A Grad Student Online Starter Kit

If you’re starting an academic graduate program, such as a Ph.D., and you’re hoping to eventually finish that degree with a meaningful reputation in your area of expertise (which is a prerequisite for academic jobs), then day 1 is a great time to unpack your grad student online starter kit. Here’s what I think a Ph.D. student should do in his or her first or second year of graduate school to get the train moving down the tracks.

1. Write a CV. If you don’t already have one, it’s time to start one, even if you don’t think you have “enough” to put on paper about yourself. You’ll flesh it out over time, and having the structure in place on paper will get you in the habit of thinking of your work as part of a larger project to build your reputation and expertise in a certain topic. I have a whole post on CVs. Make sure your CV stays updated and posted online for the world to find.

2. Make a website. Seriously. Make one. Many universities have robust profiles for their grad students, but even still, it’s important for you to control your own website where you can update your profile, post about the work you’re doing, and make yourself available for consulting opportunities. And you get to keep the website after you graduate and move from institution to institution. Get a free WordPress site, a Google Sites page, or something simple like that. Install Google Analytics if you can (it’s free). That way you can be a creeper and obsessively track where all your visitors come from. Buy a URL that represents your name and redirect it to your WordPress site and you’re all set.

3. Make a plan for posting your working papers online. It may seem scary to put your half-baked ideas out there, but the work of an academic is all about making ideas public and enduring brutal feedback. It’s really the only way you’ll ever be able to improve your ideas, too. Publishing your in-progress working papers somewhere public can also lead to early citations of your work and credit for your ideas being first on the market. Sometimes working papers get cited hundreds of times before they get published in a scholarly journal. Lakhani, Jeppesen, Lohse & Panetta’s HBS working paper is a good example of this phenomenon. You can always just post your paper on your own blog and label it “working paper – do not cite without permission” or something, which encourages people who read it to contact you first to see if there’s a more current published version to cite. Or you can start a collective blog with some colleagues and publish working papers there, or you can see if your supervising professor’s lab or collective has a website he/she would be willing to post your working paper to. Some universities have working paper series (this is common in professional schools around the country – business, public policy, urban planning). Some schools also subscribe to services like Berkeley Electronic Press’ online tools, which allow groups to start working paper series (and journals, by the way). But the most common platform where some of the largest and most widely read working paper collections can be found is the Social Science Research Network. arXiv (pronounced “archive”) is kind of like an SSRN for computing and science folks, too. You would be very wise as a grad student to start a presence on SSRN and/or arXiv and start pushing your working papers there.

4. Make a Google Scholar profile. These days, it’s all about IMPACT when it comes to research. As the Internet has allowed new journals to blossom and research to become accessible to people all over the world more quickly and easily, the idea that you demonstrate the value of your work by saying you published it in the “top” journal or the “most respected” journal in your field just doesn’t cut it anymore. You’re better off demonstrating the impact of your research by showing how much of an impact it actually has had on scholarship. That is, how often are people citing your work, at what rates, and in what disciplines? Google Scholar tracks citations for you. It’s not perfect, of course. Small-time conference papers and conference proceedings are probably overrepresented in Google Scholar’s tracking, and citations that appear in books are very much underrepresented, but as a general estimate, it’s a good way to show that, indeed, people are citing your work. Saying “I published an article last year in [well-known journal]” is impressive, especially if you’re a grad student. But saying “I published an article last year in [well-known journal] and it’s already been cited 10 times in other journals according to Google Scholar” is WAY more impressive. It shows your work is actually impacting the field rather than showing your work is important merely because it is basking in the aura of some traditionally recognized “top” journal (which may or may not actually be having an impact these days). I’m of the somewhat controversial opinion that someone who is getting their article cited is having more of an impact, no matter how top-tier or bottom-tier the journal their work appears in, than someone who has published in a so-called top-tier journal and has not been cited very widely. I have never heard an argument that has convinced me otherwise. Most of the time, when people disagree with me on this point, their arguments are founded on nostalgia, tradition, and other feel-good “evidence” that members of a discipline’s old bloc spew forth in knee-jerk response. So do yourself a favor and make a Google Scholar profile and start tracking your citations. (And hooray for me – I got to 600 citations today!)

