Creating an online identity as a researcher

Charlotte Mathieson

Charlotte Mathieson offers some useful and practical tips on how to develop and manage your digital identity.

 

Earlier this year I spoke to NU Women about my experience of creating a digital identity as a researcher, and in this post I outline some of the key points of my talk. Since I started my PhD at the University of Warwick in 2007 digital tools have been essential to my practice as an academic, and especially useful to me in navigating the post-PhD years as an early career researcher.

Getting started

I started blogging as a PhD student in 2007 on the University of Warwick’s Warwick Blogs platform, using my blog to write about my research from new angles, engage with relevant news and current affairs, and to reflect upon conferences and events I’d attended. An institutional platform such as Warwick blogs provides a good starting point to build up an online presence: the institutional stamp helps to give credibility and provides an established community of colleagues and students to read and respond to posts; institutional sites will also perform highly in search rankings, thereby helping to promote your work.

As I developed from PhD to ECR, my needs for blogging evolved and I moved to a new WordPress site soon after I finished my PhD. This move coincided with wanting to establish more of an independent identity as a post-PhD researcher, and also reflected my anticipation of institutional mobility as an early career scholar: I have moved jobs twice in the last year and having most of my online content on an independent site reduces the need for transferring my digital presence each time. This also allowed me to expand my online presence beyond the blog: WordPress sites can be as simple or as complex as you want but essentially have most of the functionality of a website, and a lot of flexibility in terms of layout and content design. This has allowed me to build the site into an online portfolio of my academic life – I have separate pages dedicated to research, teaching, and early career researcher activity – alongside the blog itself.

Charlotte blog

Charlotte’s research blog

I have also blogged for a number of other sites, which has helped to further increase my online visibility. These sites – such as the Journal of Victorian Culture Online, and Feminist and Women’s Studies Association blog – all have institutional or academic association connections; this ensures professionalism and credibility, while expanding my networks of contacts both within the UK and internationally.

Social media

Social media has also been instrumental in online networking and expanding my digital presence. Twitter has been the most useful of these sites, bringing me into contact with a huge online academic community of scholars in my field, peers across disciplines, and institutional and academic associations. Using various hashtags I connect with cross-disciplinary groups such as #ecrchat (early career researcher chat) and #acwri (academic writing support), and with colleagues in my field through #twitterstorians, #maritimestudies and others.

There is a great deal of fluidity between on- and off-line networks and Twitter not only brings me into contact with new people, the majority of whom I would never meet otherwise, but also allows me to maintain connections with people I meet at conferences. It’s also a highly useful source of academic news and information about events and publications, allows for crowd-sourcing answers to research questions, and the increasing use of conference hashtags provides a way to follow the conversations of many more events than I could possibly attend in person (this has been especially useful as a time- and money-poor ECR).

Other social media sites such as Facebook are also increasingly instrumental in connecting with colleagues and associations, while sites such as academia.edu, LinkedIn and ResearchGate provide professional social networking opportunities. The relevance and use of these varies substantially across disciplines, so it is worth checking out a few to see which best serves your interests.

The benefits of an institutional homepage also shouldn’t be forgotten, as this will rank highly on search engines and will likely be the first port-of-call for anyone searching for you online. Although it can take a little time to maintain, it is worth investing in an up-to-date profile populated with key information; it is not only frustrating to search for someone online only to find that the information is several years out of date, but could also lead to being overlooked for opportunities (the statistics of my blog reveal that a good number of hits come from people searching for colleagues with whom I’ve worked who don’t have a digital presence of their own).

Managing your digital identity (c) Can Stock Photo Inc. / cienpies

Tips and tricks

Across these sites I follow a few key rules:

  • I make sure to cross-link the sites to one another, so it is easy for someone landing on one page to reach the site they need to;
  • I am consistent in use of profile pictures across sites, to give coherence and again, make it easy to identify my pages;
  • I regularly update each site to ensure that anyone looking at my profile can find the information they are after.

Be aware

There are challenges in maintaining a digital identity and online visibility brings risks. With social media in particular, the boundaries between personal and professional identities, and how much of the personal appears online, is an individual decision, but it is key to keep in mind the way in which your online presence is perceived by others and remember that anyone, anywhere can view your profile; tweets in particular are at risk of being read out of context. Time is also a big factor, especially the start-up time of creating a blog or building up a Twitter following; this needn’t be overly complicated though if you focus on starting with a small and simple presence, and once you are up and running there are ways to minimise the time taken to maintain different online profiles – a little and often approach works well, and I have gradually streamlined how many sites I populate with full content, instead directing traffic to my website.

For me, the time investment is easily off-set by the benefits of a digital presence. I have vastly expanded my network of contacts in the field, and had many useful opportunities and collaborations come about as a result (this co-written chapter started as a Twitter conversation). It’s also an effective way to boost the visibility of your publications and engage in conversations about your work: my latest book has been building up steady interest across social media for several months prior to publication thanks to a host of tweeting contributors, which has not only helped to promote the work but also given me useful insights into who will be reading it and how it will be valuable to them (on this note, see also this study of whether tweeting about a journal paper boosts academic citations).

Useful resources

If you’re looking to get started in establishing a digital presence then the following resources provide a good way in:

About Charlotte

Charlotte is a Teaching Fellow in the School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics, where she researches and teaches Victorian to Modernist literature. Prior to this Charlotte was at the University of Warwick, where she did her PhD in the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies from 2007-2010 and then held a position as Research Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Study from 2012-15, working on public engagement and early career researcher programmes alongside developing her research.