Scholar, google thyself.


A couple of weeks ago I was asked by a foreign university to provide a written reference for someone I didn’t know.

Usually when I am asked to write a reference I know the person well and can speak to their strengths. In this case, the university in question wanted my expert opinion about the work of one of their staff members. This ‘blind peer review’ of a person – rather than a paper – was a new process for me.

The university sent me a portfolio of ‘stuff’ which I had to review before I wrote the letter. I diligently read this material, but still felt like I didn’t know the person well enough. So I got on the Google machine and did a bit of academic stalking. If you have done anything like this recently you will know just how much information is floating around about you on the internet. We leave bits and pieces of our digital selves all over the place. 

After an hour I had a pretty good idea of this person. I knew what he did in his off hours. I was able to view samples of his work – the less polished ones that weren’t included in the portfolio. I saw pictures of his wife and kids. I even snooped on his Twitter account and watched him for a couple of hours, just to see how he talked to others. As John Scalzi says, “the failure mode of clever is asshole”. I know attitude supposedly has nothing to do with how well a person does their job – but it matters to me. I didn’t want to inadvertently help promote an academic asshole into a position of power and authority.

I am happy to report that the person I was able to construct via Google seemed to be consistent with the portfolio of materials I had in front of me: competent, clever and useful to his colleagues. I wrote a glowing reference letter with evidence of his professionalism and engagement with the broader scholarly community.

In fact, I was much more confident and warm in this letter than I would have been if I only looked at the portfolio. Thanks to Google I had the coveted ‘360 degree’ view; I could ‘see’ how that person behaved when they didn’t know I was looking at them. This increased my confidence and trust in the ‘picture’ they had carefully constructed for me in their CV.

Then I got paranoid.

How do I look to someone who wants to academic stalk ME on Google?

How you appear to yourself in a search is not necessarily how others will see you because Google creates a ‘filter bubble’ around each user. Basically Google knows who you are, where you are and what you like and will shape the search results to help you.

When I google myself I see this:

\"google1\"The first link is to ANU. That’s good – being linked to a prestigious institution makes me look immediately credible as a scholar. The second link is this blog – I want people to see that. Reading my blog gives you a good sense of who I am and what I do.

I like how I look in the Google mirror – but is this how others see me?

I asked people on Twitter to help me test my Google Filter Bubble. When @katemfd in Wollongong Googles me she sees this:

\"google2\"ANU is still first, but Linkedin and Twitter are ahead of the blog. Interesting. You might not think this is relevant because the blog still appears on the front page, but look what happens when @21stCteaching Googles me on his phone:

\"google3\"The blog – my most important internet asset disappears from the front screen. We know people rarely go to page two, so this might affect how people see me.

@21stcenturyteaching is located very close to me – does this affect how he ‘sees’ me? Maybe, because here is what @jeroencl sees when he Googles me on his phone from Utrecht in the Netherlands:

\"google4\"Now the blog is up the top. Why? I don’t know. Google’s search engine is a closely guarded secret.

I can’t tell Google how to display me, I can only influence it by how I behave.

Even more reason to keep it nice and professional online right?

By the way, thanks to this Twitter experiment I know that when someone Googles ‘Inger Mewburn Hot Chick’ there are no rude surprises!

\"google5\"So how should you behave so that Google will project the scholarly self you would like others to see?

In my presentations to ANU students about this I encourage them to create a ‘minimum presence model’. By making sure you have information on yourself in high profile sites, the first page of Google is less likely to show that picture of you, sloppy drunk on your 21st birthday.

The start of a minimum presence model is:

A university page (if it’s available to you): make sure you have all your publications in the relevant research repository and a current photo. I recommend you get a professional portrait done, but if you can’t afford it, get someone you love to take lots of photos of you over a week and you’ll find one you like. Be true to your style – your portrait can express your personality too. Here’s a Pinterest board I created with some ideas.

Linkedin: It comes up high in most searchers and trust me – the university recruiters are looking at it. Use the same, good photo and include a user friendly bio in plain language which others can also use for a conference bio or talk blurb.

To strengthen your minimum presence model I recommend, in addition:

About me, or flavors me – or some other aggregator: an aggregator site lets you ‘collect’ the pieces of your digital self and display them on a page. Useful for curating a list of your papers, blog posts and other content that might give people a sense of your capabilities.

Join Twitter: I know many people are scared of it, but it’s the very best way for someone to see you react and respond in ‘real time’. If you can’t face it, that’s fair enough – but if you are going to be there, say something, even if only occasionally. An empty Twitter feed, where you haven’t even bothered to change the default egg avatar, says to the world that you can’t commit.


I don’t blame you. It’s a very confusing digital world out there, which is why I will be hosting a Twitter chat about how to shape your scholarly online presence which will be simultaneously broadcast live on Periscope next Monday, 17th of August from 7 – 7:30pm Eastern Standard Time.

This live broadcast will also show people who have joined our MOOC How to Survive your PhD course how to join in on the conversation via Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. The plan is to share some of my tips and techniques, based around the questions you leave in the comments section to this post.

To participate on the day, download the periscope app to your phone and search for Thesis Whisperer – if you follow me on periscope you will get a notification when I am live online and when you click the link you will be able to see and hear me. Alternatively, at 7pm Canberra time you can watch my Twitter feed for the periscope link and follow along with the conversation via the #survivephd15 hashtag.