5. Determine your online thought leadership strategy and do it. Yep, you’re a brand, whether you like it or not. Academics are seen as experts in something, and they get hired as professors because they bring with them a unique identity as an authority or leader on a given topic, however narrow that topic may be. To position yourself as a thought leader on your area of expertise (or, if you’re a grad student, as an emerging, aspiring thought leader), you need to start making your expertise known and trusted online as much as in person. You can do this by getting on some social networking sites and by blogging regularly on topics squarely in the center of your expertise or on topics of tangential relation to your area of expertise. You don’t need to be on every social media tool – this is a common misconception. Just do one or a few social media tools really, really well. If you choose Twitter, then tweet a LOT, and keep it professional and focused (Guy McHendry’s Twitter account is a good example of a focused, thought-leading grad student studying national security, privacy, cultural studies, and other topics). If you choose LinkedIn, then really take advantage of LinkedIn by getting your profile to 100% completeness and using LinkedIn groups effectively. Just find something and do it well. It’s perfectly fine to inject your personality, your sarcastic humor, or whatever into your social media presence (social media is social after all!), but just be mindful to keep your extreme opinions and any pictures of you doing keg stands hidden on your Facebook account or something. Once you start getting papers presented at conferences or published, too, make sure Wikipedia includes citations to your work on the appropriate entry pages. Some people think this is vain, but it’s not – not any more vain than someone writing a traditional encyclopedia article about their areas of expertise for a print encyclopedia. Wikipedia is one of the most valuable places you can grow your thought leadership because it’s so widely read. Make a profile on Wikipedia and add citations to your work (and the work of your colleagues…it’s not ALL about you) as appropriate. Just have a bit of humility and remember that you’re not THE sole voice on a topic just because you’ve published an article on it…but the Wikipedians will surely correct you if you overstep your bounds.

If you do all these things in tandem and have all of these pieces hang together in a constellation that is “you” online, I am confident you’ll have established an online identity and a reputation as an emerging leader in your field by the time you graduate. This will help you get jobs, get you invited to contribute chapters to anthologies, get you invited to speak at conferences, get you media interviews, and land you paid consulting gigs. And it may even make you known to grant teams, who might be looking for someone like you to round out their multi-million-dollar grant application. And forcing yourself to publish bare-bones CVs and Google Scholar profiles may even spur you to be more productive in order to flesh these presences out a bit.

I say this from my own experience. I track what people click on on my website, and I know this stuff matters. It has worked for me. So do it. Consider this grad student online starter kit your first bit of homework in grad school.

Anything else I’m missing here in the starter kit? Leave your comments below.

5 thoughts on “A Grad Student Online Starter Kit

  1. I know this will make me sound old and square, but if any first-year students actually read this, please consider what I’m about to say.

    I have to strongly disagree with this “determine your online thought leadership strategy, you’re a brand” talk. Grad school is a time of learning, and the best advice I ever got was NOT to conduct my entire education in public. Yes, people need to publish while in grad school to be competitive for jobs, yes people should be involved in online intellectual communities near and dear to their interests, blog or otherwise write about their interests, and so forth.

    But that doesn’t mean trying to be a “thought leader” or engaging in ponderous “self-branding” exercises from “day one,” especially since your “brand” will transform wildly from one institutional context to another. Anyway, real expertise is precisely NOT branding. We’re allowed to change positions on important debates, retool and advance our arguments with subtlety as we move from project to project. Apart from the incessant “revolution” talk in the tech industry, scholars who study branding (like Sarah Banet-Weiser) show that it is about something other than those things.

    With regard to thought and leadership in it, the best and most important thing anyone can do in grad school is read, and find occasions talk with other people about ideas. This is because ideas and research are long-term propositions. Online presence is often a short or mid-term proposition (tell me which social media intermediaries will be most important in six years which the current crop of new students starts to finish).

