporating your online “stuff” into your daily/weekly “to do” list doesn’t have to mean hours and hours in front of a computer. I often check my feeds (Twitter, Facebook, G+, YouTube, Email, etc.) first thing in the morning as I’m sipping coffee in bed. I note anything important that needs to be attended to later, but otherwise I get through most of it in that short window at the start of my day. Sometimes I’ll spend a little more time writing blog posts (those are a bit more of a commitment), but I tend to reserve that activity for the weekend. If you’re just starting to consider getting into social media and aren’t sure where to start, I’d recommend Twitter above all else. It’s been, bar none, invaluable in terms of networking and being exposed to important and interesting information. Consider also some profiles on Linked in and Those have a little bit of time investment upfront, but then they’re more or less static and require little maintenance in the long run.

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