Why you should use Twitter during your PhD

This post is by Sheree Bekker, who is originally from South Africa and now based in Australia as an international PhD scholar at the Australian Centre for Research into Injury in Sport and its Prevention (ACRISP), Federation University Australia. Her research centres around sports safety. Follow her on twitter @shereebekker

twitter-follow-achieverTwitter, according to Wikipedia (yes – how terribly un-scientific of me), is an online social networking and micro-blogging service that enables users to send and read “tweets”, which are text messages limited to 140 characters. Twitter is vital to the success of your PhD. Yes, you heard me read me correctly, a seemingly superficial social media site is a fundamental element that will contribute to the success of your PhD – if you embrace it!

Let me tell you my story.

I was a Masters student in South Africa, where I had completed my undergraduate studies and an Honours degree. I was tutoring and working as a sessional lecturer at the university, but was longing for a change – I do suffer from serious wanderlust! At the time I was a casual user of Twitter, using the platform to follow and interact with friends. I started to notice more and more that Twitter was overlapping with my professional field; journals had twitter accounts, journal editors were tweeting, and researchers and professors were mentioning their twitter handles in their bios.

I was intrigued. I started following experts in my field, and was amazed to see that these experts were mere people who actually interacted with us mortals! Twitter was sharing with me the musings from these researchers, showcasing debates on hot topics…but also had pictures of the professor’s dogs!

For a couple of months I observed this conversation, much as one would with an online forum, not willing to give my 10 cents just yet. This was a form of networking without the obligatory small talk at conferences. I was hooked! I learnt a huge amount in this phase, not just about how Twitter works (the best way to learn how to use Twitter is to observe), but also about the current thinking in my field. More scientific content was being disseminated on Twitter than ever before, and the intersection of science and Twitter had already been reached!

Then one day I knew that I had to interact. A professor in my field whose work I very much admired, and who happens to be the leading expert in the field – who I never would have had the chance to talk to candidly before – tweeted that she had PhD scholarships available. I would not had heard about these had I not been following her on Twitter. I was not even looking for scholarships at the time as I had planned to go on to a PhD in a couple of year’s time! In one of my first ‘professional’ twitter interactions I tweeted her and asked about the possibility of an international scholarship. She replied that she had one.

As I now sit in Australia on that international scholarship I have Twitter to thank for this opportunity to complete my PhD.

I have since learnt that my Professor is an advocate for the use of Twitter to disseminate scientific research more widely, and to foster conversation around our work. She insists that every student and researcher on her team tweets, and we have a twitter account for our research centre.

Twitter has changed the ‘stuffy’ image of academia. Twitter allows for opinions, debate, and input from others. The conversation that is stimulated is often thought provoking, and helpful when forming your own opinions, especially as a PhD student. It is not often that we are privy to the conversations between experts in our fields, or to their opinions. We often see only their rigorous scientific articles and presentations.

Live tweeting from conferences, tweet chats, and the opportunity to share personal views has opened up the scientific community to greater interaction through an ongoing conversation. Twitter allows the opportunity to have your ear to the ground, and this is invaluable for a PhD student.

Finally, Twitter is likely to play an even bigger part in our academic careers than many of us realize. This tweet from @AstroKatie is a testament to the new paradigm of academic impact “My supervisor wrote down huge Twitter presence: 7000 followers on my performance review. Social media outreach FTW!”

Follow me on Twitter @shereebekker

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46 thoughts on “Why you should use Twitter during your PhD

  1. Jane Hunter (@janehunter01) says:

    A great piece – totally agree – being able to follow experts, connect with people whose work matters to you and collect new leads in the field are some of the benefits of Twitter. Although joining Twitter post PhD completion – and ‘boy’ it can be distracting … discipline, discipline – it’s an extraordinary tool. People are very generous and tweeting people who would be otherwise be quite tricky to touch base with suddenly become much more accessible.

    • shereebekker says:

      Thanks Jane! Regarding distraction – some procrasticlean, some procrastibake, I procrastitweet (although I tend to justify this habit with similar sentiments to the one that you state in your last sentence). S

    • shereebekker says:

      grownupstudent, if it had not been for my supervisor I would never have thought about it in this way either. Great way to connect. Hope your studies are going well!

