By Trevor C. Hunt
This article originally appeared on Student Doctor Network on December 16, 2019.
Welcome to “Research for the Rest of Us”, a column about navigating the complex intricacies of life in the lab. These articles aren’t for the superhuman Nature-publishing, Nobel Prize-winning MD/PhDs out there. They are for the rest of us: the Average Joes simply trying to get our feet wet in research. Join us as we journey through this complex world of academic adventures, from picking a project to matching into your dream residency and everything in between.
Welcome back to the #Research miniseries and part two of our crash course on using social media as a student scientist. Last month, we laid the foundation for social media success in part one of the series. Today, we’ll be taking that foundation and building on it to take your scientific online presence to the next level. We’ll start with a discussion of how to set up effective profiles on your social media accounts and then spend plenty of time on using social media effectively and crafting top-notch posts to maximize your time invested.
We’ll focus on Twitter today, as I believe it to be the highest yield for students and most of these strategies can be successfully translated to your other social media platforms. As always, the advice present is purely my own opinion. This normally goes without saying, but people have strong opinions about social media (myself included) so it’s worth reiterating. Take the advice you like, skip what you don’t, and ultimately develop a unique social media strategy that works best for your individual needs.
Building a Polished Profile
To start, let’s jump into the first challenge you’ll encounter when getting involved with academic social media: setting up your profiles and bios. LinkedIn allows the most length, so you may want to start there by transferring over your entire CV. Next, move to ResearchGate and other platforms that contains similar information in less detail. Finally, distill it down to just the essentials for Twitter, which only allows 160 characters in the bio.
Consistency is key, as you’ll want to present one singular “brand image” across all the accounts you set up. Pick a professional headshot as your profile image, and use this same one across all accounts. This will make it easy for people to find you when searching and lend legitimacy to your online presence. Likewise, select a tactful header image and use it (or a close variation) across all your accounts that allow one. Headers are a way to inject a bit of calculated personality into your profile; for example, mine is an image of a charity I run with the organization’s logo overlaid. It simultaneously conveys something I’m proud of while telling you what I like to do outside of academia, and also connects to a topic I frequently tweet about.
The bio on Twitter is a 160-character snapshot of who you are and serves to communicate to readers what they can expect if they follow you. Spend time on this, as it may be the only thing a person looks at before deciding whether to connect with you or move on. Put the most important information first, such as your current position or intended specialty, and descend from there. This article by social media guru Katie Seehl expertly spells out how to craft a bio in the corporate world, and many of the suggestions transfer well to personal, academic accounts.
To hit the key points, a good bio greets the viewer, tells them what content to expect, tactfully “humble-brags” about your accomplishments, and is original and true to your brand. You definitely don’t need to do all of this—I don’t provide a greeting in mine for example—but try to include as much as you have space for. Most importantly, remember to keep everything “on brand” and consistent with the fundamental story you’re trying to communicate about yourself through your social media presence.
Tagging related accounts, such as your school or research lab, is a great way to succinctly present aspects of your personal brand while allowing viewers to learn more with a single click. Hashtags are a great way to present your key interests as well, as these show up in blue just like @tagging and catch the reader’s eye. Furthermore, bios are indexed and searchable on Google, so #hashtagging key words is a great way to practice search engine optimization. Interestingly, one study found that more bio hashtags was correlated with less followers, so just be sure not to overdo it.
Once you something basic in place, consider spicing it up with these additional strategies. Visual appeal goes a long way, and adding a few emojis is a quick way to do it. Toss in a microscope and doctor emoji, and the viewer will know what you’re all about before reading a single tweet. Also consider highlighting a “call to action”, such as a link to subscribe to your blog or connect on another platform. Lastly, you’ll often find phrases like “views are my own”, “retweets do not equal endorsement”, or simply “RT ≠ E” slapped onto bios. Whether or not you need these disclaimers is up for debate and depends on your employer and your role. If you do opt for one, put it at the very end of your bio and stick with the latter example to save space.
One easy trick when setting up profiles and defining your online brand is to start using your middle initial across all platforms. Doing so makes searches more specific and increases the odds that your own pages will top the search results instead of unrelated distractors. For example, if I search “Trevor Hunt” only one link on the first page of results actually pertains to me (and it appears last). However, nearly all links and images are mine when simply adding my middle initial to the search. It’s a small detail, but can fend off confusion when important people and future employers start to stalk you online.
Planting Your Digital Roots
Now that your profiles are ready for the limelight, the next step is to get your hands dirty. Before we tackle a how-to of posting good content, let’s spend a moment on planting your digital roots. You know that old adage about a tree falling in the woods? To update it a bit: if a tweet posts in the feed, but nobody is around to read it, does it actually get any likes? Or more simply, before sharing your thoughts online you must build an audience to consume them!
First, you should connect with a large group of those sharing your interests. For example, my network consists mainly of medical students, urologists, surgeons, researchers, and academic journals. Don’t be afraid to follow a ton of accounts right off the bat, as fretting about a “follower ratio” is just juvenile nonsense. In fact, immediately following a few hundred accounts is a great way to build your audience, as roughly half will end up following you back. Twitter is great at recommending relevant accounts for you, but the easiest way to follow en masse is to find an established tweeter you admire and run through the list of who they follow.
