Photograph of a series of dots emanating from a speech bubble.
Social skills: Abiding by certain guidelines helps researchers expand their reach online.
Photograph by Richard Drury

How early-career researchers get the most out of social media

Researchers share advice about how they find connection and gain visibility via online platforms.

For many scientists, social-media platforms aren’t just somewhere to go for silly memes or analysis of the “Succession” finale — they’re also useful places to find the latest science and connect with other researchers.

Engaging with colleagues online can even spark new collaborations, says Zack Williams, a medical and doctoral student at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee — a review article he and his colleagues published earlier this year stemmed from just such an interaction. Finding online forums to discuss autism research “has probably been one of the most useful career development tools that I’ve had so far,” Williams says.

But social media can suck up time and energy, and users sometimes face harassment and abuse. So how do Williams and other early-career researchers minimize such downsides and get the most out of social media?

1. They post when they have new research findings.

“Getting a chance for more people to notice our work is the greatest benefit” of engaging on social media, where the audience can be orders of magnitude larger than it would be at a scientific conference, says Arjun Bharioke, a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Molecular and Clinical Ophthalmology in Basel, Switzerland.

When Bharioke and his colleagues published a new paper in Cell in April, he spread the news online. The paper made a splash, and his tweet announcing the publication and summarizing the findings received more than 12,000 views.

“Within a day of our paper coming out, my professor was being congratulated about it at a conference he was attending,” Bharioke says. “And it was apparently entirely due to people noticing the paper on Twitter.”

2. They blend the personal and the professional (within limits).

Social-media platforms are places to bring “some personality,” says Laurel Gabard-Durnam, assistant professor of psychology at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, and she lets hers shine through — whether that’s through a SpongeBob GIF to convey exciting news or through personal tweets about her dog. That openness is relatable and tends to encourage others to share about their own experiences.

“I’m ‘myself’ on Twitter,” she says. “I’m not ‘myself after two glasses of wine’ on Twitter, but it’s still my voice, and I still use a lot of the same goofy words that I use in person.”

3. They embrace a diverse audience.

Talking about science on social media is not the same as talking about it at a scientific conference. And stepping outside of the comfort zone of academia can sometimes be difficult, Williams says, particularly when researchers receive pushback about their work.

But to Williams, having a diverse audience is also the best thing about discussing one’s work on social media. For one, it’s a way for academics to share their expertise with people who do not typically come across it, he says.

And on top of that, getting into a dialogue with non-researchers — autistic self-advocates, clinicians and other members of the autism community — is “transforming the way we do science,” Williams says. “I think that it helps the public hold scientists accountable.”

4. But when need be, they “find their people.”

Although public posts are a great way for scientists to gain visibility and make new connections, they also open the door to unwanted criticism and nasty comments — particularly for women and people of color, says Lucia Peixoto, assistant professor of translational medicine and physiology at Washington State University Spokane.

Peixoto still tweets publicly as a way to discover new research, promote her own work and highlight important topics in academia — such as issues around diversity, equity and inclusion. But for certain conversations — including, she says, “soliciting feedback and advice, and sharing your lows as well as your highs” — she now relies more heavily on a different form of social media: a small, private Slack channel that comprises other researchers who share her values.

“While I think it is important to also share your lows on public networks, especially so that trainees can see it, it does not come at the same cost to those who already have to work harder just to be seen,” such as people from underrepresented minority backgrounds, Peixoto says. Having a separate forum for these conversations can help distinguish “between the people whose opinion you value and the people who you should just not listen to.”