#Research: Social Media and the Student Scientist

By Trevor C. Hunt

This article originally appeared on Student Doctor Network on November 22, 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. 

Social media is ubiquitous. Take a look around the room you’re reading this in right now; odds are you’ll spot at least a few others gazing into a screen and accelerating their carpal tunnel with that distinct, repetitive flick of the finger that universally symbolizes mindless scrolling. But must it all be mindless? What if I told you that social media is the best kept secret of success in research and medical school?

This month, I’m taking you down the rabbit hole of social media to show you just how useful it can be when used strategically. In part one of this series we’ll redefine everything you know about social media, lay out the reasons why you need to be on it professionally, and dive into the various platforms you should be using as a student scientist. Next month, part two will revisit social media with a crash course in taking your online presence to the next level.

Redefining Social Media

Nowadays, social media carries a negative connotation more often than a positive one. Shocking data leaks and horror stories of ruined careers seem to be the main thing keeping our news outlets in business this decade. To many, it’s less a tool and more a liability, hence why we religiously change our online names and purge our questionable posts every few years when applying for new degrees or jobs. And yet, by labeling all of social media as bad, many are missing out on the powerful advantages it provides when used properly.

Two distinct sides exist on the social media coin: personal and professional. The former is what we normally think of, while many view the latter as social media with all the fun sucked out. That professional side is where you’ll reap the rewards as a student scientist, however, so bear with me. While it may seem less fun to post journal articles instead of dank memes, when’s the last time a meme advanced your career or connected you with a leader in the field?

What exactly makes social media use professional? In short, it’s defined less by the platform you’re on and more by what you do in the driver’s seat. For example, LinkedIn is the original form of professional social media but scrolling the feed for just five minutes reveals multiple posts that could easily get their authors fired. Most platforms are pretty similar at their cores and can swing to either risky personal or safe professional usage; what matters is the way you act behind the wheel.

The basic ground rules are easy and follow dinner table etiquette: no religion, politics, gossip, or oversharing. Be very cautious with topics that can go both ways, such as current events, controversial issues, and humor (which falls flat more often than not). Keep your personal life out of what you post, save for occasional updates on big milestones that your followers will unquestionably enjoy. When you’re on the fence about a post, play it safe and skip it. Simple as that.

The Benefits of Being Online

So what’s the big deal? Why should you even consider using social media in your professional life anyway? This tool published by Nature breaks down how most scholars use different platforms. Honestly though, it all depends on what you hope to accomplish. Odds are, social media can be a tool to get there faster or do it bigger. Three key areas we’ll cover today are networking, sharing your work, and defining your brand.

There’s a reason the Facebook movie was titled The Social Network. Social media is the best thing to happen to networking since the business card, especially for students and those only just building their careers. Believe it or not, apps like Twitter are huge in the research and surgical fields, with other specialties rapidly following suit. Don’t believe me? At your next conference, take note of how many presenters slap their @handles onto their slides and how much the conference’s organizers push you to use the official #hashtag.

As a student, apps like Twitter take the intimidation out of networking and open doors to connections with leaders in the field. Following a doctor you look up to is totally acceptable, and shooting them a quick tweet is way less formal than sending an email out of the blue. Often times you’ll get a rapid response and they may even follow you back. During a conference talk, posting a picture of the speaker’s research and tagging them is a great way to preempt introducing yourself after the session. Social media is also a great way to keep your connections fresh over the years. Nothing is worse than meeting a well-known doctor only to never speak to them again. With social media, the power to stay connected is literally in your hands.

Sharing your work is another great way to use social media to your advantage, and we’ll tackle it in-depth next month. Numerous published studies have shown evidence for social media’s impact on the reach of your work. Journals with Twitter accounts get significantly more citations than those without1, while social media exposure can have a far greater influence on your article’s citation rate than even the impact factor of the journal it appears in.2 Numerous studies have confirmed these results, even finding that journal impact factor is not what drives high social media coverage and suggesting that authors (that means you!) may benefit from establishing a strong social media presence.3

Most importantly, taking control of social media allows you to define your brand before the internet does it for you. What pops up when your name is Googled? Seriously, go try it now and see; you may be surprised by what you find. Establishing and using social media profiles professionally allows you to control the narrative. The more of a presence you develop online, the higher the chance that a search returns items about you first and pushes that other Trevor Hunt’s embarrassing Myspace page to the bottom. It’s always better to get your actual content front and center so the person internet stalking you doesn’t have to do any guesswork.

