A Scientist's Guide to Social Media: Tips for Building a Personal Brand

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Pictured: Person scrolling on social media/Kaspars Grinvalds/Adobe Stock

While there is no shortage of information out there on how to use social media in a professional context, resources for scientists in this area are more scarce.

Some of the better-known techniques to grow an audience, like sharing opinions on hot topics or current events, aren’t always suitable for life science professionals. For example, sharing personal views can be difficult when employed in academia, and public conversations can erode trust in science if researchers aren’t careful.

As noted by Hootsuite, it’s best practice to check if your institute has employee social media guidelines you need to follow before making content. If given a green light, scientists shouldn’t be afraid to put themselves out there to enjoy building a community and play a role in making science accessible to everyone.

A Scientist's Guide to Social Media

Here are some key points to remember when building a brand as a scientist to be both engaging and mindful online.  

The Do's

Dr. Will Grant, an associate professor of science communications at the Australian National University, told BioSpace that researchers should think about what they want to achieve and their target audience as the first step.  

“Start with what your goals are. [For a scientist], it varies from communicating with a wider public audience or the end users of their work to connecting with other scientists, journalists, policymakers,” he said. “Understanding the people that can connect with your work is a sensible place to start; you need to know what your purpose is first.”  

It can also be helpful to get to know the different platforms, as not all social media has the same type of users or content.

For example, Instagram is visually driven and favors photos and videos, while Twitter is best for quick bite-sized pieces of information and sharing interesting links. LinkedIn is professional and career-focused, while Facebook has a mix of everything.

LinkedIn is a great place to start, as suggested by Science, and it can complement researcher profiles on websites like ResearchGate and ORCID. There are also articles specifically for scientists containing helpful explanations on how to use each platform and get started.  

Grant also encouraged scientists to showcase both their academic work and who they are as a person to build their personal brand. For researchers who are hesitant to share details about their lives, he suggested “finding one domain of your life that is human and personable, so you’re not just tweeting about your research.” 

“People tend to trust people and very much appreciate more of a human element. That broadens the appeal,” he added.

Finally, according to the MIT Communications Lab, scientists should put some time into creating a clever username that is consistent across all platforms, learn about hashtags and draw up a schedule to ensure they're posting consistently.

The Don'ts

AI resources can be used for a range of tasks to help with your social media presence. For example, ChatGPT can be used to turn the abstract of your latest paper into an interesting, bite-sized Tweet, while Dall-E 2 can create eye-catching images from simple biology word prompts for posting on Instagram.

Just don’t forget to double-check anything that’s been outsourced to an AI program for accuracy and plagiarism. 

Another mistake scientists often make on social media is using overly technical language or jargon. Science communication portal Fancy Comma suggested using simple and relatable real-world examples to explain things, such as the example of a ball rolling downhill to explain gravity. 

Grant also said to avoid simply presenting research with no context or real-world application. He emphasized that making your science relevant to a wide range of people is critical.

“Seeing how your work can help other people and answer other people’s questions or offering it in a way that is publicly oriented is way better than saying ‘new paper alert,’” he said. 

Following this, another error scientists often make is missing the opportunity to mention their research when a relevant topic is trending. A great way to do this is by keeping an eye on the LinkedIn news cycle and searching what people are discussing on Twitter.

When a topic you have knowledge or experience in comes up, show the public what the science means and how it affects them. Tag people, reply to content directly and get involved in discussions by answering questions and providing insight. 

Grant said it’s also important to remember that the internet is permanent. Avoid sharing anything overly personal or controversial and avoid engaging in negative behavior online. Be thoughtful with content and charitable to fellow users, and keep the focus on what you want the conversation to be about.  

Grant advised scientists who are unsure how to approach an online conversation with someone who has an opposing view to try to understand them. 

“If they’re a key audience and they have doubts and questions, engage with them,” he said. “A scientist can use that as a chance to understand what it is that they care about, what they’re interested in and why they might be feeling a little bit different [about] the science than the scientist.” 

Dispelling myths, sharing discoveries and connecting with the wider community are all viable reasons for researchers to take the plunge and explore the world of social media.

While scientists may not be used to promoting themselves, there are plenty of reasons to start building a brand through social media and making the life sciences accessible to everyone. 

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