Are social media essential for PhD students?

April 24, 2014

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 they are essential tools 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.


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 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 their 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.A

lthough 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 are 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 using them.

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, "are social media essential for PhD students", I would have to say no, they are not essential, but might be useful for some.

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