Where to start?
Have you published a paper? The easiest place to start is to set up a Google Scholar page. This allows you to list your primary affiliation, your job title, and include a photo. Make sure you keep this up-to-date and provide a link to a page where one can find your email address, if you don’t have a personal page (see below), then an institutional page can work well too). On that note, make sure that your institutional page (your lab group page, department webpage, etc.) is up-to-date and includes your job title, your current (working!) email address, and ideally a photo (this helps keep continuity across your web presence). Other quick solutions include websites such as LinkedIn, ResearchGate, etc. While these help build an overall web-presence, they often do not provide the flexibility to provide a personal touch (and always end up cluttered and difficult to navigate).
What photo to pick?
Some people feel uncomfortable with having their photo online, but if you can overcome this, it really does help. You can use photos to maintain some continuity across the different parts of your professional web presence. This could be choosing one or a couple of photos that make it clear each of these sites is about the same person (this is especially important if you have a relatively common name). The next consideration is what photo to choose. First, make sure that the photo is sharp, well lit, and shows you (and maybe what you are doing) clearly. Next, remember that this could be the first time that someone might put your face to your name—so think about what impression you want to make (and don’t treat your academic profile as an extension of your Facebook profile). It is often advisable to use a picture that shows you doing what you want to be remembered for (for example, I try to pictures of myself with a bird from my fieldwork), but a nice picture of your face can work too. What sometimes doesn’t work is extremely posed or unnatural pictures—like a portait by a professional photographer—if the aim here is to present a less formal side of yourself (i.e. the ‘real’ you). There are of course differences among disciplines and among cultures about this last point, so do take that into consideration.
The personal website
Perhaps the biggest step you can take towards developing a web presence is by having a personal (or lab) website. Such a website allows you to provide much more content and detail about yourself, your progress, and (most importantly) your current status. This can seem both daunting and something of a minefield, but it does facilitate a much more personal presentation of yourself to those who are interested in finding out more about you (and this is a constructive way of viewing the purpose of the website). Here are some general thoughts on different aspects of having a personal website.
- The URL and building the website
More and more, researchers are registering a domain name with their name (e.g. www.firstname-lastname.com). Don’t let this be your excuse for not setting up a website—it is both easy to do and, most importantly, it isn’t necessary to the cause. Many web-hosting services give you a free sub-domain of your choosing. Similarly, building the website has never been easier, with most hosting services providing easy drag and drop website design – sparing you from having to learn how to code in HTML/CSS. Popular examples of these include Weebly (which is what this site is built/hosted on), Wix, Google Sites, Squarespace and Wordpress.
- The content
There are 4 important elements that should be present and easy to find on the website. The first is a picture or two together with a short bio (where you are, what you’re doing). Next is some content to reflect your interest—not just the title of your dissertation, here is the opportunity to present your ideas and where they stem from. Third is an up-to-date list of publications, which if you are applying for positions is important because this page allows you to include works that may not conform to the application requirements, such as pre-prints (more on this by Paul Smaldino here, and monographs (but be a bit critical by not putting items that add clutter without contributing towards your cause). Finally, and most importantly, include an up-to-date CV. (see below for more on this).
- The presentation
There seems to be an on-going arms-race to produce the flashiest most fancy website. While presentation is important (‘oh that’s a nice website’ helps), there is a risk of going too far. The single most important aim of the website is to provide everything for someone to find out who you are, what you are doing, where, and what your progression is, with just a few clicks of the mouse. Make sure that all of this information is conveyed clearly and easy to find. Also remember that someone might only have a minute or two to scan your website, so if it is full of really large photos or videos (as seems to be the trend at present), these may not even load in time, making your website look odd. Media-rich websites or those that have all of the information on one page could also feel unnatural to those who are more used to the tabular format for websites.
Keeping your presence up to date
It often takes only 5 minutes to update key aspects of the website, yet this is critical. For example, if you’ve applied for a fellowship, it could be 6 months between the application date and when someone sits down to evaluate your CV and publication list. Make sure you give them every opportunity to find out about your latest achievements. You don’t have to update all of the background text that often, as this should reflect your broader visions rather than your latest obsession.
Help others find you
This is perhaps the most underappreciated step in setting up a web presence: making sure that you are easy to find. Put yourself in the shoes of someone who’s come across your name (e.g. because someone has mentioned you, they’ve read your paper, or they are appraising your application)—they will only have time for a few clicks to try and find you. Your website will not do you any good if it isn’t on the front page of Google when someone searches your name with some general keywords (often your institution, or your field of study). You can help improve your chances of getting this hit in several ways: first, make sure you include major keywords that reflect your work on your website (both using the keyword features of the website, but also in your text). Second, make sure that other sites link to your site (this increases your site’s centrality on the network of websites, and raises its profile). The latter is relatively simple to achieve, for example cross-reference your institutional and personal websites, and include a link to your website on your Google Scholar, ResearchGate, and Twitter pages (see below). Finally, make sure the first text on your website has a clear description of who you are (as this is what comes up as a snippet under the links on Google).
To tweet or not to tweet?
The final, and perhaps most time-consuming, way of having a web presence is to become active on Twitter. Maybe it is because we have a really short attention span, but scientists have flocked to Twitter. If you’re not part of it, I guarantee you’re missing out. Being active on Twitter doesn’t necessarily require a huge investment in time—if you follow a handful of researchers you are interested in, it can involve just a few minutes to find something interesting a retweet it. You can also share a very brief synopsis of an interesting paper you’ve just read (if you include the authors, you’re almost guaranteed some new followers). Finally, you don’t need to see it as work, I think many very senior researchers are active on Twitter as it gives them a way to tap into the current pulse of science. However, if you do decide join Twitter, you need to decide whether you will use it for personal purposes, or for professional purposes, but do not use the same account for both (and this advice goes for all of the above sections).