By sylvie | March 29, 2010
You’re working on your Ph.D. or you just recently finished your dissertation? Congratulations, you are now one of a handful of experts in your domain. Yes, even as a “lowly” graduate student, you still know more about your research than the vast majority of people, and that makes you an expert. So what are you going to do about it?
Well, today I am here to tell you that you need to sell yourself as an expert. The classic approach has been to publish papers and go to conferences. This was how scientists created their reputation in centuries past. Today, of course, we’ve got the Internet to help us, so use it!
Let me repeat myself. You need to sell yourself. You need to let people know that you have thought long and hard about problem X and that you have some interesting solutions to the problem. Why? Well, consider these:
- Universities and government research labs reward scientists who collaborate with other local and international scientists through promotions (1).
- The more you put yourself out there, the easier it is for other scientists working on the same problems to find you and start collaborations.
- The more you sell yourself, the easier it is for journalists to find you when they need to talk to an expert.
- When journalists start quoting you or talking about your studies, you make your employer happy because your reputation reflects on your employer’s reputation.
- The more you sell yourself, the more people you work with will be aware of what you do and will be inclined to turn to you when they need an expert’s opinion or help.
(1) I’ve never worked for a private company so I don’t know if it’s the same thing there.
So how do you sell yourself? Use the power of the Web! Get your own domain name (nowadays, it’s remarkably cheap to buy a domain name and pay a company to host a website). If you’re too poor to do so, sign up for a free website but consider migrating it to your own domain as soon as you have the money for it. Using your own name as your domain name can make it a lot easier for people to remember your URL and you can pre-emptively ensure that nobody tries to pass themselves off as you. Of course you don’t have to use your own name; just try not to use something that might be considered offensive. Remember, you’re trying to sell yourself as a serious scientist.
Your website should not be an eyesore. Please: do not use a red Comic Sans font on a black background! My first website was all in fugly colours but I learned and I changed it. You don’t know anything about design or aesthetics? There are plenty of websites that are out there to help. I use Vince Flanders’ Web Sites That Suck Daily Sucker. It’s a good source to learn what not to do.
Unless you are terrible at writing and feel that it would undermine your attempts at selling yourself, you should maintain a professional blog. In fact, even if you’re bad at writing, I still think you should maintain a blog:
- You don’t have to write to your blog every day. Some people write daily. Some write once a month. Just try to do it in a semi-regular fashion.
- Posts don’t have to be long. They can be as short as a couple of links to other websites and as long as you want. If you do a post where you’re pointing to another website, I recommend that you at least write a couple of sentences to explain why people should go see that link. How does it relate to your work? Is it good? Bad?
- Think of writing to your blog as an opportunity to practice your writing skills. As a scientist, you’ll have to do a lot of writing. Your blog gives you a safe environment in which to practice.
- You don’t always have to be serious in your blog. I used to have some posts tagged as “lighthearted diversions” in which I would point to amusing things I found on the web, though I’ve now migrated that to my Twitter feed.
- Speaking of Twitter, use it to your advantage. There are add-ons that will let you transfer your Twitter feed to a WordPress blog. Fast and easy entries.
So what should you put in your blog? (1) Talk about your research. What have you done in the past? What are you working on at the moment? There is some controversy as to how transparent you should be when talking about your research (OMG, someone is going to steal my idea if I write it down! No wait, if everyone knows I said it first, then they can’t steal it!), so it’s up to you to decide how comfortable you are about sharing your research ideas. I’m old-fashioned enough that I tend towards the side that thinks we should be discreet about the details of what we’re working on, but I also understand the side that wants everything to be out there. (2) Talk about other people’s research. Do you agree with their results? Do you think that they missed something important? You may feel unqualified to criticize somebody else’s work, but science does not advance through groupthink. Remember, part of your job as a scientist will be to review other people’s papers. Now is as good a time as any to start practicing. (3) Talk about issues related to your research. Are you working on smartphones? Talk about how they’re being integrated into museum visits. Working on accessibility issues? Talk about some of the problems that the handicapped encounter during their daily routine.
Just make sure you choose to talk about something that interests you so that you feel motivated to write to your blog.
A blog does not have to be a lot of work but it is a straightforward way of publishing on a semi-regular basis that is a lot faster and a lot less painful than getting your paper accepted at a prestigious conference or journal. Consider that it can take years between the moment you submit a paper to a journal and the moment it finally appears in the press. I’m not kidding here. No wonder it used to take scientists decades before they could establish themselves as a top researcher in their area of expertise.
But wait, Sylvie, isn’t everybody just Twittering nowadays? Why should I write a blog? Fair question, especially since I do a lot less blogging because I tweet too much. Yes, Twitter is a nice micro-blogging tool but (a) unless you’re backing them up on a regular basis, your writing is going to disappear in a very short while; with a blog, your writing is available to people for as long as you maintain the blog; and (b) it’s really hard to be profound when you only have 140 characters in which to write. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but even Shakespeare wrote in a longer format than that (although….).
Finally, there is another way that you will want to advertise your existence. Write comments on other scientists’s blogs or tweet at them. Being able to link back to your own website comes in handy here since the people you write to will want to know who you are. Just make sure your comments are respectful even when you disagree with the other person. I don’t mind you telling me that I may have made an error in my research but I will mind if you do it like some of the PvP players I’ve met in WoW: “You suck! you don’t understand the first thing about multiple regressions! Your gear sucks and I’m the only one who knows how to do things around here!”. Polite and respectful will get you invited to the table.
Finally, I wanted to point to Daniel Lemire’s blog entry about how to write a research paper. It’s good advice.