The importance of having a strong web presence for ECR’s

Towards the end of 2016 the Holwell lab had a special visitor, Dr James O’Hanlon from Macquarie University, a behavioural ecologist who’s most well-known for his work on deception in the elusive orchid mantis, as well as his uncanny ability to make a study species just disappear when you go into the field with him. Magic!

Anyway, while James was here he was roped in to giving a workshop on Science Communication for the department, and Lizzy Lowe and I jumped on-board to give him a hand.

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As part of this, I did a presentation about why I think it is important, particularly for early career researchers (ECR’s), to have a strong web presence. I also gave some suggestions about ways you can build up your web presence, through a personal website as well as social media.

Personal websites 

My main suggestion was that all ECR’s should have their own personal website that is hosted away from their current institute. Many of us have university profile pages which have some contact details and maybe a list of our recent publications, but these are often difficult to update yourself and you have little control over the content that is included. Perhaps most importantly, as ECR’s we tend to change institutes in  between our degrees, postdocs and periods of unemployment, so we need a site that we can carry with us.

Luckily, it is super easy to set up your own website without any background in programming, and often for free. There are lots of platforms out there and it is worth asking around to get opinions on the best one, but options like WordPress, Weebly and Wix are all popular choices among scientists. Squarespace also has excellent options, but does charge monthly to use.I started off with a GoogleSites page, but after a while found it a bit clunky and didn’t really like the style of my page there. Most of the above platforms have a bunch of free templates that you can use to build your site from. When you sign up for an account you will be invited to browse the templates until you find one you like, and then you can customise it by adding and naming your pages, and filling in some text and photos. I found WordPress largely intuitive to follow, and when I couldn’t work it out I would google for help.

Alex Bond has some more detailed tips about deciding on a web platform, including making the decision where to host your site. I didn’t really think about this before I built my website and wish I had of done a little bit of reading first! I chose the easy option of doing it through WordPress.com which means I lack some flexibility, but on the flipside it is very easy to quickly whip up a blog post or add my latest paper.

The benefits of having your own website 

For me, the most important reason to have your own website (and to engage in a few other web platforms too) is to be easily contactable. As a postdoc I’m still  building my connections and raising my research profile, so I want people to be able to find me easily. Potential employers and collaborators may google you to get more information and you want to make it easy for them to find out all the good stuff about you. Having a website also allows you to be accessible to a wide range of other people including journalists (e.g. your local radio station might be looking for scientists to comment on issues or do interviews about general science topics), the public (outreach opportunities), and conference organisers (people looking for contributors to symposia). Another common reason I would need to visit the webpage of an ECR is to get their contact details for nominating them to review manuscripts (I always suggest at least one ECR when I submit an MS for review). If you haven’t already, try googling yourself and see what pops up on the first page!

The essential components of your website

The best part about having your own page is that you can do with it whatever you like. I love browsing through fellow scientists websites and seeing the various ways they make their personality come through onto the screen.

Regardless of the flexibility there are few things that make for a  great website:

  • Your contact details! Make these easy to find so people can get in touch with you. Include your email address and the institute you currently affiliate with.
  • An about me section that outlines your current position, research interests and projects
  • A photo of yourself. Particularly useful for figuring out who people in your departmental tearoom are, or being able to spot that person you want to meet at a conference.
  • A list of your works like journal articles, book chapters and so on. I like to include a link to the paper on the journal’s page, and even better is to provide a preprint copy that someone can click to download without going through a paywall.

That’s it, those are the essentials. If you are really new to research you could have all of that one a single page and then add more later once your career advances.

Other good stuff to include on your website

  • Links to media articles that have featured your research
  • Multimedia like videos that you’ve made about your research (like these awesome animations by Josie Galbraith), or yourself giving a lecture or public talk
  • A gallery of photos that relate to your research (or something else you are passionate about)
  • Links to other professional networks like your Google Scholar profile, Twitter etc.
  • Details about your teaching experience & philosophy
  • A list of potential projects if you are looking to recruit students
  • A blog page (see discussion here about whether you should start a blog)
  • Details about other things you do other than science – drawing? photography? book club? Eurovision?

Some tips when putting your site together

It’s a good idea to keep in mind who your audience is when you make a website, especially if you decide to include a blog. If you do decide to blog realise that you have to post pieces fairly regularly to make it worth your time and gain a following.

In general make sure your site is simple and clean, easy to navigate, and up to date. If you treat it like your online CV then you’ll make sure to always update your website when you get a new paper or your work gets covered in the media. Keep your themes and fonts the same throughout so it is nice for your reader to look at.

