Academics can often be rather squeamish about self-promotion. I myself am not a fan of writing endless cover letters and research statements where I have to act as the sole and assiduously devoted marketer and salesperson for the brand that is Natalie B. Hogg: CosmologistTM.
But the squeamishness, and the attendant procrastination that can turn each application cycle into the eighth circle of living hell, mask an important truth: self-promotion is an absolute necessity. In this business, other people are rarely going to do it for you — or if if they do, chances are it’s not going to be very loud1.
Promotion of one’s work (and one’s self — the two are inherently linked2) can take many forms. Probably the most common is giving talks at conferences and seminars at different departments or institutes. This exposes your work to a new audience, or at the very least allows people to put a face to a name and a body of work. But the number of people you speak to is going to be limited — perhaps fifteen or twenty in a department seminar, and maybe fifty to a hundred depending on the size of the conference.
A much larger audience can be reached via social media, and Twitter is particularly popular in academic circles for this. My own opinion is that Twitter does have a place in the pantheon of self-promotion, but it should be used with a large degree of caution, for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is not designed for verbose, well-reasoned conversation: the arguable bedrock of academia. Discussions are curt, and can quickly become polarised3.
Secondly, being a social media, it is all too easy to let the personal bleed into the professional. While I am by no means against showing a human side on the internet (as my own website, and particularly my blog, demonstrates), for me the lines on Twitter are far too blurred, and personal crusades, especially about fraught topics such as politics, can quickly become what one is known for, rather than for one’s professional work.
Like any other algorithmically-driven, advertiser-funded social media platform, Twitter wants to keep your eyes on the screen for as long as possible. It’s precisely for this reason that arguments flare rapidly: frustration and anger are more engaging emotions than relaxation and pleasure. The urge to disagree is addictively strong.
Thus, I caution against social media being one’s sole, or primary, form of internet-based self-promotion. A far better option is to create and maintain a professional website: professional in both design and content.
The main benefit of having your own website is that it is under your complete control. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve tried to find contact information for someone and ended up digging through university website after university website, banging my head against broken links and information that’s years or even decades out of date — and sometimes finding no information at all4. By having your own website, you have a place on the internet which weathers the storms of moving from university to university, and ensures that people can always find you, find out what you’re currently working on, and get in touch.
It’s important to note that maintaining your website is just as important as having one in the first place. I would argue that having your own website but it being publicly very poorly maintained and out of date is worse than not having one at all. I make an effort to revise the information on here on a regular basis — probably around once every three months, or a little more often if my CV has any important new item added to it. It’s therefore important to make your website in a way which you personally find easy to maintain.
There are two main options when it comes to making a website: the do-it-yourself method, or the probably-pay-a-bit-more-for-a-service-to-do-it-for-you method (catchy name, I know). The DIY method comprises buying a domain name and hosting, and then writing the website yourself, in HTML and CSS. The alternative is paying for to use a website builder, like WordPress or Squarespace; the design of the site can be done using pre-made themes, and the content written directly in a what-you-see-is-what-you-get editor. These are certainly more costly than the DIY route, but bring a number of benefits.
To quote Emmanuel Macron, there is also a third way. Github provides free hosting for websites via its Github Pages service. You can write the content in HTML yourself, or use an open-source markdown to site converter service like Jekyll. I believe it’s also possible to use your own domain name with Github Pages.
So what’s the best option? It depends on what you intend to use your website for. If you are after a simple home base where you’ll keep your contact information and a CV, using Github (assuming you are familiar with a git workflow) is probably the best option, given that it’s completely free.
However, if you are likely to update the content frequently, or write new content like a blog, then a provider like WordPress is probably a better choice. Full disclosure, I used WordPress to build this site, and I like it a lot. The only negative for me is the cost. WordPress can be used for free, but to use a custom domain and remove adverts from your site you have to pay. The cheapest tier is £3 a month, and I pay about £15 a year for my domain name on top of that (it’s pretty pricey because it’s a dot com; cheaper extensions are available). I don’t know how this compares to other services; I imagine they are all pretty similar.
However, compare this current site with what I achieved with a couple of afternoons of handwritten HTML: nataliehogg.github.io. After that experiment, I decided to stick with WordPress, despite the cost, simply for its ease of use and far better design than I could manage on my own. Furthermore, WordPress wins out for me over other competitors because I like writing a blog, and it is built with blog-style websites very much in mind.
It also provides great traffic analytics and email forwarding. I can see which posts and pages of mine are most popular, and tailor my future content accordingly. It’s also very rewarding to see the year-on-year growth of visits and page views. The email forwarding means I can use email@example.com as a permanent email address that never changes when I move institution; I just change which of my institute emails it forwards to. Of course, you could achieve the same thing by setting up a free email account that you only use for professional things, using Gmail or another provider.
In summary, make a website, but make it in a way that is quick and easy for you to maintain. I found it very satisfying when I Googled my name a while ago and saw this website was the first result to come up. I didn’t manage that overnight of course: I’ve had this website for five years now, and have been writing fairly consistent blog posts for at least two5.
Nevertheless, a professional website is a very important part of self-promotion, and one that should not be shunned by academics. Make it easy for people to find you, to learn about you and to get in touch with you, because no one else is going to do it for you.
- This is a topic for another post, but it frustrates me no end that peoples’ successes in academia so often go uncelebrated, or become almost a routine expectation. This — like so many things — hurts those at the bottom of the ladder the most. PhD supervisors can be very slow to praise their students to their face, even when they will write a glowing reference letter for that self-same student’s job applications. Perhaps this phenomenon is not limited to academia, but collectively I think we can afford to pat each other on the back a little more. This job, and this world, are hard, and honest recognition of success despite that hardness is a much-needed tonic and sustenance.
- Linked in the sense that you often have to sell yourself as being the only person who could carry out this project, or the only person who can apply method A to problem B, and so on. To avoid a complete collapse of ego upon the inevitable string of rejections (be it papers, grants, jobs, etc), detachment of one’s professional self from one’s personal self is imperative, though not always easy. Having an explicitly professional website separate from your own personal (and ideally private) social media can help with this separation.
- I wrote a blog post about this phenomenon — the apparent rise of tribalism in science — almost two years ago to the day.
- Once again, this is something that disproportionately harms PhD students. Too often — in the UK, at least — they’re treated by their university as students rather than staff, and so are not considered deserving of even a mention on their department’s webpage. At the ICG, where I did my PhD, each student used to have their own space on the ICG website where you could write a little bio, upload a picture and include your contact information. This was destroyed when the university insisted that the ICG website be renovated following an online rebrand. PhD students now only have their names listed on the university website, without even an email address. This is incredibly damaging to the students’ visibility and independence, and in my opinion demonstrates how little the university values its PhD students.
- It also depends on how common your name is: David Hogg and I are the only Hoggs in cosmology (that we know of!); if you’re a Smith or a Li, for example, you might find it a bit harder to establish yourself.
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