    If you take the academic career path, you will NEVER AGAIN have as much time to read or engage with ideas, to live the intellectual life, as you do in graduate school.

    Most dissertation writers don’t really understand their own contribution to the field until the whole thing is drafted. I’d say this is the case for the vast majority of the 50-odd dissertation committees I’ve sat on, and this was also true for me for my first and second books as well.

    So, in sum, I agree that people should participate in online scholarly communities (and control their own websites–very important!). But I just think the branding advice is wrongheaded and pushes people away from the most important part of grad school, which is what musicians call “woodshedding”; not the “hey look at me” part. To say you should be thinking about this from day one strips attacks one of the last reflective spaces we have in academia.


    PS — I got here by taking a break from writing recommendations, all of which talk about the content and quality of people’s ideas first, and the substance of the projects they’ve undertaken (though of course, everyone’s got to publish. . . .).

    1. I appreciate your perspective Jonathan (by the way, for those who don’t know of Jonathan Sterne, he also maintains a huge treasure trove of resources and advice for those entering the academic profession, here: http://sterneworks.org/academe/ . This is also a good time to point out Eszter Hargittai’s professionalization resources, too: http://www.eszter.com/academia.html . I like what both of these people have to say on this topic – check out their stuff!).

      I respectfully disagree with what you have to say about branding, though. When I write about cultivating a personal brand, I’m not talking about creating buzz or hype or trying to puff up what’s not there. I’m just as cynical about so-called marketing “gurus” and “ninjas” and other people who push the notion of personal branding as you probably are (I deal with this “ick” every day as a PR professor, consultant, and scholar of a concept overrun by buzzy-ness).

      But I’m also ruffled when people assume branding (or PR in general) always means flash without substance. The best brands, in my opinion, represent truly good products or ideas in the first place. “All sizzle and no steak” is never good, never works. I’m assuming in my post that 1) students eventually get to the point where they know what it is they are passionate about and what they want to become a thought leader in, and 2) students eventually start proving their worth in this industry by getting peer-reviewed work published.

      Regarding point #1: Increasingly, Ph.D. programs are wanting very focused students who already have a decent idea of the topic they want to study in the Ph.D. program. Indeed, I’m against the idea that people should go get a Ph.D. because “they’re good at school and this is the next step after the master’s” or “a Ph.D. will allow me to learn more.” Learning is part of the process, no doubt, but a Ph.D. is a degree that prepares one to create original research, whether that’s in government, industry, or the academy. The Ph.D. students who fail to realize they’re getting a degree that is every bit as much preparing them to enter a profession as an M.D. or a J.D. are sometimes the ones who fail to finish the Ph.D. in the first place or frequently the ones who struggle to find steady employment in research careers after graduation. People *should* should Ph.D. programs with a fairly clear idea of what it is they want to do, so in that sense they already know the brand they want to aspire to create from day one. And I see nothing wrong with students beginning their online thought leadership (I use this phrase in the David Scott sense…as a serious strategic communication approach backing real substance) right off the bat in grad school. To build online thought leadership, they don’t need to pretend they know more than they do. Online thought leadership could simply mean posting links to interesting news stories related to the student’s area of study, retweeting and commenting on what leaders in the field post online, and so on. Online thought leadership doesn’t assume people are already experts or are unwilling to change and grow in grad school.

