Is social media essential for PhD students?

I’ve seen a few posts recently about the importance of PhD students using social media.

While there may be some utility, for some students, in building a following on facebook, twitter or linkedin, I find it disturbing that some high-profile bloggers are talking about social media as if it is an essential tool for all PhD students.

Part of the thinking is that the use of social media can help to build;

  • a network of contacts
  • a reputation in your field
  • an online “presence”

This is all true. You can do this through social media.

It’s also true, for example, that many employers google prospective employees to check out their online presence, and if you have shown the initiative and taken the time to build a successful blog this could set you apart from the competition.

But…

This does not necessarily mean that everybody must use social media in order to succeed in academia. It is most certainly possible to be successful without it.

It also does not necessarily mean that good use of social media will inevitably lead to academic success.

I am not going to argue that nobody should use social media, but there are limitations to its utility and, for some people, potentially detrimental effects.

Problem #1: attention

Your attention is a limited resource, and PhD work requires that you focus your attention intensely on the problems that arise in your research and writing. This obviously has to take priority, so it is worth thinking carefully about whether it is worth investing some of that limited attention resource to social media.

Although it may be justifiable, given the potential benefits of social media, the danger is that what starts as rational and strategic use can easily lead you into a procrastination loop which is very difficult to escape.

Problem #2: addiction

Social media is highly addictive. Because Facebook and Twitter give you occasional rewards in the form of interesting or amusing updates and links, but you don’t know when those rewards will appear, they condition you to keep checking back just in case.

This is the exact same mechanism as the “Skinner Box“, as Cory Doctorow points out in this video:

The potential benefits can easily be used as a justification for constant, uncontrolled and addiction-driven checking of social media. This can not only cost you vast amounts of time, but it can utterly destroy your ability to problem-solve in your research because your default reaction is to go online whenever you are forced to slow down and think.

This kind of behaviour (with email and news websites- I finished my PhD before Facebook and Twitter really took off) almost cost me my PhD, and is a major problem for many PhD students.

Problem #3: if everyone else is doing it…

If we assume that an online presence helps you stand out to potential employers, then it seems logical to compete with other applicants to gain an advantage.

But as more and more people take to social media it will become harder to stand out. Your blog will need to be exceptional, which requires a greater investment of time and attention.

You might be the next IFLS, but the vast majority of blogs don’t get very much traffic at all. It might be that someone looks at your blog and is unimpressed by the lack of subscriptions or followers or likes, and so it could, possibly, end up having the opposite of the intended effect.

It may be that through a deliberate decision to avoid certain types of social media, you do better work, publish more and become successful that way. Cal Newport, author of the excellent Study Hacks blog, is a good example of this approach (although he writes a blog, he never uses Facebook nor Twitter).

Research skill is still the most important factor…

By far, the best way to give yourself the best chance of success is to get damn good at what you do.

There is no advantage to having a social media presence if you don’t have marketable research skills. This is the only essential factor.

Social media might help you to publicise that skill once you have it, but if the distraction of social media in any way hinders your the development of your research skill it’s probably better to avoid it.

In Conclusion…

I know that there are other arguments for social media use, for example for collaboration between academics, for open publication and discussion of research, for practicing writing through blogging… all of these are valid in some circumstances.

But there are other arguments against social media too, and for some people there may be more benefit to avoiding it altogether. I certainly became more successful in my research when I spent less time online (and I cut off my internet connection completely while I was writing my thesis), and I’m very glad Facebook didn’t exist when I started my PhD.

This is not intended to be a comprehensive round up of both sides of the argument, but rather to ask the promoters of social media within academia to at least acknowledge that another side of the argument exists.

I think we should avoid evangelical promotion of social media in favour of a more nuanced discussion that addresses its limitations and acknowledges the potential dangers. So to answer the question, “is social media essential for PhD students”, I would have to say no, it is not essential, but it might be useful for some.

