I’ve heard quite a bit of debate lately about whether or not graduate students need to build their own websites. Some have argued that it’s become an essential part of “branding yourself” while others argue that it represents a serious investment of time and resources that would be better spent getting another publication line on your C.V. While I see valid arguments on both sides, I would suggest that a website is at its core, just a tool. It can be an effective tool for networking and sharing your work, but, like all tools, it requires a certain investment of time to use skillfully. The question is less whether websites are valuable for graduate students as a group, but rather whether a website will be a useful tool for you in achieving your academic and professional goals.
Websites can range from simple, static professional portfolios requiring little technical skill, to elaborate digital platforms for research and scholarship that require complex coding knowledge. Going in with a specific purpose in mind can make the process of building a site much easier. Whatever your end goal is, getting started building a professional website is relatively easy and straightforward.
If you’ve never developed a website before, the technical details can be a little overwhelming at first. The basic components are pretty simple though – to get started, you first need a web hosting service where you can create your domain name. The domain name is the web address for your website like http://www.insidehighered.com and, just like a physical address, it enables others to find your website. A hosting service stores the information for your website and often offers tools and templates for building your website more quickly and easily.
Common hosts include Wordpress, Squarespace, Wix, Weebly, and Jekyll. You’ll need to start by picking a host. Though they share many commonalities, each offers a different array of interfaces and options. There’s a lot of advice articles about which one is best (including some by our own gradhackers for Wordpress and Jekyll), but as a general rule, the hosts that are the easiest to use – like Wix and Weebly – are also more limited in what you can do with them, while the more complex websites like Wordpress, Jekyll, and Squarespace offer more options for customizing your website (also, be sure to note the differences between wordpress.com and wordpress.org). The best advice is probably just to look around the sample websites that each host provides and see which one feels right for your personality and skill level.
Once you have selected a host, you need to choose a domain name. Most academics use some version of their names and opt for a .net rather than a .com (a switch that I’m making in the next iteration of my own website), but the choice is yours. Your hosting service will likely offer you a free domain that includes their name (e.g. www.bradykrien.wordpress.com) or you can pay for a domain name without the web host name, usually for less than $20. If you’re certain you want to commit to developing your website over the long haul, paying for the more customized domain generally looks a little more professional, but if you’re just exploring, know that you can always upgrade later.
Once you’ve got your website, it’s time to start building pages that will house your content This is usually a pretty user-friendly process for most of the hosting sites, and each offers online tutorial videos and forums if you get stuck. If your university has a subscription to Lynda, they offer some great, quick courses on website building as well. The best thing to do is to devote some time to playing around with different looks and options and, again, know that you can always come back and spruce them up later.
The number and type of pages that you have will vary depending on what it is that you’re hoping to accomplish with your website. If it’s just a professional profile, you might want an “About” or “Home” page along with a page for your C.V., another for Publications, and another for Teaching Materials. You can also add a blog, pages for any digital projects you might be working on, and connections to social media sites. It really boils down to what it is that you want your website to include (and what you are willing to devote the time to maintaining). A word of advice though, avoid posting your email address directly on your site (and be sure to remove it from your C.V.) as there’s a good chance that it will get picked up by spam bots and inundate your inbox.
The content that you put on your pages will vary dramatically from person to person, but most will include some images (be sure to familiarize yourself with Creative Commons licenses before you start posting images straight from a Google Image search) and professional documents like a C.V. and resume. Though you can offer a download option for these documents, it’s generally a good idea to also have them directly on a page. This can require a little tinkering with formatting, but it’s worth the work as it allows people coming to your website to view your materials more easily (remember the Three Click Rule). Make sure to also link the things on your resume or C.V. with the articles, projects, or awards that they represent. This can be a great way to dramatically increase the information in your materials without adding extra lines. You can also link to or insert any publications that you might have, though you will want to be sure to check the embargo period for the journal you published in and familiarize yourself with your authorship rights. Finally, there’s a healthy debate about the role of academic blogging including the pros and cons of blogging your dissertation. Take a look at these before embarking on a large blogging project, but know that the biggest challenge for running a blog is that it takes a lot of time to do it well.
In my experience, the biggest commitment in building a website is not the initial process of building it, but rather that of maintaining it. If your website is a simple portfolio, this can be as simple as creating a calendar reminder every few months to update your C.V. and make sure the links still work. For more elaborate websites, especially those involving elements like blogs, this can be a monthly, weekly, or almost daily process. It’s important to keep these considerations in mind when your building your website, because a poorly maintained website is as bad (or even worse) than no website at all.
Websites have the potential to be powerful tools for graduate students looking to build their professional profile and share their scholarship and, if you want to build a website, it’s important to start (and continue) with the end in mind.
Do you have a personal website that really rocks or any tips or tricks for getting an academic website off the ground? Share in the comments section below.