Before starting graduate school in 2012, my fellow undergraduate researchers set me up with a Twitter account. Little did I know then, how much it would shape my PhD. If you're not already an academic on Twitter or new to the forum, let me share with you how I use social media as a scientist and some tips and tricks for getting started.You might be thinking, how much can a social media app really influence your academic experiences? Of course YMMV*, but for me Twitter has been an incredible resource and launching pad. In fact, I wouldn’t be teaming up with Inscopix to write this post or have been able to establish my outreach project “Interstellate” if it weren’t for the visibility provided by Twitter. While many academics are also taking advantage of other social media platforms (e.g., Instagram, Facebook) to SciComm and network – my main digital science community resides in the Twittersphere. So lets start there.
*Don’t know what YMMV means? Scroll down to see my social media acronyms cheat sheet.
Benefits of a Digital Presence
Whenever we had someone visiting for lab meeting, my former mentor would insist we introduce ourselves by our first AND last name and state our status in the lab (e.g. I’m Caitlin Vander Weele and I’m a 6th year graduate student). Her reasoning for this exercise was simple: Your name is your brand. She’s not wrong. For example, think about how we refer to papers, “Have you read the new Tye Lab paper?” or “In the seminal paper by Schultz (1998)…”
Academia doesn’t exist in a vacuum and like any other field, name recognition is important. Imagine applying for a post-doc position where two candidates are on a similar playing field. Who do you think is more likely to get an interview, some unknown or someone whose name conjures a memory of an interesting conference talk or a smart follow-up question? Now imagine that conference happening all the time and you can drop in and out of it at any moment. This is academic Twitter.
For some of you, this is where you start with the typical response I get from non-tweet savvy academics: “I don’t have extra time to spend in a digital fantasy land making friends with people I may never meet in real life.” But let's be honest, there is often down time in research. As a scientist in training, you spend a lot of time waiting for your behavioral paradigms to finish or your assay to incubate. Meanwhile principal investigators travel around the world giving talks, in a cab on the way to the airport or waiting to board a plane. Not to mention your commute to and from lab. These are perfect opportunities to join the conversation and explore what topics your colleagues are discussing. Further, Twitter is FULL of resources and advice that can help you SAVE time – if you know where to look and who to follow.
Still not convinced? Well I asked my tweeps (slang for your Twitter following) how they find Twitter most useful and here’s what they said:
How do you learn about the latest papers in your field? Google Scholar e-mail alerts? Word of mouth? One easy way to get the most up-to-date information is a quick scrub through your Twitter feed. Here people share recently published articles, new advances in technology, and discuss grant deadlines and requirements. If you curate who you follow carefully, these things come to you and are relevant to your field! Further, in my experience, many of these resources might not otherwise be on your radar. Lets take a quick look at some things that have popped up recently in my feed.
Sweet! An interesting new review that might not otherwise be included in my paper alerts since it is slightly outside of my field of neuroscience. But it's definitely of interest so I'm bookmarking this to read later.
Oh la la! Inscopix (@inscopix) is launching some new tech! I’ve been waiting for a commutator for my in vivo calcium imaging experiments and that is becoming a reality! Yes!
Also, can’t attend a relevant conference and going through some serious FOMO (“fear of missing out”)? Many scientists “live tweet” conferences or symposiums, sharing their major findings.
I can’t be at this symposium by the Ontario Institute of Regenerative Medicine (OIRM) but fellow SciCommer Sam Yammine (aka “Science Sam”; @SamanthaZY; @heysciencesam) is there keeping me informed of the highlights. She’s using the #OIRMsymposium hashtag to group these post and those of others.
Resources & Advice
Do you ever wish there was a searchable repository of resources specific to your area of research? Or a virtual chat room of experts that you could reach out to when you’ve hit a dead end in one of your experiments? This is also academic Twitter! For example….