      Regarding point #2: As students do get peer-reviewed research published, they *do* start becoming expert on that topic. That’s what the peer-review process really is – it’s a way for more senior scholars to accept new knowledge into the canon and by extension grant the author a badge of expertise, if you will, that they can start using to extend their research on that topic and gain influence. So by all means, this work should be posted for the world to see (I view academics as public figures and public servants, so transparency, publicity, and accountability in research is paramount). As for working papers, sure some of these can be quite bad. I guess I should clarify that ideas shouldn’t be half-baked as in “half-assed” when students publish them as working papers. But the ideas don’t need to be completely finished either. We’ve lost the value in most of our large academic conferences. Originally, these conferences were conceived as venues for presenting research, receiving feedback from a respondent (often a more senior scholar) and from the audience (consisting of other academics and/or practitioners). But I challenge you to find an NCA, ICA, or AEJMC conference where all the panels you attend are robust scholarly conversations. I’ve seen way too many hungover respondents reading scrawl from cocktail napkins and rooms with 2 people in the audience to believe that these are really the places where scholarship gets better. (And that’s assuming panelists haven’t already had their papers accepted into a journal by the time they present it for feedback…with the enormous lead times for these conferences, things can be accepted and published [in online journals at least] long before the conference happens). I hold out a lot of hope for working papers and other online forums for peer feedback, and that requires students to submit their stuff publicly to sites like SSRN. Not completely broken stuff, but not necessarily publishable quality stuff either.

      I’m not saying people should brand themselves without substance, but I do believe people can begin branding themselves before they’ve written their dissertation. They probably had to brand themselves already in some way to apply to a Ph.D. program in the first place and to articulate how their brand fits the brand of the department they’re seeking to join. There’s nothing wrong with branding. Not all branding and PR is inherently buzzy (this sentiment furthers the stereotype that PR people are spin doctors, by the way, a stereotype I dislike). There’s nothing wrong with working out your half-baked ideas in public and online either – transparency and publicness are traditional values in the academy.

      Respectfully, of course, I’m pushing back a bit on the idea that branding is bad, that grad students aren’t always/already brands, and that it’s not helpful for students to start thinking of their own brand as they embark on what is a terminal degree in the profession of research production.

      (I like this discussion, though. A genuine “thanks” for the critique and a hope this dialog continues with you or with other observers).

  2. Hi Daren,

    Thanks for the link and props.

    Here’s where I know we agree: publishing is a public process and once you’ve published, you should get your work out there. We agree that students ought to be active as intellectuals online. We agree that PhD students should arrive understanding that they’re entering a profession and not just “doing more school.” We agree that the professional process should be relatively transparent so people can focus on their intellectual work and all have the same shot at a good job (defined differently depending on what you want out of life) in a difficult market.

    Here’s where I understand that we disagree.

    “Day One”: I am saying that the promotional attitude at the very outset of an academic career–from “day one”–is a damaging way to go over the course of a degree that takes, on US national average, 7 years to complete. Yes, people need to know it’s a profession, yes they should maintain CVs. Yes they should go to conferences, publish and be involved online. But these things are learning experiences the first couple times people go through them–to see them as fundamentally promotional exercises is to miss the point. I would rather see low stakes, where people are free to fuck up wildly (to put it in the strongest possible terms) a few times, than to say “it’s your brand” from the moment you set foot in a doctoral program.

    Your description of PhD programs’ unrealistic desires is probably true, but actual living, breathing PhD students change the topic of their thesis about half the time. And staying with the original topic is no guarantee of future professional success or a good dissertation. In my experience with (now hundreds of) doctoral students, I’d say there’s no predictable relationship. Your characterization of intellectual curiosity and flexibility as insufficient professionalization (“because they are good at school”–those people mostly won’t get into PhD programs right now) is a false dichotomy and completely misrepresents my point. It is not all or nothing on professionalization.

    Branding: the idea of branding suggests that we are in the business of promoting ideas about ourselves, rather than being in the business of dealing with ideas. These are not the same thing.

    My understanding of branding comes from the critical scholarship on the term, starting with Naomi Klein and leading up to now Sarah Banet-Weiser’s new book. For a short take, have a look at this essay written by Sarah Banet-Weiser and Alex Juhaz. http://ijoc.org/ojs/index.php/ijoc/article/view/1315/651

    It is also a social-theoretical problem, since to suggest that individuals should think of themselves in the same terms as large-scale organizations, especially corporations is to commit an error of scale and to impose a metaphor that run in the wrong direction. I don’t think we should imagine ourselves as little corporations running around.

