Is it worth tweeting if you’re starting out in academia? UPDATED

Today I’m in Manchester, for the UACES Graduate Forum annual conference, speaking about what the future might hold for Europe: I may not be very cheery.

Money? There’s money? I’m not sure that’s right, Mr Clip-Art-Creator…

The conference has been a great opportunity to get to know the work of grad students and early career researchers, a group that the association has always been very keen to support and encourage.

Perhaps inevitably, it’s a point to discuss How To Get On.

One really interesting conversation I had during the drinks reception last night concerned all the social media work I do and how I find time to do it.

[In this specific case, because it’s 6 in the morning and I can’t sleep. Not a good model.]

The question that came up was whether it was worth a new academic pursuing a similar building-up of a social media profile.

I was a bit ambivalent, because the incentives are still rather mixed, and bear much thought before you get stuck in.

Let’s start with the upsides.

Blogging especially – but also tweeting – has been really helpful for me in getting me unblocked with the act of writing: I’m very much happier now about sitting down and just getting going than I was beforehand. That’s great for my general productivity and getting things moving off my desk (usually).

Social media work has also been excellent for letting me work through thoughts and ideas on my research areas, getting them in order and getting instant feedback. On that latter point, I have always been struck by the generosity of people in offering constructive ideas, even if you do sometimes have to dig that out from the bots’ blather.

And social media has been great for raising my profile, with all sorts of people: yesterday was a case in point, where various delegates introduced themselves and said they read my work. Beyond that, I know this work has led directly to invites to brief or present to practitioner audiences and academics, so it’s a great calling card.

More specifically, my research area has a lot of activists on social media, so the move made even more sense for me, in terms of awareness and access: I even managed to get a journal article out it.

But that brings us to the costs.

Social media might not need much time for each individual element, but overall an active profile represents an opportunity cost.

In the hardest of terms, time tweeting isn’t time producing conventional academic outputs. And the latter are still what people look for when making hiring decisions.

It’s great to be active on social media, but it’s certainly not yet an expected – let alone, demanded – part of an academic’s work. Outputs are.

And that’s not just an issue for new colleagues: I know from personal experience that promotions have come more slower than if I’d not spent so much time online and churned out articles. I’m comfortable with that, but you may not be.

One more thing to think very seriously about is the scope for getting attacked online. I’ve not suffered this, possibly because of the accident of nature that gives me an X and Y chromosome, but plenty of my female colleagues have had to endure some really awful hazing. There’s a good piece here (and you should read the twitter exchange that led me to add this section in), but my main message would be that even if you’re reasonable and measured online, you might well encounter others who are not, so you need to be a) clear you’re willing to face that, and b) prepared to resist.

Ultimately it comes down to what your priority is. I’m old enough that social media didn’t really exist when I was starting out, so the dilemma didn’t present itself: I was nicely ensconced in a permanent post when I started.

That aside, I do it because I like doing it and I find it useful. It’s opened some doors, even as if made some others open more slowly.

Your journey and your choices will differ, but you need to think actively about it, rather than just letting circumstance happen to you.

And if you’d like to write a blog about your choices, then we’d be very happy to offer it a home here.