All you need to impress your next employer?
You probably have been told that in the increasingly competitive world of research science, selling yourself effectively is what makes the difference between being offered a job and not. An underused medium for putting yourself out there in a way that can be planned and under your control is the personal blog site.
The term “blog site” in this context means a website that includes factual blogging by the site owner, his or her professional biography, and related information. Such sites are independent and not institution-based.
For aspiring researchers, there are many advantages to having such a site. It is a good way for people to find you online without having to make too much effort; a Google search of your name will do, even if you have little Google juice to start with. A professional and memorable domain name is also a good way to set the tone of the site. The format www.[forename][surname].com can provide an infinitely more suitable alternative to other online presences, such as Twitter or Facebook, which may not be appropriate for professional purposes. You also can present an online curriculum vitae that puts you in the sort of light in which you want potential employers to see you.
A personal blog site is also a way of providing continuity from the end of postgraduate training until a long-term job comes along. During the postdoctoral stage, your professional e-mail address might change about every two years. A site of your own gives you a permanent address that is useful, professional-sounding, and linked to a site that reflects well on you. This shows that you are serious and capable.
The blog provides an opportunity for you to stick up for otherwise neglected areas of research (lipids, in my case) or just something you want to showcase. The blog also prevents your website from being a webpage with just your basic details on it — a pale imitation of LinkedIn.
As it is your blog site, you can choose both the subject and the tone for your blogging. You may even like to use more than one — general audience, general scientific audience, specialist and so on. Whatever you choose, blogging can be a great way to establish a commitment to an area of research, start intellectual debate or just chew through the literature.
With this scope for choice and showcasing, there does come responsibility. It is not possible to predict or control quite who will see your site. This means that it ought to be legally sound but also inoffensive to a wide audience (not just to your mother).
A basic but good example of how this can be important is how well the website text matches that in your job applications. If your research interests posted online do not concur with those in a cover letter, for example, that might raise questions about your commitment to the job for which you have applied.
To create a good impression to any reader, your website ought to be polished in appearance and content. This can be time-consuming and expensive, especially if you do not possess the required Web design skills. I have no experience with designing websites, so when I was putting mine together I was ready to pay friends in ale and hard cash to ensure my site was properly constructed. Be warned, however, that website design is a continuous process: Browsers and hardware are updated constantly, and how and what you want to use the website for may change in a way that cannot be predicted during the initial design process.
A sober head is needed for the aesthetics of the site as well. A good rule is to ask whether a color-blind person with English as a second language could read it on his or her smartphone. If not, the site will probably not be that easy for everyone else. So, during the design process, it is worth experimenting with typesetting and layout to see what works.
There are some simple rules to avoid the bigger pitfalls. My No. 1 rule is to avoid typefaces that have characters that are similar, as they can be confusing for getting across scientific notation or data. For example, in the font Arial, uppercase “I,” lower-case “l” and the number “1” can look very similar, especially to a reader who is not yet enthralled by what you have to say or who is reading it on a small screen with poor resolution. Equally important, complicated typefaces like Edwardian script or similar can be a real and instant turn-off. It is worth making the effort to have a recognizable site, but remember to keep it simple and readable.
The notion of carefully checking to avoid inconsistencies between your site and job application documents is worth applying to the text as well. I employ a proofreader for virtually all the text on my site to ensure that it is typo-free. Proofreaders cost money, as do most of the other aspects of the site if you are to do them properly.
One last point is that you have to ensure you are able to commit to the project for the long term. If the site disappears because your host has taken it down, it will be almost as though it never existed. Equally, if the site becomes out of date, it probably will be noticeable and might not reflect as well on you.
Despite the complexities, I do recommend this mode of self-presentation. It is a flexible and effective way to market yourself — so much so that the cost and the need for careful thought in the design are clearly outweighed by the value the site brings. I learned much of this through experience, and I have no doubt there is more to learn. However, that in itself is something I regard as an added, if unintended, consequence of a personal blog site. Good luck!
Samuel Furse (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a postdoctoral researcher in chemical biology at the University of Utrecht. Visit his blog site at www.samuelfurse.com/lipids and follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/samuelfurse.
Crafting an online presence
How other scientists are doing it
Before you begin forging an online presence, it’s best to study how others are doing it. Here’s a sampling of scientists (at and away from the bench) who use their real names.
||Jeremy Berg, ASBMB president and University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine
||Dave Bridges, assistant professor at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center
||Bethany Brookshire, scientist-turned-writer
Blogs: Scientific American and Slate
||Adam Byron, postdoc at University of Edinburgh
Twitter: @adambyronnews for news updates and @adambyron for personal tweets
||Steve Caplan, associate professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and author
||Clay Clark, professor at North Carolina State University
||Glen Ernst, research scientist at the Lieber Institute for Brain Development
||Samuel Furse, postdoc atUniversity of Utrecht
||Terri Kinzy, professor at Rutgers University
||Elizabeth Petro, graduate student at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
||Rajini Rao, professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
||K.D. Shives, graduate student at University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Center
Blogs: kdshives.com and Gradhacker.org
||Amanda Lewis, assistant professor at Washington University at St. Louis School of Medicine
||Eric Scerri, University of California, Los Angeles
||Mark Stewart, graduate student at University of Alabama at Birmingham
||Bill Sullivan, associate professor at the Indiana University School of Medicine
Lab homepage: http://www.sullivanlab.com/
Throughout the 2000s, I taught a course called Print and Digital Media Writing to communications students at the University of Houston. During my first five or so years of teaching, at which time I also worked full time at the Houston Chronicle news desk, I focused almost exclusively on teaching news and feature writing.