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Comments

  1. Bahiru says

    I am 100 % agree with your statement that social media is not essential. I too realized this many times. After reading your blog I have blocked my facebook account.

  2. David J. Markey says

    I feel like you’re absolutely right pointing out the easy pitfalls of social media and it definitely got me thinking. I don’t agree though using this as an argument to arrive at your conclusion, there wouldn’t be many things left to do! Just like literature reviews can easily go wrong, it’s still an essential tool and you need to be very aware how you handle it.

    I do like your view on Twitter being to superficial and crowded to get meaningful discussions though. That’s why I believe the value of twitter is to get new connections (or ideas) and then take the discussion elsewhere, like on a blog like this.

    I would relate my argument to the ‘ivory tower’ one hears about – the most important (and difficult) thing is to decide what to work on. This decision is only strenghtened by interacting with others. An online presence opens up your world to get new ideas and insights from people in (or outside) your field.

    • James Hayton says

      I don’t understand. Why is social media essential? A literature review obviously is, but social media is not.

      All you’ve given is one reason why it might be useful (new ideas and connections), but social media is not the only way to do this, and you do not need to build a “presence” in order to do it.

      You cannot say it is essential if there are other (possibly better) ways to achieve the same aim, or if there are strong counter examples where people have succeeded without it.

      There is a crucial distinction between “possibly useful” and “essential”. If you say it is essential, I interpret that as “you cannot succeed without it”, which is absolutely not true, and I think an irresponsible message to put out.

      • David J. Markey says

        It depends on the definition of essential. People have been doing research long before computers were available, which means they are not essential, but it’s stupid not to use the tools available.

        It’s really an art to realise what topic to pursue, something you encounter during your PhD time and time again. For this it’s very important to share your ideas and insights with other people. You could do that without social media, as has been done for a long while, but why would you limit yourself to the people in e.g. your research group? You could have the same conversations with more and better suited people online. The present discussion is a perfect example of that.

        I agree it’s not ‘essential’ to finish your PhD, there are indeed other ways to do this. It however doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take advantage of the possibilities. Why settle for good if your work can be great?

        • James Hayton says

          I don’t think I’m using an unusual definition of essential, but anyway…

          I disagree that it is stupid not to use all available tools. Using a tool simply because it is available seems far more stupid. I deliberately limit what I do and what tools I use, and that gives me time and space to do real work through focused effort..

          Discussing topic selection through twitter doesn’t seem like a very good idea. It wouldn’t have helped me, I am certain of that… and anyway, during my first postdoc I would have been fired had I discussed the work online.

          I don’t think social media will help make your work great. The only way to do this is through developing research skill. Social media may help some, in some situations, and it sounds like it is useful to you, but there are many situations where it is not.

  3. maggies90 says

    Thank you so much for this. Cory Doctorow’s talk was brilliant – and totally makes sense. I do need the internet as I teach online and much of my research is accessed online – I’m an external PhD student with no access to an academic library. Therefore I get all my journal articles and books online – even book them out online and get them sent to me. Currently I am using a program called ‘Cold Turkey’ to block aspects of the internet that have been highly addictive for me – Facebook and Farmville. They have taken procrastination to a whole other level. Keep up the great work. Between you and the Thesis Whispherer you are both fabulous resources for we students! :)

    • Cynthia Witney says

      Totally agree with maggie90 I need the Internet to access articles for my PhD but went cold turkey with Farmville some years ago. I still have FB but rarely use it. I hear Candy Crush Saga is the latest time waster!

    • James Hayton says

      Funny you mention the thesis whisperer as she is one of the ones promoting social media as essential. I’ve invited her to comment so we’ll see if she has anything to add!

      Programs like cold turkey and freedom are excellent. Never played farmville, but last year I got hooked on an online zombie-killing game and lost about a week of my life

      • Thesis Whisperer says

        Hi James

        While I’m known for being an outspoken advocate of social media, I’ve never said it’s *essential* when you are a PhD student. I do encourage and promote it however. I think #phdchat is an amazing resource for example, but if you can’t handle the distraction by all means, turn it off.

