Why Twitter is a friend to early-career researchers

On November 26, 2014


Most readers here will already know about Twitter, the site where we condense the everyday minutiae of our lives into 140 characters interspersed with pictures of cats, food, and cats eating food. If you don’t, where have you been? The spread of twitter throughout academia is quite pervasive. Seemingly every conference and meeting has terrifically convoluted hashtag and obligatory Twitter stream playing on screens around the venue. But for early-career researchers, Twitter can be an especially useful tool to raise your research profile and build links with scientists from a variety of fields.

I was recently on a discussion panel “Twitter: Friend or Foe” organised by SpotOn London with @BeckiePort, @MCeeP and @jr_pritchard about whether early-career researchers in science should be on Twitter #solo14ecr (See? There’s a hashtag). Most of us were broadly pro-Twitter but there was also a feeling that tweeting can be a drain on our precious time and a distraction from our research. I think the pros far outweigh the cons, and this blog has grown from notes I made during the session.

One thing Twitter is great at is helping break down barriers, and connecting researchers across a wide range of disciplines. Even though research is becoming more of a team effort, in truth the life of a researcher can be quite isolating, especially if you’ve recently joined a new department and are still finding your feet. The mobility issue for postdocs has been touched upon by Philip Moriarty. Now, as a lowly 1st year PhD student before Twitter I could never have imagined being able to tweet the leaders in my field for experimental tips and advice, yet the sense of collegiality among researchers on Twitter is available for everyone to share and be part of. The cohort of physicists and chemists I follow are an pretty helpful lot and to be able to tap into their collective wealth of experience is fantastic. Stuck for a supplier of lab materials? Struggling to understand why your synthesis always gives duff yields? Stick a question on #realtimechem and get an answer in minutes. It’s brilliant.

Breaking down barriers works both ways, and I try to offer help where possible — it’s nice to be nice, after all. If I can’t help someone directly, I can put them in contact with someone who can. I’ve had some great twitter conversations with prospective physics students from ordinary backgrounds like mine, keen to learn about what Cambridge is really like. If I can help dispel some of the media myths about the place where I work, that can only be a Good Thing.

My tweets are a mix of professional and personal. A general rule is never to post anything I wouldn’t say to someone in person. As researchers, Twitter can be thought of as part of an online CV. I might share the latest research paper I’m reading, vent frustrations if experiment doesn’t go as planned, or grumble about the traffic during my morning commute to the department. On the panel it was said that my tweets are a good example of science public engagement. I really wouldn’t elevate what I tweet to the level of superb public engagement accounts on twitter such as @realscientists, but to anyone reading my timeline they’ll see the everyday, working life of a weightlifting physicist with slightly esoteric interests in heraldry, academical dress and… er… traction engines (I love them!).

Over time I’ve amassed a bafflingly high number of followers, largely through my love of daft hashtags with a sidweays/slightly humorous look at academia and the peer-review process (see #yomanuscript, #overlyhonestmethods#SixWordPeerReview) and now am often approached by radio and other media to comment about science, especially my own areas of energy materials and nanotechnology. I’m doing schools talks nearly every week, which is almost certainly down to people being able to reach and engage with me via Twitter. There have been some great discussions about new I’m almost a walking, talking prospectus for my department.

For me, in terms of building connections with researchers around the world, Twitter is very much Friend, not Foe.

Image: Twitter, used well, can elevate early-career researchers. Credit: Danilo Ramos/Flickr (Creative Commons)


About Paul Coxon

Paul Coxon is a physicist working in the Department of Materials Science & Metallurgy at the University of Cambridge as a postdoctoral research associate. He holds a PhD in silicon and carbon nanomaterials from Newcastle University, UK. His current research focuses on creating low-cost ultra-black silicon surfaces for antireflection coatings in solar cells. He is an active science communicator, regularly presenting talks on the science of materials to schools and the general public. He can be found on Twitter at @paulcoxon.

One Response to Why Twitter is a friend to early-career researchers

  1. I was talking to Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) about this just the other day (on twitter, naturally: we’ve never met in person).

    Two particular features that I really really want to shout about to everyone are:

    1. Live coverage of events like the Philae landing on comet 67P a couple of weeks ago. I received much of my information from twitter feeds, in particular from Emily Lakdawalla (@elakdawalla) who was tweeting updates from her spot actually at the ESA.

    The Rosetta instruments (… which also have twitter accounts … ) also tweeted their updates and shared hot-off-the-press images. It was a truly incredible way to feel part of things, and one that traditional media (e.g. news articles) cannot replicate, due to the immediacy needed.

    I can’t put into words how much I liked it, which is slightly unfortunate as a writer.

    2. Touching on your point about community: my group is small and the level of English is variable, so twitter is a great way to feel part of a larger team. I do not find it distracting, since it does not require an instant answer. Unless I’m actively watching the feed due to an event like the Philae landing, I flick back to it only when I have a moment.