by Dr Catherine Armstrong
Academic staff seem to be either innovative people who are comfortable with new technology, or traditional individuals who resist change. Even the most conservative scholar, however, cannot fail to be impressed by the revolution in communications that has taken place in recent years due to the emergence of social networking sites.
But are Facebook and similar sites useful to academics in terms of career development or should sites like these simply be used as tools for entertainment?
Social networking and career development
There are many opportunities for the academic scholar offered by social networking technology. Most of these should be viewed as an extension of face-to-face networking. Social networking offers another type of forum for you to forge connections with scholars around the world. So, for example, a conference that you attend in person might also have a web page on Facebook or a similar site. Materials such as paper proposals and posters can be posted on that site in advance and people can ‘meet’ each other ahead of time in a secure online environment.
Similar sorts of web pages can be established for research projects or collaborations. This approach is especially useful where scholars from many different countries are working together. It’s also an alternative method of communication to email, which is often unstable when sending large data files.
Social networking pages are an easy way to get an announcement out to a number of people in a private group without building up an extensive email distribution list. At a more advanced level, meetings can actually take place in an online space using the technology of ‘webinars’. Companies in the private sector use this technique frequently but universities could turn to it in the future. This technology uses webcams or voice-only software to hold virtual seminars online. This is extremely useful for collaborations where the partners live in different parts of the globe.
Another form of social networking is blogging. This form of online diary can be incredibly useful for those scholars who wish to sell themselves to potential employers. Of course this does mean that every post must be professional and that the potential audience must be considered at all times. Employers regularly ‘google’ a candidate to see what their online presence is like, so if you do have a blog they will find it!
What is stopping people from using social networking?
Apart from some academics’ mistrust of new technologies, there are other more serious issues that prevent academics making full use of social networking. Part of this is a security problem. Some scholars worry that if they post their work or ideas online then someone else may steal them. This can even extend to hostility towards using online discussion groups and forums for teaching purposes.
Others are worried about having a presence on sites such as Facebook or MySpace because it is seen as a young person’s space. They fear that their students will ‘find’ them on these sites and their privacy and integrity might be called into question.
Still others worry about the lack of permanence of such interactions. Many people still like to have a paper copy of particular academic exchanges and so will regularly print out emails to achieve that. Online discussion groups and forums are even more difficult to permanently record.
What can I do as a jobseeker?
However, as a jobseeker you should not dismiss these technologies, although you must proceed with caution. The very nature of online communications can lead some people to become informal and careless in the way that they present themselves. If you use social networking as a tool to help you find a job then you must remain professional at all times. Do not post anything that you would be embarrassed for a potential employer to see.
Blogging allows you to discuss at length your hopes for career development and your involvement in current research projects and teaching tasks. See it as an extension of your CV in which you elaborate on your skills and knowledge base. Many blogs allow you to show your creative side as well. Design the layout in a professional but individual way that displays your personality and talent.
Social networking sites should be used in a similar way. By all means have private pages for your own network of family and friends to see, but if you use this tool to help your jobseeking it must focus solely on that. Join in with web discussions and online groups whenever the opportunity arises. If you are working on a particular project, consider using social networking to keep you connected with your partners or sponsors. If you are unsure about how to use technology to achieve these aims your IT department at the university or research institute where you work will be able to help out.