GRANTS. I’m not a lab head / principal investigator but I do know that running a lab requires money, a lot of money. And while most of us are familiar with some of the more common grants (e.g., RO1, K99) there are A LOT of smaller, specialized or sponsored grants that you might not be familiar with. These pop up on my feed regularly. Recently, Dr. Ben Saunders (@BenSaunders) made a list:
See more: https://twitter.com/BenSaunders/status/988475729066315776
Advice on this or that is always flying around on Twitter – from the best freezing sliding microtome to managing imposter syndrome. Awhile back I was looking for a blue retrograde tracer for some anatomy experiments. A quick tweet later, I had my answer, a protocol, and the contact of a current user in case I needed tailored advice.
Here’s another example but first I have to tell you a secret…. MIT’s journal access is truly horrendous. I often cannot get access to PDFs of journal articles relevant to my research. Thank goodness I have super helpful Twitter followers! I often tweet out a PubMed link to a paper asking for someone to please e-mail me the PDF and VOILA – new e-mail in my inbox with said paper attached!
I’ve already touched upon this briefly but, we all know what they say, “Its not what you know, but who you know.” While that might be a bit of an overstatement, being well connected is definitely an asset. However, getting face time with VIPs in your field (especially as a trainee) is hard, not to mention extremely stressful (“what if I say the wrong thing or can’t come up with anything intelligent to say at all!”). Lucky for you, many of these individuals may only be a tweet away. Not only can you hear what they have to say about science current events, but you can also interact with them by replying to one of their tweets or tagging them in one of yours. Networking at your fingertips! Simply by having a presence within your field’s Twittershere it will open many opportunities to connect with diverse individuals - from super famous scientists to undergraduates looking for a research lab.
The best part is, when you finally get to meet these individuals IRL* the awkward introductions are already over. I absolutely love this example from my friend and fellow grad student Christine Liu (@christineliuart) who was photographed with neuroscience pioneer Dr. Eric Kandel by renowned electrophysiologist and photographer Dr. Christian Lüscher (@LUSCHERC) at the Society for Neuroscience (@SfNtweets) conference this past year.
Read the rest of Christine’s thread where she credits Twitter for helping her discover her confidence and niche within neuroscience: https://twitter.com/christineliuart/status/931547691531640832
Support & Community
Academia is hard. It is often isolating, frustrating, and stressful. When I started graduate school at MIT my confidence took a hard blow. Everyone in my cohort was confident and insanely talented. Being a psychologist from a modest lab at a state school, I didn’t feel like I belonged in this superstar crowd. Navigating my first couple of years was difficult feeling like I was the only one who had no idea what was going on. Twitter saved me. I quickly realized that these feeling were shared by many, many graduate students and we became a support group for one another— celebrating all the victories (big and small), providing advice, and talking about our experiences. The community support among my virtual grad student cohort is so strong. Even when I was working long and late hours in the lab, I could access this support system by simply logging into my phone for a few minutes and connecting with them!
Ok so I’ve convinced you to make a twitter account, but now what? Here’s a quick guide to getting off the ground:
Make a profile
First things first, make a Twitter handle that is easy to spell and remember (e.g., @caitvw). This way, if someone wants to tag you in a post, you are easy to find without any extra sleuthing. Your name or something similar/shortened works! Then, change that default “egg” profile picture immediately— otherwise you look like a bot or spammer. It doesn’t have to be your face (I use an avatar!) BUT facial recognition does help you find friends when wandering through the crowded halls of a conference center. Next, write up your biography. Say who you are, where you are, and what you study / do. Share the information you are comfortable with, but between you and me, I rarely follow individuals that don’t have a biography or have bad / negative ones. So make sure your biography is informative and approachable. Finally, add an interesting photograph for a header. I use microscope images from my own research, which are great conversation starters.
Follow people in your field
Your newsfeed updates when people you follow post (just like Facebook) so the next step is to start following people of interest in your field. Search for your colleagues or famous academics in your area of research and give them a follow. Once you’ve followed a few individuals, you can use the “Who to follow” feature that Twitter provides located on your “Home” page. By clicking the “View all option” Twitter will show you people that are related. Follow the ones you recognize and you are already building your own virtual community!