But by 2007, I’d witnessed round after round of layoffs at work, and several of my former students who were print-journalism hopefuls had failed to snag jobs at newspapers — not even at low-paying ones with very small circulations in the middle of nowhere. The newspaper industry was downsizing, and there simply weren’t enough gigs (or decent-paying ones) out there anymore.
In mid-2007, I left the newspaper industry (thankfully by choice) to do science communication at the university full time — and I completely changed the way I taught my Print and Digital Media Writing class. Sure, I still taught students about news value, quotes, balance and fairness, and storytelling, but I also taught them how to sell themselves so that they could compete in the job market of the day.
They learned how to establish a presence on Twitter, then still in its infancy, and how to use it professionally. They learned how to design and write resumes that showed how their education and training could benefit employers in multiple fields. I encouraged them to start their own blogs and to pay careful attention to how thought leaders and influencers conduct themselves online. I stressed the difference between a private persona and a public persona.
If you’re still with me on this trip down memory lane, this is what I’m getting at: Today, even though I’m no longer at the head of a classroom, I still teach communication. As editor of ASBMB Today, I coach writers, almost all of them scientists, at different professional stages, and I still offer the same advice when it comes to showcasing their skills and work samples and engaging in online discourse to advance their careers.
Creating an online presence — be it a blog, a Twitter account, a portfolio of your work or a simple re-creation of your curriculum vitæ — is pretty important today, regardless of your field. I’m convinced that scientists can benefit from creating and maintaining online personas. But you don’t have to take my word for it.
Encouraged by peers and altmetrics to keep going
Adam Byron, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Edinburgh, has kept up a personal site for several years. In the early days, it contained the same information as his CV. Today, he says, it’s “a means to engage the wider community and communicate thoughts about my science and my career.”
He continues: “I’ve found it a great way to promote my work, most notably in combination with Twitter, which I use extensively.”
Byron, who displays his figures when they’re published on journal covers and posts press releases about his group’s work on his blog, wasn’t sure at first how the online endeavor might go over. His friends and colleagues encouraged him, though, so he just kept at it.
“(M)ore recently, with the introduction of alternative metrics, this has really begun to change. For example, I can now monitor how often my publications — which I promote through my website, Twitter, LinkedIn, Mendeley and others — have been cited or retweeted (using ImpactStory.org),” he says. “This is fantastic because it reveals the impact my research is having both on scholars and on the wider public. It is clear that without this promotion through my blog, my work would be less widely read.”
ImpactStory.org catalogues how often your work — papers, datasets, slides, etc. — is cited, bookmarked, downloaded and tweeted.
Byron says he feels certain his online presence is building, to at least some degree, name recognition; he hopes that will work in his favor as he moves closer to running his own lab one day.
Taking the lead as a PI and building your (or your lab’s) brand
“I would definitely recommend every scientist have their own independent online presence, no matter what the career stage,” says Dave Bridges, who recently became a principal investigator at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.
In fact, Bridges is such a believer in putting forth an online persona that he aims to give each member of his research group a page on the lab website. “I think it’s important for everyone to be both allowed and empowered to have their own voice both within a group and outside of it,” he says. “I would even go so far as to think of a research group as a collaboration of — occasionally dissenting — voices, rather than as a single voice.”
Bridges envisions giving his trainees spaces where they can comment on recent additions to the scientific literature and communicate the work they’ve done: “I like the idea of providing this forum to them on a lab website, because I can enforce that and centralize what our group is up to, but I think it would be good for everyone to also be able to have their own separate independent online presence.”
Samuel Furse, who has written for us in this issue about the benefits, pitfalls and workload of creating a website with a blog component, points out that having an online space provides “continuity from the end of postgraduate training until a long-term job is arrived at.”
Furse, today a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Utrecht, notes that his professional email address has changed several times as he has moved to different institutions, but his email address associated with his personal website has remained the same.
Furse uses his site as a space where he can “stick up for otherwise neglected areas of research,” which in his case is lipids.
This tactic is in line with advice offered in a Forbes column titled “5 Reasons Why Your Online Presence Will Replace Your Resume in 10 years.” In it, writer Dan Schawbel insists, “Your online presence communicates, or should communicate, what you’re truly and genuinely passionate about.”
Your own personal newsroom
Having worked as a public information officer on the science beat at the University of Houston, I have seen the Internet empower institutional communications offices to distribute research findings widely without being at the mercy of the media. Online newsrooms and social media have given PIOs greater control of their messaging than ever before.
What I find even more interesting, meanwhile, is how individual investigators are using their online personas to spread their messages entirely on their own.
One of the most common complaints among investigators is that their work, when it is communicated by the media, is sensationalized or misinterpreted. I am optimistic those instances will become fewer and farther between as an increasing number of researchers take it upon themselves to communicate the facts and the implications of their work.
Everyone I talked to emphasized that the economic and technological barriers of maintaining an online presence are minimal, thanks in large part to the ever-growing number of free blogging platforms that do most of the heavy lifting. But website maintenance and blogging do require time, which is at a premium for investigators at all stages.
“What used to be seen as shameless self-promotion is now an essential component of any scientist’s professional skill set,” says ASBMB Public Outreach Coordinator Geoff Hunt. “If you aren’t fluent in online communication, then you’re behind the times.”