Six months ago, I did something that would have made my younger self furious: I joined Twitter.
I had always been suspicious of social media, so I was stunned to be advised to join the microblogging site not for my personal gratification but for my professional development. I was even more surprised to find that, much to my chagrin, it proved useful, providing a new way to expand my academic network and promote my research. It was also rewarding to engage with questions from prospective and current students, and to help in whatever small ways I could as they transitioned into the academic world.
The longer I stayed on Twitter, though, the more my initial concerns regarding social media resurfaced – particularly in connection with the popular #AcademicTwitter tag. Specifically, I became concerned that the tweets that garner the most discussion tend to focus on either the highest highs or lowest lows of academic life. Someone judging academia based on these tweets might reasonably conclude that all academics are either consistently churning out high-impact papers or miserable in a toxic work environment. Both are certainly aspects of academic life (especially the need to create safer, more inclusive work environments, which I’ll discuss below). But when the discussion only centres around these polar experiences, we run the very real risk of alienating the next generation of academics.
This isn’t a problem unique to academics on Twitter, incidentally: it’s reflected in almost all corners of the social media landscape and is one reason why psychologists have identified negative ramifications of social media use on mental health. However, the breadth of the problem should not be taken as a reason for inaction. Academics are skilled at diagnosing and solving problems, so should be more than capable of critically assessing our use of social media.
This is the reason that I have started using the #AverageAcademicDay tag. Prompted by a new graduate student’s expression of doubts about their decision to pursue a PhD after spending time on #AcademicTwitter, I tweeted my concerns about the effects our tweets were having on early career scholars and was flabbergasted by the response it got. Many agreed with the sentiment, inspiring me to start tweeting not just my successes and failures, but also the more mundane, but nonetheless important and rewarding, aspects of academic life that may otherwise be lost in the echo chamber.
But there were also those who took legitimate issue with the broad nature of my statement, observing that social media provides a platform to those who have historically been denied one. Indeed, many academics have used Twitter to advocate for mental health awareness and improved mentorship practices, and to shine a necessary light on the sexism, racism, homophobia and transphobia that persist in academia.
Such conversations have made me realise that these issues are much more nuanced than can be encapsulated in 280 characters. I understand that I’m privileged and fortunate not to have faced these forms of discrimination. And while I cannot speak to the unique challenges faced by these communities, it is my sincere hope that this discussion will lead to other important voices among the academics on social media being provided a platform to speak to the larger academic community.
Nonetheless, I feel academics can also use Twitter to call attention, in parallel, to overlooked problems and prejudices in our community and to emphasise how academic research provides a clear, rewarding opportunity to improve society by adding to our collective knowledge.
My experiences include both sides of that coin. I’ve experienced intense anxiety about publishing, my career path and my work/life balance, but I also absolutely love my work and have found a research environment full of great collaborators. I am thankful that I earn a living researching a problem that can directly help individuals with epilepsy.
If I were asked by prospective students about my career in academia, my story would include a balance of these positives and negatives, as well as more mundane day-to-day experiences. It would be irresponsible to only tell them about my most successful papers and projects, as that might intimidate them and exacerbate any impostor syndrome they might experience. Similarly, were I only to speak of the moments that typified my worst frustrations with the academic system, I might accidentally discourage these potential academics by conveying an excessively negative picture of the academic experience.
Earning a PhD and performing academic research is arguably one of the most arduous career paths imaginable, and our community still has major prejudices we must work tirelessly to overcome. But, simultaneous with these pivotal endeavours, we must also beware that the limitations of social media don’t drown out the rest of the academic story.