Join the conversation (or not)
Twitter can be overwhelming. Conversations are fast and transient because of the chronological algorithms that determine your feed. Over and over again people ask me, “How do you keep up?!?” But just like a conference, you can’t show up in the middle of a talk and expect to know everything that is going on.
Take some time to see how you community works. What are they talking about? Who are they talking to? When are they most active? Continue to follow people who are a part of these conversations— even if you don’t know them! As you follow more people who are active in your field’s Twittersphere, you will find it is easier to follow the conversations. But don’t go overboard! If you follow too many people right off the bat, your feed will be too noisy and it will be frustrating trying to decipher what is going on.
Once you feel comfortable with the dynamic you have a choice, to engage with your community or not. If you’re not ready to join the discourse, that is perfectly fine. By being an observer, you still reap the several benefits, like curated real-time resources and advice. And many people use Twitter in this way, observing but not engaging (see example in the section below). However, it’s hard to network and build a support system without engaging. In order to maximize the benefits that Twitter has to offer, being an active participant is necessary. So when a topic comes up that you are knowledgeable about, dive in! The keys to building a strong network are being active, consistent, engaging, and polite. Keep these in mind as you get started and be patient. Like any social group, making meaningful friendships and building trust takes time.
Defining your line between personal & professional
This is tricky. Virtual social spaces allow you to share your thoughts, feelings, and life updates as quickly as they happen. And while it may be tempting to vent about your boss or share a picture of you and your friends partying the night away, take a moment to consider your audience and the impact that post might make. I’m not going to tell you what you can and can’t post, but I highly recommend establishing your own guidelines on what is appropriate to share and plan what you want your account to reflect about you. You are also YOU! And I think its okay (if not important) to show that you have a personality and life in and outside of academia. Of course, “revise and resubmit” as time goes by but having a strategy for your professional social media presence is key.
This is my #protip: Segregate your social media spaces. For me, Twitter is my professional science space. My account follows and is followed by scientists. And while I do sometimes tweet things on the more personal side, I’m still cognizant that my audience is composed of my colleagues, future employers, and reviewers. In contrast, my Instagram is for my silly and creative side, while my Facebook is reserved for my closest friends and family.
Partitioning the content I create and consume helps me establish my personal vs. professional boundaries. Of course, that doesn’t mean that science doesn’t bleed into these other realms. I am friends with many scientists who are present in my Instagram / Facebook communities and my accounts are not private (i.e., an account setting which allows only people you approve to see your content). As such, I am constantly aware that my content is visible to those who want to see it and I try to make sure I stay within my personal boundaries.
AND BEWARE: Your audience is much bigger than you think it is. So think twice before posting. Here’s an example. I’m currently writing this on a plane en route to Los Angeles and tweeted this update earlier today:
Not science-related and definitely more on the personal side. I’m pumped to be going on a trip with my boyfriend! And while its not my most engaged with content (1 comment, 0 retweets, and 19 favs), if we take a look at the analytics you’ll see a slightly different story:
Over 2,000 impressions! If you already have an account, take a peek at your Twitter analytics. I think you will be surprised by the number of people who see your content.
Curating and protecting your experience
The wonderful thing about using social media is there are many tools to curate and protect your experience. Other than customizing your community by the people you follow and the level of engagement you put forth, there are several other options worth discussing.
While I've been ranting and raving about the benefits of Twitter, it has a dark side too. Given its virtual nature, Twitter can breed hostile situations every once in awhile. Some accounts are random spammers or people outside of your community who are searching for key words, looking for a fight. Others may be anonymous pseuds* which can be popular individuals within your Twittershere. Pseuds do not use their own names and do not have identifying facts in their biographies, which protect them from ramifications from their institutions for content posted to the Internet. In some cases, pseuds use their anonymity to discuss sensitive but important topics (e.g. sexual harassment). Others are less positive and use their accounts to troll* or bully people.
