Work essential or extra workload? The value of creating a personal professional web presence

Last week, Hazel Hall and I delivered a workshop through Edinburgh Napier University’s Research, Innovation & Enterprise (RIE) office entitled “Work essential or extra workload? The value of creating a personal professional web presence”. The first part of this session was delivered by Hazel, who is an experienced researcher, blogger, and all-around advocate of the importance of having (and maintaining!) an up-to-date online presence as an academic. She spoke about the origins of her blog, as well as her experiences of setting up web pages for teaching, and developing an online presence for the Library and Information Science Research Coalition in 2012. She also listed a plethora of reasons for why she chooses to invest time into maintaining her professional online presence. See her full blog post about the workshop here.

The second part of this workshop was delivered by me, and I was pleased to be invited to speak on this topic. Despite not considering myself an expert at all when it comes to online presences, I’ve managed to maintain this blog for about 6 months now, so I thought that colleagues might benefit from hearing my own experiences of setting up and updating my blog. My slides are available for download here. I’ve included a lot of text on this particular set of slides, as I intended for them to be pretty self-explanatory, and to be of use to colleagues who did not have a chance to attend this time around. I say “this time around” because there is a possibility that this workshop will run again in the future!

At this point you may be wondering, well, is creating a personal professional web presence work essential or extra workload? In the workshop, I argued that yes, it is absolutely work essential, and yes, it can also be thought of as extra workload. But there are some nuances to this statement – the extra workload amounts to a manageable 3-5 hours a month for me, and the benefits of running this blog far outweigh the cons associated with this time investment. See the main messages of my talk below with some additional points thrown in.

Customising your online presence and giving people the full story

One of the main benefits of blogging is that it can elevate your public profile. It allows you to increase both the quality and quantity of information held about you and your research outputs online. As researchers, we are involved in a range of projects and events, but what often happens with institutional online presences is that they are generally slow to update, and do not always give us behind-the-scenes previews of listed research outputs. In addition, we may have various online presences, but not all of these may be listed in institutional pages. It is better to have your own personal website because you can talk about projects and engagements at the same time that they are happening, or even while they are still in the ideation phase. People unfamiliar with you and your work would likely appreciate it if you make yourself easy to get in touch with, and if you compile all relevant information about your research in one place. Equally, people who are already familiar with your work may appreciate having a way of learning more about it and tracking its progress.

The value of blogging as illustrated by other people’s blogs: Why just follow? Why not have your own voice?

I followed a number of blogs long before I started my own. I appreciate the time and effort others put into maintaining general interest blogs and personal blogs because what they do is a type of public service that serves an important function in research communities, and they’re not even typically paid to do so. The ‘return on investment’ may not always be apparent to them, still, they “talk to imagined citizens” and share information online out of goodwill. The whole ‘open access’ attitude that applies to research data and outputs could also apply to work in progress, research failures, and practical tips to succeed in academia, and blogs contribute greatly to this. I’m not saying that all researchers are obliged to blog, as I know it’s not for everyone; I’m merely saying that I’m grateful to those who do. Research blogs increase the visibility of many aspects of academic life that may otherwise remain hidden and help start conversations that may not have happened otherwise. See my slides for some examples of the blogs I follow.

How do I get started? What are the benefits? What is the time commitment like?

My attitude towards blogging is “just start, just try”; don’t try to be perfect, be willing to look like an idiot, and just give things a go. Another way to describe this is simply learning by doing. So, the main message here is to decide if blogging is worth it for you, and if it is, then just try creating a blog on WordPress or Squarespace, and see if it clicks. Decide on how much time you can realistically invest, so that you’re not overwhelming yourself and neglecting your work. There are many benefits for yourself (e.g. learning, networking, writing practice) in blogging, and others will also benefit in one way or another. The main benefit is flexibility: you can blog as much or as little as you like, as long as it’s fairly regular; the topics, audiences, writing style, and visual design are all up to you; if you don’t like social media or drawing attention to yourself in general, just write around a research topic or about your work.

Following the workshop, questions from the audience were mainly about the practical considerations around starting a blog. Attendees seemed to be convinced about the ‘why’ of starting a blog, and it was now more a matter of figuring out the ‘how’: domain names, copyrights, pros and cons of using different blogging platforms, having several blogs or compressing it all in one main blog. At the point of conclusion of the event, it was great to hear one of our attendees exclaim “I will try it!”; it meant that we got our message across and achieved our goal of conveying the benefits of having an online presence as an early career researcher. I look forward to seeing everyone’s shiny new blogs in the near future!

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