How useful is Twitter professionally? (Jason Dutton)

Image from Esther Vargas
Shared via CC BY-SA 2.0
I’ll open this piece on using Twitter as an academic by admitting I’m not much for technology or computers.

I can hardly do email, and wish we were still allowed to just get up and deliver lectures by writing on a chalkboard.

But I have enjoyed getting on Twitter with a more or less professional focus and it’s given me several opportunities I might not otherwise have had. It's useful for your career to get on Twitter and actively use it.

How useful?

Well…more or less, depending. Some might just get a bit of amusement, but there are scientists I know of in Australia whose effective use of Twitter has made them a personality in the popular media, and this has made their career.

I am definitely towards the less impactful end of the scale, but mine is probably a more typical experience. I’ll start with some of the benefits I’ve experienced.

You can get more well known in your field. 

In Australia, we are far from each other and certainly far from everybody else.

One of the worst things to be as a scientist/academic is anonymous. Which stinks. I’d rather just get on with the job quietly but being “known” is so damn important.

If your field has any size at all (mine is chemistry), thousands of your colleagues will be on Twitter, including some of the top people in the world. A different thing about Twitter (compared to Facebook) is that it's not weird in any way to follow people you’ve never met. People actually like it. Having more followers is better, I suppose. Perhaps it's because there is no obligation to follow back.

Even better, it is considered totally normal to talk (tweet) people you’ve never met, as long as you're being polite, constructive, and not annoying. Often, that person will reply. You could literally be having an interesting chat with the top person in your field tomorrow. That's pretty cool.

What I’ve found is that when you follow/get followed/otherwise interact with relevant people, when there is an opportunity to meet in real life (conference, visiting a uni), there are chances to meet/go for lunch or a drink with them that wouldn’t have otherwise happened.

It also provides a great opportunity to remain in touch and on somebody's radar after you’ve met them at a conference or the like. Follow them after you meet, and keep engaging on Twitter where appropriate. I have a very modest number of followers (~750), but I have met a few dozen people I otherwise wouldn’t have.

You find out about jobs. 

I’m not in the market right now, and hopefully (!) never again, but lots and lots of jobs - from PhD opportunities to postdocs and academic positions - I would've otherwise never heard about have come around on the Twitterfeed. I've probably seen fewer industrially relevant roles there.

I got a PhD graduate from La Trobe a postdoc position in Sweden pretty much exclusively via a Twitter contact. I even gave my reference in the Twitter Direct Message function. I recently hired a postdoc, and posting the position description on Twitter resulted in more inquiries than any other advertising medium that was used. I had a phonecall with someone going for an interview for an academic position in the UK I’d only met on Twitter. Don’t know if my suggestions were helpful or not, but they got the job!

Find out about conferences you wouldn’t otherwise have know about. 

Tweeting like a mad person at conferences is now the norm. I don’t do it, but others do. Obviously you can’t go to every conference. Reading the people I follow who are tweeting speakers/titles from events I can't go to, I’ve then gone to somebody's website or paper and found out about super-relevant stuff that's either as yet unpublished or newly published that I’d missed.

You realise you aren’t the only one. 

Science is hard, sometimes academia sucks. Maybe you are the only one at your career stage in your Department (me, for years). On Twitter, I’ve found that whatever issue I’m facing, a thousand other people are also complaining about it! Seeing that my issues with the daily bullshit science can bring are the same as everyone else’s bullshit issues has convinced me that I’m normal (or at least some shade of normal), which is nice.

I’m no expert, but here are a few of my rules/hints/tips:
  • If you want people to follow you, and therefore know you exist (see top point), you must actively tweet
  • Be positive, constructive, funny or interesting in your twitterings. I’m probably more cynical than I should be, but that's just who I am. 
  • That said, don’t be an ass. I remember from our professional conduct induction a key concept was “if you think it could be a workplace, it's a workplace”. Taxi on the way back from Department holiday gathering? Workplace. Conference dinner? Workplace. Same goes for Twitter, if you are using it as a professional account, it's probably a workplace, with all the responsibilities that that brings. Want to complain about the government? Probably OK. Can’t believe Cricket Australia didn’t go with a second spinner? Fire away! Complain about your University or otherwise make it look bad? Bad idea. Those “opinions are mine” disclaimers I suspect have little sway if your Dean or VC decides they really don’t like what you said about them. 
So, be nice, be interesting, and enjoy!


Dr Jason Dutton is an Associate Professor and the Chemistry Deputy Head of the Department of Chemistry and Physics at La Trobe University. 

He's an expert in Chemical Synthesis, X-ray crystallography, multinuclear NMR and computational/theoretical chemistry. 

Jason has previously been awarded an Australia Research Council (ARC) DECRA and is currently an ARC Future Fellow. He leads a group of four PhD students, and his lab also includes two to four Masters/Honours students at any given time. 

He tweets from @DuttonChemistry.