Just remember, you don’t owe anyone your tweets. If you feel uncomfortable you certainly do not have to respond. You can “block” individual accounts to prevent any future interactions. Blocking means they can no longer see or interact with your account while logged into theirs. But note, if your account is public they can simply log out and see your profile, so it’s more of a mechanism to prevent them from interacting with you rather than protecting your tweets from their view. If you feel that the account is being hateful or abusive, you can report them to Twitter for further investigation using the “report” feature. I’ve only had to use these features a couple of times but you should be aware of them in case a situation arises.
One feature that I do use often is the “mute” button. Why do I do this? Politics. For example, lets say a well-known professor follows me and I feel obligated to follow back (power dynamic is real!), BUT I’m not a huge fan of his or her content. Muting someone prevents his or her content from popping up on my Twitter feed, but still allows me to follow the account. The muted account has no idea that they’ve been muted, keeping up appearences, while allowing me to optimize the content I see. To see these option, click the three vertical dots on an accounts page, located next to the "Follow" / "Following" button or click the inverted arrow on an individual tweet to see the drop down menu.
Some Final Thoughts
Like learning any new skill, becoming a competent tweeter takes practice. Take 15-20 minutes a day to explore your feed. Engage with individuals in your community. Add value to conversations. Be consistent and patient. Respond quickly to tags (<24 hrs, you can setup e-mail or push notifications). Most importantly, have fun. While it takes effort to get the hang of, Twitter isn't a job. Set a trial period (3-6 mo) and if you hate it, maybe it's not for you. However, if you take practicing this new skill seriously, I think in a short period of time you will understand why I'm so enthusiastic about Twitter as an academic resource.
I'm happy to hear your thoughts and feedback in the comments below, on Twitter (@caitvw), or e-mail me (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Already a prolific academic tweeter but looking for ways to amplify you voice, increase your following, or promote your side hustle? Stay tuned for "Twitter for Academics 102" !
Brevity is the soul of wit. And Twitter. A single tweet is limited to 280 characters. As such, acronyms and other short-hand terms are used to save space. To get you started, here is a cheat sheet of some that are commonly used in SciTwitter.
AFAIK = “as far as I know”
BSD = “big science deal” - (there is also a more inappropriate version, but I’ll let you figure that one out). Generally used to refer to principal investigators with large mega-labs or someone who is important in your respective field
BTW = “by the way”
CC = “carbon copy” – similar to e-mail but use cc to loop in someone who you would like to see that content. By tagging them, they will be linked to the original post. For example, reply to the post with: CC @caitvw
CNS = referring the journals “Cell, Nature, Science”
DM = “direct message” – this is your private inbox. Use this feature to send private, direct messages to another user. To navigate to or send a DM, use the envelope icon. Depending on the user’s settings, they may have to be following you back in order to contact them this way.
ECI / ECR = “early-career investigator / research” – used to refer to young principal investigators / researchers
FF = “follow Friday” or “forward follow” – Used to publicly suggest people worth following to your audience.
FTW = “for the win”
FWIW = “for what its worth”
Glam = not an acronym but commonly used to refer to studies and/or scientists published in journals with high impact factors (e.g. Nature, Cell, Science).
GS = “grad student”
H/T = “hat tip” – H/T is followed by a username to give them credit for showing you content included in your tweet.
ICYMI = “in case you missed it”
IMO = “in my opinion”
IRL = “in real life”
PD = “post-doc”
POC = “person / people of color”
Pseud = Short for pseudonym. These are accounts run my individuals, which do not use their own names.
RT = “retweet”
TBH = “to be honest”
TLDR = “too long, didn’t read”
Troll = “Someone who posts or replies a deliberate, provocative message with the intention of causing disruption and argument”
TT = “tenure track”
UG = “undergraduate”
URM = “underrepresented minority”
YMMV = your mileage may vary