Let me ask you a question: Are you engaging with social media? I mean, really, are you actually engaging with it?
The point I’m trying to make is that engaging with social media is more than just connecting with people. Imagine you’re at a conference, you don’t just walk up to a delegate and ask for their contact details. Rather, you get involved in the conference programme and social events, attending talks, visiting posters, asking questions, making presentations yourself, taking part in casual conversations or arranging more formal interactions. Some of the outcomes from these meetings are intended and part of your networking strategy, whilst other outcomes are the result of chance encounters. Either way, a successful outcome will see you leaving with a few new contacts to follow up when you get back to your home institution.
This is exactly how social media works – you need to do more than simply follow and connect with others. The ‘Social Engagement’ model (a re-presented version of an original model for networked career development, proposed by Tom Staunton, University of Derby) sets out four key activities that can help you to engage successfully with social media, especially LinkedIn and Twitter:
Many researchers post news about their research, such as recent data and findings, or they might highlight a publication or viva success. Posting up a slide from a recent presentation or showing a key figure from a paper will draw interest, which can be further enhanced with a link to more detailed information.
Many have outside or associated interests such as public engagement, project management and entrepreneurship that influence the types of postings they share on social media. Not only this, some PhD and postdoctoral researchers, who are involved in support or policy organisations regularly inform social media about latest developments, whilst empathising with those who might be struggling with their current situation. Twitter, especially, provides this type of personal support, as well as acting as a humorous and light-hearted medium to engage with others during the pandemic, whist we have all been isolated physically from one another. Even if you’re not confident to publish your own news on social media, commenting or liking others’ posts also makes you more visible and demonstrates your own interests, which can result in potential opportunities.
Of course, you only have so much of your own information to share with others, which limits the number of posts you can contribute. However, you can overcome this limitation by posting up information or news that you hear about from others. Again, it could be a publication you’ve come across, an upcoming conference people in your network would be interested to hear about, it could simply be some news item you’ve heard about or a video, etc.
If you’re planning for a career outside of academia, sharing posts from professionals and organisations in sectors of interest will help you to identify and associate yourself with these new industry/business communities. Always make sure to acknowledge and copy in the original author and any other people or organisations associated with the information. For example, for a recently published paper, you could copy in the key authors, their institution and the journal. You might also use hastags # to help people who are searching for particular keywords. This is likely to attract the attention of those with similar interests to yourself, leading to requests to join your network.
Once you start to build your network by engaging with social media in this way, you are more likely to start seeing posts from others who share your interests, helping to increase your knowledge base. This is especially useful if you are planning a non-academic career; by following the posts of those already working in your career areas of interest you’ll hear about their latest news and find out what’s important to them, as well as understanding the culture and language of the organisation. Furthermore, you’ll be more exposed to posts recommending learning opportunities relevant to your sphere of interests, with links to webinars, YouTube videos, TED talks, training events, articles and micro-credential courses.
LinkedIn itself has a subsidiary LinkedIn Learning website offering courses delivered by industry professionals to help improve skills. These days, I receive much of my news via social media and, as well as keeping up to date and informed about my own careers profession, I also pass on a lot of opportunities I hear about relevant to my PhD and postdoctoral researcher connections.
Last but not least, we come to the linking part of the Social Engagement model. Speaking with PhD and postdoctoral researchers, I sometimes witness a real reticence to approaching people to ask to connect with them. I understand the sense of intrusion or the feelings of awkwardness associated with this reticence. However, I see it differently. In these days of globalisation and remote working, it’s so liberating and efficient to be able to harness social media to bring us together into common networks, such as those associated with our disciplinary, personal, professional and cultural interests.
By contributing, curating and learning, we make ourselves more visible so that others are more likely to link with us. There are many like-minded researchers actively engaging in social media communities, so if you’re not quite sure how to get started, do your research and learn from what others are doing.
Your social engagement strategy will differ according to your career intentions and associated career development needs. Don’t feel compelled to build a huge network; it’s more about quality than quantity. Take your time to develop your social media presence and once you have established yourself and made some connections, you’ll feel more confident to start to convert and leverage your new network contacts to help you to transition to your next role, or to grow within your own academic field.
It’s 10 years since I myself took the plunge and joined social media. I had just published my book, Career planning for research bioscientists, and was advised to start writing a blog and engaging with social media such as Twitter and LinkedIn by my then ‘supervisor’, the former editor of the New Scientist, Alun Anderson. Since then, I’ve not only accumulated nearly 4000 connections/followers, but, more importantly, I’ve also been posting articles, sharing my monthly blog posts and those of others, as well as tweeting, linking, following and building a productive on-line network.
Please feel free to engage with me 🙂