Once you have your site together you’ll need to make sure people actually visit it. Include links to your site on everything! Your email signature, CV, conference talks, Twitter page and your GoogleScholar profile (see below).

Other platforms to promote yourself on

As well as building your own website, you may find it useful to engage with people across a range of other platforms. Get to know the most common platforms in your field and sign up for an account. I usually try to entice people back to my webpage anyway (e.g. from LinkedIn, Twitter etc.) because I keep that most up to date.

GoogleScholar: Of all of the platforms, I think it is most important to have a GoogleScholar profile. They are really easy to set up, and are so useful as a point of reference for finding publications by a particular researcher. If you are not already familiar with GoogleScholar, it is a list of all your publications with links to the articles themselves, the number of times each work is cited, your H-index, and a list of your co-authors. The profiles aren’t without a few issues (like when they include articles from 1950 that you most definitely didn’t write given you weren’t born yet), but overall, they are pretty useful. You can also set up alerts to keep track of when your own papers are cited, or when your favourite authors publish a new paper.

Twitter: There is already loads of information online about the pros of engaging with your science community online via Twitter. One point I will mention is that Twitter is a great way of raising your profile, especially when you are actively engaging in conversations. Last year I had around 1000 hits on my website that were directed from Twitter, which means that I must have said enough weird stuff online that people were curious enough to click through to my website. Another 1000 hits were from Facebook, which is probably because I also promote my blog to my friends and family there. I find this really neat as it means that I am connecting with people about science beyond my immediate academic community.

Look for inspiration 

When I was putting together my website I looked around to see what other scientists were including on their sites. One day I would like to update my site further and add some more cool stuff, but for now I aim to keep it fairly clean and simple. Look around at your colleagues sites and see what you like and what you would rather not include. I particularly like Mike Kasumovic lab website because it is so creative and visually appealing, but I also really love the more simple approach by Megan Friesen. On both of those sites it is really obvious what their research interests are.

You can have a look at the slides from my presentation below:

 

 

 

Teatime tips on how to get a postdoc

This week I’ve been cosied up in the grand old Carrington Hotel in the Blue Mountains of NSW for the annual meeting of the Australasian Society for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASSAB). On the last day of the conference we had a bunch of ‘taking your career to the next level’ discussions over breakfast, during which Luke Holman and I chatted about some strategies to getting a postdoc position. Obviously there are many ways to knit a sweater, but we strung together a few ideas that we think may have helped us get jobs after our PhDs (or for me, things I wished I had done better). I thought I’d post some of our discussion points here – so here, in no particular order, are some of our musings:

Papers, papers, papers. Are you sick of hearing how important papers are yet? You probably don’t need anyone telling you that publishing as early as possible during and straight after your PhD is important. But don’t despair! It’s normal to not have a very strong track record coming out of your PhD. I was lucky to jump straight into a 1 year faculty postdoc that was awarded to my PhD supervisor to help us get stronger pilot data towards a big grant we were applying for. This extra year with my PhD boss allowed me plenty of time to publish all my thesis chapters as well as starting a new project, which meant I was a much stronger candidate when I applied for my next postdoc. So, my suggestion is to talk to lots of academics that you know and see if they can help get together some short-term funding to hire you at this stage of your career and also look for your own short-term pots of money (e.g. Endeavour fund, Kate Edger postdoc award etc.). I also know of lots of people who have had luck getting postdocs straight out of their PhD with very few publications by applying for advertised projects (like on EvolDir etc.). You can use the cover letter to emphasise your future potential and point out how awesome you are, even though you’ve only just finished the PhD.

On that note, don’t be too disillusioned if you can’t find something straight after the PhD. I know some brilliant people who cleaned office buildings or did odd jobs around the university for a while after they finished before anything in their field cropped up. Luke even mentioned that he was on the dole for a while and look at him now (a Senior Lecturer at the University of Melbourne). If you do find yourself without an academic position try to keep writing during this period to prevent a lull in publications in your CV.

Build networks. Again you have probably heard this many times but both Luke and I talked about how this has been a huge benefit to our careers so far. The easiest way to do this is to go to conferences and chat to the people who you may like to work with. If you are a very introverted person it can help to make a little list of the most important couple of people that you would like to make connections with and then aim to approach them during tea breaks. You could even email them in advance to set up meeting times and give them a heads up if you feel particularly awkward about approaching them without prior contact.

In addition to conferences a visit to a research lab that you may like to start a collaboration with can be really beneficial. There are small grants available for this kind of thing like the Company of Biologists travel fellowships, Smithsonian Short-term fellowships or the Ernst Mayr Travel Grants. Even if these visits don’t result in a job, they still help build independence away from the PhD lab and you may be able to hone a new skill that you couldn’t have learned at your home university.

