By Megan De Ste Croix, University of Leicester, UK
There are some negatives to working in academia, the fixed term contracts, the alarming high workload and the scarily low level of grant success for outrageously qualified candidates. However sometimes an outside perspective can show you a side you didn’t realise was there, or perhaps took for granted. I was recently talking to someone about their hobby (theatre) and they asked me if I could help them find research on reaching wider audiences. As someone who works in a university they assumed I could help because I have access to journals that the wider public would need to pay for. Not being a researcher they assumed they needed me to access stuff. So I showed them a little trick. I put the question out on Twitter with #phdchat included, without even tagging in anyone I knew and sent it out into the world. Within a few hours I had three people reply to my query and had a number of leads to follow up with. They were not all directly related to the initial question, but they were passionate people who if they couldn’t help directly, would know someone who could. My friend described watching this flood of helpful people as like watching the research equivalent of the Avengers assemble. It made me realise that despite the competitive nature of research we are a solid community of people, willing to help each other out and that made me feel really great about the digital world I’d surrounded myself with in my PhD.
Some people don’t do the social media thing, they see it as an extra additional burden and I can understand why. For me, however, I do it for the support, not the research engagement metrics. For the reassurance provided by a community that is individually experiencing the same thing I am. Everyone’s experience of research is very different, some people work in communal offices, others spend the majority of the time working from home alone, some are lab based, others bioinformaticians. Social media can provide you with a really unique chance to find other people who are experiencing almost exactly what you are and make you feel much less alone.
I’ve also realised that not everyone has this in their personal or professional lives. To me the idea of having a supportive network to share your PhD/Early Career Researcher (ECR) experience with is a really lovely thing. It had never occurred to me before that people working in other fields don’t have this. I regularly see people ask on Twitter for things they need (advice, a contact, answers for a blog post) and see people jump in to help them. I’m sure there are other area’s where this happens (journalist is perhaps a good example), but I’m sure there are plenty where it doesn’t.
Social media isn’t always nice, the pile on’s some people face, on Twitter in particular, can be nasty. For example Britt Hermes’ (author of the Naturopathic Diaries) is being sued for criticising natural remedies on her blog, but in my small fry (i.e. someone who doesn’t face much backlash) digital life I’ve had nothing but support from the wonderful STEM community. The day I submitted my thesis I felt some serious #phdchat love, and when I passed my viva others asked me for advice on their own preparations. Unfortunately, it can’t be denied that social media can be nasty, people you’ve never met who disagree with your science (or general views) might feel able to say things they would never dare say to your face. However, in a time of ever increasing pressure in research (pension cuts, competition for jobs and general uncertainty) knowing that academia has the supportive social media side down is a really wonderful feeling.
If social media is new and scary to you I hope what’s above inspires you to give it a go, and if that isn’t enough here are a few extra reasons why I think it’s great:
- You will find a friendly, supportive community of researchers who will celebrate and commiserate with you every step of the way
- People will share their (and other peoples) cool papers as soon as they’re published (because they’re excited about their research!)
- Social media is awesome when you’re at a conference, it’s a great way to pre-network, which helps break the ice, especially as an “unknown” young researcher (or just a shy, well established one). It can really help to have a name for a face during a poster session.
If you’re looking for advice on how to get started Dr Inger Mewburn has a great guide on using Twitter and the phdchat hashtag which you can find here, as well as useful guides from naturejobs blog and from the lab bench on using social media in general.
After submitting my PhD thesis earlier this year (on epigenetics in pathogens) I’ve realised that I have to stop telling people I’m a microbiologist pretending to be a geneticist, as I now have a PhD in Genetics. Since finishing my PhD I’ve been working as a Post-Doc at the University of Leicester. When I’m not in the lab I’m usually doing some SciComm/outreach work with GENIE or The Brilliant Club.
You can find me on Twitter @megandsc or at my blog Daily Life of a PhD, which is currently undergoing a bit of a re-brand. My blog is an honest look at the ups and downs of working in academia. If you’d like to know more about my work, getting involved in outreach or my blog please get in touch, I’d love to hear from you.