How to Win Followers and Influence People: A Scientist’s Guide to Twitter

 In PhD/Postdoc Blog

It may seem odd for scientists to use social media at work, but Twitter has emerged as one of the most useful and fun tools in scientific communication.

I first joined Twitter when I was an undergraduate, and for a long time I was a “lurker.” I hardly ever tweeted—I mostly used it as a way to read the news and keep up with current events. A few years into grad school, however, more and more scientists were using it as a platform to communicate. I started dipping my toes in the water by re-tweeting interesting articles and papers. After attending a talk about science policy, I tweeted directly at the speaker and I was thrilled when he replied and answered my question. Slowly but surely, I built up the courage to put my own thoughts out there, and engage in discussions people were having. Twitter has been instrumental in allowing me to learn more about the science policy world and to keep up with the latest hot topics.

Twitter is a great way for any scientist to promote their research. When my first first-author paper was published, my PI tweeted a video that showed our crystal structure (see below). In order to maximize the number of people who would see the tweet, and then hopefully read our paper, we carefully chose other accounts to tag and hashtags to include. We tagged the journal where our paper was published, the Protein Data Bank, and our own university. We also added in a hashtag, #MyBiophysics, that the Biophysical Society was promoting that week. A cool feature of Twitter is that you can see how many people have clicked your link—as a result of our tweets, over 50 people clicked the links to look at our paper who maybe wouldn’t have seen it otherwise. A recent study found that tweets that included a graphical abstract got three times as many clicks as those that simply had text.

It can be especially helpful for those in an academic career track to promote their work and personal brand on Twitter. Erin Goley (@goleylab), an Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Chemistry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, encourages her students and others at Hopkins to join. Erin and her colleagues in her field often have lively discussions on the newest papers and upcoming conferences. When Erin asked her followers to share what “Science Twitter” has done for them, she got a lot of responses.

Some people had either found speakers to invite for seminars and conferences, or they themselves had been invited to speak. Others shared that they find useful tips on protocols or techniques. I often see advertisements for new jobs, including academic post-docs on Twitter before I see them anywhere else!

No matter what field you’re in, one of the most useful ways to use Twitter is to improve your in-person networking skills. Many scientists shared that Twitter has improved their experiences at conferences for this reason; I’ve also found this true. If I’ve already chatted with someone on Twitter, it is so much easier to walk up and introduce myself in person. Recently, I arrived at a policy workshop and the person at the check-in table recognized my name and said “oh, I think we follow each other on Twitter!” It was a great icebreaker, and as a result I was really comfortable asking them for networking help a few weeks later.

Twitter and other forms of social media are also a skill that some employers are looking for. In addition to your personal account, you can volunteer to manage the Twitter account for a volunteer organization or student group you belong to, or for your department. Many organizations are eager to find someone who is interested and enthusiastic to take on this role.

I like to think of Twitter as a living, breathing complement to my resume. When I’m applying for jobs in the future, a potential employer will likely do a quick Google search of my name. I’d like them to find something that shows that I am actively and thoughtfully engaged in my work and in science policy, as well as something that shows off a bit of my personality. After all, where else could I so seamlessly share my lab work, my advocacy work, and a picture of these instagram-worthy scones I made last weekend?

Follow me on Twitter @lscairns18, and let me know if you have any other ways that Twitter has helped you professionally! Big thanks to @ErinGoley for sharing her tips!

Instagram worthy scones.

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