Why you should use Twitter during your PhD



Twitter, according to Wikipedia (yes – how terribly un-scientific of me), is an online social networking and micro-blogging service that enables users to send and read “tweets”, which are text messages limited to 140 characters. Twitter is vital to the success of your PhD. Yes, you heard me read me correctly, a seemingly superficial social media site is a fundamental element that will contribute to the success of your PhD – if you embrace it!

Let me tell you my story.

I was a Masters student in South Africa, where I had completed my undergraduate studies and an Honours degree. I was tutoring and working as a sessional lecturer at the university, but was longing for a change – I do suffer from serious wanderlust! At the time I was a casual user of Twitter, using the platform to follow and interact with friends. I started to notice more and more that Twitter was overlapping with my professional field; journals had twitter accounts, journal editors were tweeting, and researchers and professors were mentioning their twitter handles in their bios.

I was intrigued. I started following experts in my field, and was amazed to see that these experts were mere people who actually interacted with us mortals! Twitter was sharing with me the musings from these researchers, showcasing debates on hot topics…but also had pictures of the professor’s dogs!

For a couple of months I observed this conversation, much as one would with an online forum, not willing to give my 10 cents just yet. This was a form of networking without the obligatory small talk at conferences. I was hooked! I learnt a huge amount in this phase, not just about how Twitter works (the best way to learn how to use Twitter is to observe), but also about the current thinking in my field. More scientific content was being disseminated on Twitter than ever before, and the intersection of science and Twitter had already been reached!

Then one day I knew that I had to interact. A professor in my field whose work I very much admired, and who happens to be the leading expert in the field – who I never would have had the chance to talk to candidly before – tweeted that she had PhD scholarships available. I would not had heard about these had I not been following her on Twitter. I was not even looking for scholarships at the time as I had planned to go on to a PhD in a couple of year’s time! In one of my first ‘professional’ twitter interactions I tweeted her and asked about the possibility of an international scholarship. She replied that she had one.

As I now sit in Australia on that international scholarship I have Twitter to thank for this opportunity to complete my PhD.

I have since learnt that my Professor is an advocate for the use of Twitter to disseminate scientific research more widely, and to foster conversation around our work. She insists that every student and researcher on her team tweets, and we have a twitter account for our research centre.

Twitter has changed the ‘stuffy’ image of academia. Twitter allows for opinions, debate, and input from others. The conversation that is stimulated is often thought provoking, and helpful when forming your own opinions, especially as a PhD student. It is not often that we are privy to the conversations between experts in our fields, or to their opinions. We often see only their rigorous scientific articles and presentations.

Live tweeting from conferences, tweet chats, and the opportunity to share personal views has opened up the scientific community to greater interaction through an ongoing conversation. Twitter allows the opportunity to have your ear to the ground, and this is invaluable for a PhD student.

Finally, Twitter is likely to play an even bigger part in our academic careers than many of us realize. This tweet from @AstroKatie is a testament to the new paradigm of academic impact “My supervisor wrote down huge Twitter presence: 7000 followers on my performance review. Social media outreach FTW!”

Follow me on Twitter @shereebekker

Author Bio:Sheree Bekker is originally from South Africa and now based in Australia as an international PhD scholar at the Australian Centre for Research into Injury in Sport and its Prevention (ACRISP), Federation University Australia. Her research centres around sports safety.