  2. NQ says:

    Yes, I got the job with my old supervisor through Twitter, and I got the funding through another Twitter contact too! Then, that supervisor dropped me with nowhere to turn to, using the fact I had a Twitter account (and therefore I can’t be a proper academic) as part of her excuse. She also stalked me on the site to check that I hadn’t been bad-mouthing her publicly and to dig for dirt on me (to her dismay, there wasn’t any). Watch out, commenters.

    • shereebekker says:

      True, however if you are honest and maintain integrity on social media (as it seems you have) then there is nothing that anyone can call you out on. I maintain that there is no need to have ‘personal’ and ‘professional’ profiles, just be yourself!

  3. Melanie says:

    Yes! I found a call for papers for an edited book through Twitter…. and wound up having a book chapter published in a book I would not have known was in the pipeline otherwise. Nice addition to the phD annual progress report!

  4. smvamosi says:

    You raise some good points, but I believe you overstate the case for Twitter being a “fundamental element” of a successful PhD. I’m an avid tweeter, beginner blogger and have promoted both to my colleagues and students, but I’m also cognizant of the fact that my Department has some remarkable PhD students who are doing exceptionally well without being on Twitter. Perhaps say instead: “Twitter has been vital for me, here are some reasons why it might work for you.”

    • shereebekker says:

      In my experience, Twitter has been a fundamental element – and I do not think that my PhD experience would be this dynamic, or the same, without it. In fact, I would not be doing this PhD if it weren’t for Twitter. Admittedly, in this blog post I did say that it was ‘vital’ to elicit some strong feelings from readers 🙂 I daresay that in the very near future an online presence will be a core element of a successful PhD.

  5. lizit13 says:

    Totally agree about the importance of Twitter to postgraduate researchers. It was Twitter, in particular #phdchat that gave me support to complete my PhD, encouraging and motivating me as I encountered various obstacles and struggles on the journey. As importantly, through Twitter I met many friends and colleagues, including thesiswhisperer herself, and those relationships continue to be important as I pursue my career and research interests further. Where else could one meet so many interesting people, engage in a wide variety of conversations and be so challenged and stimulated!

  6. ailsahaxell says:

    and more:
    I had people on #Phdchat offering to post me books, when i had tweeted about the rotten library recalling the only copy in Australasia.
    I had instant responses when asking about conferences in my field.
    I had 24/7 assistance on almost anything- from endnote crashes to locating articles the 2 universities i associated with could not.

  7. jd says:

    It’s interesting how blogging/tweating is used in different areas. I’ve never been very active on twitter (personally or professionally), so this post inspired me to follow researchers in my area. I did a search… Not *one* of the 15-20 “top names” and/or experienced people active in my field is on twitter. I finally found one person by searching for conference hashtags related to my topic area. I then searched for my lab colleagues – I finally got bored typing in name after name and getting no results.

    So any suggestions for those of us stuck in a twitter-desert? I suppose I can follow those tangentially related to my field – e.g. I have an interest in stats and already follow a few such blogs, as well as other blogs that have nothing directly to do with my research. I could connect with them on Twitter – since the most interesting collaborations can be with those working in other areas… but then, how to really engage with them? I guess since I’m not really familiar with the way people use twitter, I’m not sure how to get people to “see” my tweets (or if I even have anything worthwhile to say, ha!)…. Thanks for any tips. 😉

    • shereebekker says:

      Hi JD,

      You are in a unique position, as this means that you have the opportunity to be the voice in your field! The key to Twitter is to just follow the conversation until you feel compelled to add your voice. Gaining a following is slow going, and sometimes it helps to tweet at people (that sounds like shouting, haha) by including their handles in your posts, or replying to their tweets. The key is to always add value, as people generally respond well to that and will start interacting and sharing your message too.

      Conference hashtags are a great place to start looking for people who tweet in your area. Alternatively, it might be worth your while following and interacting with researchers in general, especially those who are great at research communication (as I said in the post, I follow @AstroKatie, who is in a completely different field to me, but who is a great role model for me). I research injury prevention, but this generalist post on Twitter has resonated with more people than my tweets on my research. It is okay to branch out if you are adding value.

      Finally, there may be organisations or journals in your field that have Twitter accounts, so search for them too.


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