        Nor do I think being on social media is *essential* to being a successful academic – many people succeed well enough without it.

        Now.

        The future is another matter entirely. There’s no doubt that if you use social media effectively your papers will be read by more people and if they are good, you’ll be cited more than people who don’t promote themselves. Pat Thomson and I call this phenomena ‘the attention economy’ (http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2013/12/12/academic-attention-economy/). If you read the article you’ll see that we are not uncritical of it. But it’s here and it’s now and we need to respond.

        There’s more to being on social media than juking the journal stats of course. On Twitter you can expand your international network – and thereby your opportunities. This is particularly important for those of us who are not in Europe and North America and can’t afford (through the vagaries of academic working arrangements) to travel a lot.

        But that’s why I advocate PhD students giving some of ‘this web stuff’ a try and I worry about people discouraging them and telling them it isn’t important and won’t matter. I wonder if some established academics do this because they are worried about the competition? Or maybe *they* don’t want to try it – maybe they don’t want to feel like a hypocrite by telling their PhD students to do it and then not following through themselves?

        For what it’s worth I say to students – just play around with it while you are doing a PhD. Find out what you like about it. Learn what’s out there. Serious commitment to cultivating a web presence can come later. That web presence might take many forms as you say – some people only blog, others just write articles for websites, some use twitter, still more like Facebook.

        I say to more established academics – do whatever works for you, and doesn’t stop you doing all the other stuff that ‘serious academics’ do. In this respect I eat my own cooking. I still publish papers and do the work to make sure I have serious research credibility in my field. I blog and I Tweet because I enjoy it and it’s useful for others – and it’s useful for me. In fact, my blog and Tweeting has helped my career FAR more than any of the journal papers I wrote.

        So in summary, I don’t necesssarily disagree with what you are saying here James – the PhD should come first, but I don’t think ignoring social media or blogging completely is a sensible strategy. There’s no reason why, in the four years people have to do a PhD in Australia at least, that some time can’t be devoted to playing around.

        • James Hayton says

          Hi Inger,

          Thank you for taking the time to comment!

          Taking some time to play with it and work out if it is useful for you, I can’t argue with that. And I agree that a web presence may help someone in their academic careers.

          However, you have said “early career academics don’t have time NOT to be into social media” (in the abstract for your upcoming talk at Cardiff). It may not be fair to take a single quote out of context, but it is an example of the kind of language being used. If someone had said that to me when I was working in the lab until 6am most nights… well I wouldn’t have responded politely.

          I am not telling people to ignore it completely. For some people it is essential or extremely useful given their circumstances. For others, the perception that they have to invest time building an online presence (and it is a big investment of time) may be harmful.

          If you are teaching people how to make the best of it if they decide to use it, that’s fantastic. If you say that PhD students can’t afford not to, I am yet to be convinced.

          • Thesiswhisperer says

            Yes, unfair to take it out of context James. If you come to the talk you’ll see why.

          • James Hayton says

            I have tried very hard not to misrepresent you or to be unfair, and deliberately acknowledged that I may misunderstand that quote.

            I don’t think I have ever seen anyone in an online comment say “it may be unfair to take this out of context”, so actually I think it’s unfair to say I am being unfair!

            If you do think I am being unfair, I apologise. I was trying very hard not to be, and highlighted that quote only because it seemed to contradict your well-reasoned comment and I wanted to clarify.

            Unfortunately I cannot make the talk.

  4. Nico Eatlawe says

    You are absolutely right. I think it is very difficult to have quality time for ones studies while trying to respond all social mdia. I think prioritising ones studies is more important than trying to be on top of everything and become nobody at the end of it. So, one thing at a time is better especially for some people like me. For me to concentrate I need to focus on it not adding other things that may interest me and take my time for urgent but unimpotrant things!

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