If you do contact people via email, make sure you show them that you know what they do and have read their work. A sure way to be ignored is to make it obvious you are cold calling a whole bunch of random people without putting any thought into your emails. If you can propose a project that would appeal to the interests of both parties you will look awesome and if you have already plotted some ideas for where to apply for funding that would be even better. Also, academics are a vain bunch and it is nice if you can call them by their correct name and title….I get kind of annoyed by regular Hey You emails.

If you are applying for an advertised position make sure to really carefully follow the instructions. If they ask you to combine everything into one pdf then do that! Failure to follow instructions shows a lack of attention to detail and can put you immediately into the ‘no pile’, regardless of your stellar CV. Make sure to also think really carefully about your cover letter as this is the hook that reels your potential future employer in and may result in them looking more closely at your CV. Tell them what specific skills you can bring to the job that fits nicely with what they require. Alex Bond has some other great tips for applying for field jobs that are equally relevant to answering postdoc ads.

Being visible online is becoming increasingly important. If you don’t already have a Google Scholar profile then set one up – it is super easy to do and allows people to quickly assess your publication record and impact. There are loads of other ways to have an online profile: ResearchGate, Linkedin, Twitter, etc. I don’t think there is a best social media platform to be on so just pick a couple and keep them up to date. I would highly recommend making a personal website too. Think of it like an online CV and a way to show off your creativity if you are so inclined. There are lots of platforms that will host your website for free or for pretty cheap like WordPress, Weebly, Squarespace and GoogleSites. For inspiration check out some of my favourite websites by fellow ecologists – Mike Kasumovic, Kate Umbers, and James O’Hanlon. And don’t worry, you don’t need to be able to code or do anything too tricky – just choose a free template and away you go.

Luke and I also discussed the pros and cons of going off on wee jaunts to new labs after our PhDs vs sticking around and continuing existing projects. Luke made a good point that if you have a good thing going with your experiments in the PhD lab it could be quite useful to run with this momentum and continue on these projects to get bigger and better publications. On the other hand it can be great to build independence by doing short-term collaborations that may end up in a publication without your PhD supervisor. The latter is a lot of fun but can be risky, especially because it takes time to learn a new study system and things inevitably go wrong with new experiments.

Finally, my last tip is to build an interesting and varied CV. Sure, papers are most important but it is also great to mix things up with a bit of teaching, outreach and service. You could offer to do a couple of guest lectures, give talks at schools or amateur societies, promote your research in the media, join societies and get yourself on boards and committees. I found being on boards a great way to meet new people and extend my academic network. Plus you get better at being able to talk to people from other departments/universities which helps hone your communication skills. If you are still early on in your career and not getting asked to do manuscript reviews yet you could sign up for a mentoring system like the one offered at the New Zealand Journal of Ecology where ECRs get papers to review with support from more senior academics. All this may not be super important for getting a research focussed postdoc, but will certainly help you later with getting faculty jobs and jobs outside of academia.

A couple of other little thoughts:

  • When big grants get announced (e.g. ARC, Marsden, NSF, etc.) you could check out the list of winners and then directly approach people who you might like to work with to see if they have any $ for postdocs.
  • I’ve been told many times to apply for anything and everything but this is not a strategy that I’ve taken on board myself. Applying for jobs takes a lot of time and I only apply for things I realistically would consider taking up. Opinions vary on this one though a lot and I have been told several times that you don’t want your first big interview to be for your dream job as it is good to get practice.
  • Some of the best skills that you gain during your PhD are those that are less tangible*, like being a friggen awesome project manager, handling large datasets, and being a creative problem solver. These skills can be especially useful to promote if applying for non-academic jobs or even those outside of the science sector where they may not care about your sweet list of publications in Nature & Science.
  • Ask your colleagues for copies of their winning grant applications to help you prepare for your own applications (thanks Fonti for reminding me of this one!)

With all of this in mind I think it is still important to acknowledge that this is all really hard and even if you tick all the boxes the right job may not come along at the right time. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have things fall into place fairly seamlessly over the last few years and a lot of this has come down to chance – seriously! However, even a lot of the lucky breaks wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t already have good relationships with a bunch of really great people, and if I didn’t show that I could put all this stuff onto paper in reputable journals.

For a list of postdoc funds and other tips, check out my earlier blog post here.

Thanks very much to Luke Holman for the chat, to Kate Umbers for asking me to contribute to the ASSAB brekkie discussions, and to the students for their interest & great questions.

*Thanks to Kate Lomas for discussion about some of these ideas

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Taking a misty trot along the clifftops after the ASSAB conference in Katoomba, NSW