As you get more involved with social media, you’ll become aware of the predominant thought leaders and trending movements within the spheres you frequent. For example, some of my current favorites include: @SoMeDocs and #SoMeDocs (“social media doctors”); #MedTwitter, #MedStudentTwitter, and #MedEd (primarily academic medicine); @MedTweetorials and #Tweetorial (short lectures composed of linked tweets); and @A_P_S_A’s unique #DoubleDocs identifier (MD/PhD students are “double docs” but APSA represents all student scientists). I encourage you to check these out while also digging into your own favorite academic circles to find the unique content trending there as well.
Posting Content Like a Pro
The moment has finally arrived! With you profiles perfected and your networks connected, you’re ready to start posting and tweeting everything that pops into your head. Well, maybe not everything…
Rule number one is to always be professional. If you have any doubt whatsoever as you go to hit that submit button, err on the side of caution and just delete the tweet. Better to miss a few likes than risk committing social media suicide. For a quick refresher on online etiquette, take a look at the first section of last month’s article. Additionally, be extremely careful of HIPAA regulations when posting medical content. Mistakes here not only violate the rights of your patients, but can even get you kicked out of school!
When crafting the perfect post, embrace your inner clinician and practice evidence-based tweeting whenever possible. Published research reveals that tweets posted in the morning hours are twice as likely to garner a high engagement rate (ER) than those posted in the afternoon or evening.1 Tweets with at least one #hashtag are three times as likely to have a high ER, while adding an image increases the odds of a high ER by a whopping factor of 28.1
Sparknotes? Your best tweets should be posted before noon and include hashtags and a picture (or a link with an image preview). It makes perfect sense, as the blue text of hashtags and the visual draw of images easily stand out in the sea of gray text as user endlessly scroll their feeds. Don’t just do it randomly though! Hashtag with purpose, highlighting your key words and including trending phrases in the field that are relevant. In fact, while using one or two hashtags often increases engagement, once you hit three or more it drops precipitously. Moral of the story: hashtag responsibly!
Knowing how to craft a great tweet is an essential yet useless skill without the right content to share. This varies from person to person, so the best advice I can give is to define your online brand and then post content that is congruent with that identity. Assuming you’re a medical student, topics like healthcare, research, and interesting cases are all fair game. Get creative though, and define your niche to help stand out from the crowd. For example, my followers can expect those standard topics but also updates on my children’s cancer fundraiser, lots of tweets about writing and mentorship, and frequent coverage of talks and presentations at conferences I attend. Plus, a healthy dose of (usually tasteful) urology-related humor.
Speaking of conferences, live-tweeting them is one area where student scientists can really stand out while also sharing their own work. Tweeting out interesting insights from the talks you attend is a great way to increase your exposure in the field while picking up followers that may turn into future collaborators. Plus, you’re helping to spread good science! If you follow others that do this as well, you can keep up with conferences that interest you even if you aren’t physically there.
Likewise, social media is a great way to expand the reach of your own presentations. We spend hours preparing posters and slides for conference presentations (not to mention the months of data collection and analysis) that often last for just a few minutes. Seems a bit anticlimactic, doesn’t it? Well with social media, it certainly doesn’t have to be! Tweet out your poster and its location before the session to help those interested find you within the chaos. Ask your friends to tweet while you present, and never be afraid to post a recap yourself. You never know when somebody will see your work and reach out to collaborate or suggest an improvement.
There’s no need to wait for a conference to share your work though; with social media, the poster session is every day and the feedback is immediate. Be proactive with your research and turn to social media whenever you want to brainstorm ideas, get feedback, or share a recent breakthrough. Your colleagues will enjoy the engagement, and your research will improve as a result. Of course, when the research is not entirely yours be sure to get permission from your mentor before making anything public.
With these tips, you’re now ready to take the world of academic social media by storm! If you’re feeling really ambitious, consider volunteering to help manage the social media channel of your lab or some other organization. It’s great practice and can put you in touch with thousands of great connections you’d otherwise never encounter. As with most things in life though, social media is best in moderation. It’s an amazing tool to boost your career, but be careful about how much time you spend on it. Too much of a good thing can be harmful and actually drag down your productivity, especially if you jump to check every single notification. Find that sweet spot though, and you’ll be in prime shape to take your research career to the next level faster than a meme goes viral.
About the Author
Trevor C. Hunt is a rising fourth-year medical student and a member of his school’s Research Distinction Track, currently completing a one-year research fellowship. He authors the SDN column “Research for the Rest of Us”, using his experience to help others navigate the precarious pitfalls of life in the lab. He enjoys reading and art, and when not in the hospital or conducting experiments can often be found on a golf course or a ski slope. Find him on Twitter: @TrevorHunt_ECU
1. Wadhwa V, Latimer E, Chatterjee K, McCarty J, Fitzgerald RT. Maximizing the Tweet Engagement Rate in Academia: Analysis of the AJNR Twitter Feed. AJNR Am J Neuroradiol. 2017;38(10):1866-1868.