Myra Ann Houser is a doctoral candidate in African History at Howard University in Washington, DC. She blogs about the dissertation-writing process, current events, life in Washington, DC, and related issues at myraramblings.wordpress.com and tweets as @myramt.
Navigating the internet as a doctoral candidate becomes a bit more difficult than it did for some of our straight-to-work peers. Seven-ish years in school provides for a lot of time for status updates that might offend or alienate a future employer, and cleaning up a Facebook profile can involve more than merely taking down a couple of photos from the undergrad years. The arrested development of graduate education often leaves us feeling like we can live large on the internet, up until the moment when those seven years of tweets suddenly become a topic in an employment interview. As a result, acting professional on personal social networks seems to be an often elusive goal for doctoral students, and I have watched peers struggle after mis-judging their abilities to network, sometimes with professionally damaging consequences.
I’ve had friends who shut down completely, refusing to use social media even for professional networking as well as those who press on, determined to be themselves and remain sure that future employers who truly desire them will be all too happy to overlook those angry rants. The truth is that both of those options can backfire. Social media is great not only for strictly professional networking, but also for creating the types of personal connections that sometimes lead to professional opportunities, and by the same token, in today’s academic job climate future universities have the opportunity (and right) to be picky and hone in on seemingly benign comments.
The following guidelines have helped me during this process. Even when not strictly following them, having them in place can force us to consider how to navigate the networks:
Use your full name, and link sites
Although people do occasionally find themselves in hot water due to a blog post with a name attached, I’ve seen friends boiling due to posts on an anonymous blog. Anonymity seems to make us more candid, and the veil of secrecy facilitates an environment where it seems okay to let the nasty out. Using a real name helps with the diplomacy factor, as does linking social media accounts. If you’re aware that people can find your blog--and from that your Facebook or Twitter--from LinkedIn, diplomacy may come easier. Similarly, knowing that personal audiences might find that professional networking account helps keep the overly-jargonized talk down, which is actually helpful with an employer who has two minutes to spare for your online CV than a wordy project description requiring time and detail.
Think about your current institution’s personality
Activist schools where most professors are involved in social outreach are dramatically different than more typical Ivory Tower institutions where faculty rarely comment on events outside of a narrow field. Knowing which type yours is not only helps with staying on good terms in the current department, but also gives you an idea of what type of institution you’re likely to be hired at and, thus, what audience a blog should be directed to. If individuals from Activist School rarely make it into the Ivory Tower in your discipline, you may have a little more room to comment on current events without fearing that someone will see you speaking out of turn. Conversely, Activist School may be looking for someone engaged with a broader field, so a narrowly-focused but in-depth commentary from Ivory Tower may not be what they’re looking for.
Don’t write about professors; don’t write about students
This should be filed under “things that don’t need to be said,” but it often seems not to be. Besides the obvious potential conflict with a professor you’ve badmouthed or harsh phone call from an outraged parent, there are often larger messages in these gripes. Complaining about professors can signal a lack of ability to accept authority or follow instructions—something that can carry over even when seeking employment outside of academia. Detailed complaints about students (which I see surprisingly often) can signal impatience or an inability to maturely handle sensitive information—something that, again, can carry implications even outside of academia. So follow the old “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” maxim.
Be respectful of friends and family
Personal contacts are not necessarily that much more open to criticism/complaint than strictly professional ones. To be honest, I’ve been surprised at the degree to which people seem flattered to be mentioned on my own small blog, but it’s possible that Great Grandma Q may not want her ancient apple pie recipe on the internet. Since you’re already linking all of your networks, use good etiquette when talking about someone and link back to them. Provide an opportunity for readers to find their Facebook page, and tag them in the post that links to the blog. If you’re not sure how a post will be received, send a copy to the subject before publishing.
Let it simmer
I rarely publish anything (including status updates) less than twenty-four hours after I write it. Even when observing the first few guidelines, things slip through. That joke suddenly seems hateful rather than charming. The post you wrote at 2 a.m. needs way more details in order to make sense. Let it sit for a bit, and see how it looks the next day. You can edit or delete posts, but sometimes the damage has already been done, or the post has already been downloaded and saved elsewhere. A little TLC can be helpful.
Have a plan
Planning blog posts, or even status updates, helps ideas to marinate (see previous point). It also guarantees that you will have something to write about in a pinch and won’t have to dredge up yesterday’s conflict-ridden committee meeting. Keep a calendar, keep a list of ideas, or whatever you need to do. If you feel compelled to talk, having something planned to fill the space helps you avoid off-the-cuff stuff that you might regret later, and it helps you have time to think through what you’ll be writing.
Be responsible for re-posts and quotes
There are conflicting opinions on this, but the bottom line is that if it appears on your wall it is ultimately your responsibility. That article with the snide comment at the bottom may seem otherwise readable, but there remains a lot of room for interpretation. If you have lukewarm feelings about something that you re-post, say so. If you don’t know what to think of it, throw it out with a discussion question. The assumption that “someone else really said it” doesn’t always hold true for outsiders reading the blog or wall. If it appears on your network—even if it didn’t come from your mouth or pen—it’s yours.
Many young professionals assume that it’s good to be on the lookout for potential negative information, but it’s just as important to find positive information that you can link back to your sites. A friend once found out that he’d received a fellowship by logging onto the organization’s website; his notification letter had been lost in the mail. It’s important to control your own representation of yourself, but also important to attempt control over outside interpretations. So type in your name every couple of months, and hope that all surprises are positive.
Following every part of a code of conduct in every post or update can be difficult. There are often exceptions to these rules, but I’ve found them helpful in beginning to confidently blog and tweet without fearing a years-away scenario involving hastily sanitizing the internet. What self-policed rules have you implemented?