As PhD students we are often told how important it is to maintain an active and professional online presence and to make use of a myriad of different services and social networks to do this: Twitter, academia.edu, LinkedIn and long-form blogging, to name just a few. There are also plenty of training events about social media aimed at PhD students (I have attended no less than three in my year and a half as a PhD researcher!)
I find this really interesting as I know of lots of established academics who have very little online presence and anecdotally, I would say that, among my PhD colleagues, the split is close to 50/50 between those who embrace all forms of social media and those who stay as far away as possible from it. So is it actually as vital a part of establishing an academic career as it is made out to be?
During a recent PhD break (which I will blog about in the coming weeks) I read Cal Newport’s new book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. He argues for the rejection of, or at least a re-evaluation of, all social media by professionals who have to routinely engage in ‘deep work’, which he defines as “cognitively demanding activities that leverage our training to generate rare and valuable results, and that push our abilities to continually improve”. You can read more about Newport's book here.
This idea took me a little while to accept, given how often I’ve been told how important social media, and Twitter in particular, is for establishing an academic career. Its supposed benefits include, but are not limited to, connecting with the public, connecting with other academics, establishing yourself in your field, finding new opportunities for collaboration, peer support, and keeping up to date with events and projects which are of interest. But Newport, a successful mid-career academic in computer science with an impressive publication output doesn’t use it at all. So is it really necessary?
Back in October I spent a week as the curator for the @wethehumanities account and this was a great way to really open up conversations with others about the things that matter to me; I discussed PhD life, work processes, language learning and childhood reading and I was enlightened and inspired by the whole thing. I was also exhausted.
I would still heartily recommend curating the account. We The Humanities looks for people in the Arts and Humanities to take over their account for a week and talk about the things that matter most to you. It's such an amazing way to connect with a much wider variety of people than your own Twitter following and have brilliant conversations about the things you care about.
Leading up to curating the account I was online a lot, particularly on Twitter. I would tweet about what was going on that day and was live-tweeting conferences and events that I was attending. I was also blogging weekly. I was always online. And that was the problem.
Being always online is exhausting. It also leads, in my case anyway, to intense feelings of what I like to call #AcademicFOMO. Because as well as tweeting lots about what I was up to, I was also reading lots of tweets about what everyone else was up to. The conferences everyone was attending, the articles everyone was publishing, the training everyone was doing.
Particularly among PhD students, but I suspect among most academics, there is a constant pressure to be on top of everything and to say 'yes' to every opportunity. This is a difficult thing to manage anyway and I think for someone who is a high-achiever, or someone with perfectionist tendencies, it can be overwhelming.
Twitter makes constant comparisons with others very easy and damaging. It's difficult to always remember that you're only seeing a limited, curated version of someone else's life and that they may have their unproductive moments, just like you.
In light of what Cal Newport says about Twitter, I still believe that it's a really useful, if not necessary, tool for academics, and is actually a fun thing to engage with. However, I’ve definitely been re-evaluating my use of it. Not only has taking a little step back been good for my #AcademicFOMO but if Newport is to be believed, spending less time generating short-form content should drastically improve my ability to engage in focused, high-quality work, which after all is what the PhD is actually about.
What do you think about Twitter and its uses for academics? Does it have a negative or damaging side too?