Defining your brand isn’t something that can happen overnight, so you need to get started early. Waiting until interview season is a big mistake, because search algorithms take time to adapt themselves and factor in both amount and duration of content posted. Think of your online presence like a credit score; the length of time your accounts have been open matters just as much as your day-to-day decisions. Moral of the story, get started on defining your social media brand now. By the time the need truly arises and people start to search you, all the pieces will be in place and you’ll be comfortable knowing your online presence is well-pruned.

Social Media’s Professional Power Trio

Now that we’ve picked apart why and how you should be using social media in your professional and research life, let’s tackle the question of where to focus your efforts. The definition of social media has become quite broad; gone are the days when the term was simply a stand-in for Facebook. While your options are nearly endless, I’d argue that the most important platforms for students and scientists are Twitter, LinkedIn, and ResearchGate.

Twitter is by far the most useful and accessible of the three for students. Formal studies back this up, with Twitter being the most popular form of social media used for healthcare communications.4 It’s arguably the easiest to set up and use, as your profile consists of only two pictures and a 160-character bio. Tweets are short and sweet, and in between original posts you can stay active by simply liking and retweeting content from those you follow. As we touched on earlier, Twitter is great way to both initiate and maintain connections while getting feedback on your work. Use it daily for just five minutes and you’ll start reaping the rewards in no time.

LinkedIn is often thought of as a stuffy, corporate version of Facebook. While not as commonly used among scientists, the platform does have an important role for students. Namely, it’s a venue to flesh out the items crammed into your comparatively boring CV or resume. It’s a chance to highlight your most interesting involvements in a way that’s far more engaging than bullet points on a piece of paper. Attach your best posters to that research position entry, link a video of the volunteer event you organized, and share posts of your lab’s best work. Compared to the daily cultivation of Twitter, LinkedIn is a tree you plant once and periodically water.

ResearchGate is likely the one you’re less familiar with of this trio, but it’s specifically designed for scientists and researchers. According to the Nature tool I mentioned earlier, it’s the most frequently used form of social media among scholars (although I’d wager Twitter has overtaken it since this study was published). The fact that it’s specific to scientists makes it great for sharing your work, and it automatically adds new citations to your profile when a coauthor uploads them. I treat ResearchGate the same way I treat LinkedIn; take some time to set it up, come back occasionally to tend to things, and otherwise sit back and let it work just by existing.

Of course, there are many other platforms besides these three which may be of use to you. Facebook and Instagram, for example, are sometimes used for professional purposes as well. My advice to you here is to exercise caution, as it can be much harder to separate personal from professional on these platforms. Start with the power trio of Twitter, LinkedIn, and ResearchGate and then only venture into Facebook, Instagram, and the like if you have a good reason to. Furthermore, you may find it more manageable to focus your efforts on two or three platforms at first rather than spreading yourself thin.

If you weren’t already sold on social media as a professional tool for student scientists, by now there should be no doubt in your mind as to its value. Between the published research and my personal experiences, I can honestly say that social media is one of the single most valuable—yet underused—tools in the professional school years. Done right, social media can take both your research and residency prospects to new heights. Next month, I’ll show you exactly how to do just that in part two of this series. So what are you waiting for? Get out there and make #StudentScientist happen!

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. Ortega JL. The presence of academic journals on Twitter and its relationship with dissemination (tweets) and research impact (citations). Aslib Journal of Information Management. 2017;69(6):674-687.

2. Lamb CT, Gilbert SL, Ford AT. Tweet success? Scientific communication correlates with increased citations in Ecology and Conservation. PeerJ. 2018;6:e4564.

3. Peoples BK, Midway SR, Sackett D, Lynch A, Cooney PB. Twitter Predicts Citation Rates of Ecological Research. PLoS One. 2016;11(11):e0166570.

4. Pershad Y, Hangge PT, Albadawi H, Oklu R. Social Medicine: Twitter in Healthcare. J Clin Med. 2018;7(6).