    “Substance”: A couple times here, you say you are assuming “substance” some variant thereof. I don’t assume it, because a large part of intellectual substance actually comes from time away from publicity. Seminars are not public lectures for a reason. Reading and writing groups are often private for a reason. People get fellowships and sabbaticals, to take them away from their regular duties for a reason. A lot of intellectual work requires careful reflection, thinking, and talking with other people. It requires TIME. That can certainly happen online, but I submit that it is a very difficult thing for most people to truly work through ideas and promote them at the same time.

    That’s my final word here. Back to you.

    1. Good points, all of them. For as much as I think grad students need to start cultivating a brand for themselves, I too think the concept of branding is problematic when seen through a critical-cultural lens. I struggle with this a lot actually, trained in a critical tradition in grad school and now grinding out a career teaching public relations skills in a professional journalism school. I am torn between wanting to prepare students to enter and lead the profession of PR and wanting to just dismantle the whole damn project of PR. It’s an uneasy existence.

      Jobs matter. People uproot their lives, move their partners and kids across the country, and leave well-paying careers to pursue modest livings as grad students for 3-10 years. They’re expecting to both learn how to think and do research AND learn how to be prepared to enter the academic job market successfully. (Note: I have another unique vantage point on this issue and the brutal job market through my wife, who works with grad students and employers at Duke.) It’s a disservice to students to only give them the thinking skills. You have to bring professional training to the table, too. And this is especially explicit in a professional school (journalism, business, public health), where the liberal arts mission of the traditional university often takes a back seat to needing to prepare graduates to slide right into professional roles.

      I still think faculties are ultimately hiring PhDs who are great thinkers. But in order to make a hiring committee’s short list, applicants need to stand out from the other 100 applications in the pool. This is where I think branding comes in. (And the ones who have great branding but are dull thinkers always shit the bed in their research presentations anyway…they don’t get hired).

      We have some problematic language in our faculty handbook, by the way: “Promotion to associate professor with tenure requires evidence that the individual has begun to build a nationwide reputation as a scholar in his or her field. Promotion to full professor requires evidence that the individual has established a national, and in some instances international, reputation in his or her field.” Is “reputation” a matter of good branding or a matter of great thinking? Or is it both: developing a brand as a great thinker? The two go hand-in-hand, I think. If nobody knows you’re doing good work, they won’t know to assign your book in a seminar, and their grad students in turn won’t get exposed to your ideas. And the cycle goes on.

      Ultimately, though, I agree with your stances. I just don’t see why an excellent grad student can’t simultaneously be contemplative, deep thinkers AND have some branding savvy. As you said, it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing thing with professionalization. It’s hard to do both, but it’s possible I think. And I hope to develop grad students who can do both. That’s partly why I have this blog…we do a terrible job preparing students for the business of academia while they’re in grad school. And to see 8th-year-PhD students who still haven’t figured out how to focus and publish and develop an identity/expertise area/brand is hard to swallow.

      My “from day one” opinion has less to do with students needing to pin down a research topic (and stop exploring) and more to do with students needing to be aware that once they do pin it down, they’ve got a lot of work to do on the professionalization and branding front to help bolster their chances of getting noticed and getting hired. Usually, a student will enter grad student knowing vaguely that they want to study, say, environmental communication, though their dissertation may look a lot different theoretically or methodologically than they thought it would when they started. But it’s still likely to be related to envirocomm, since that’s their driving passion, so no harm in starting to blog or develop online thought leadership about environmentalism from day one. You can always just delete the blog and start over if you do a complete 180, too.

      So this is a good discussion for sure, and many thanks Jonathan. Here’s the saddest part though: this blog exchange, however brief it has been, has been one of the top 5 most stimulating scholarly things I’ve encountered since I became a professor a few years ago. Many faculties are about work, not ideas and intellectual exchange. My colleagues are smart, but there are few, if any, opportunities for dialog unfortunately. And conferences are the same way…at least the large ones in our discipline are. So, yes, grad students should sop up that intellectual goodness while they can in grad school!

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