How to stop your social media activity from sabotaging your next application

Social media is a gift to academia. The opportunities it offers for building your network, increasing the reach of your published work, and finding collaborators from across the world were unimaginable just a few years ago.

Cutting-edge ideas, stimulating debate, exciting new connections, even access to hundreds of international job opportunities – it’s all instantly available.

And there, perhaps, is the problem.

Those very benefits of accessibility and immediacy also expose us to some potential minefields. Because using social media quickly becomes second nature, it’s all too easy to post or comment something rash or ill-advised. 

This is an issue that can become all too clear when you are applying for your next job. With your sights set on a new role, you will no doubt devote hours to honing your CV and cover letter, preparing answers to possible interview questions, and rehearsing your job talk. But how much attention will you give to the impression created by your social media activity?

Institutional reputation is prized – and closely protected. So if a recruiter scrutinising your social media accounts finds behaviour likely to inflict reputational damage on an institution, the progress of your application may come to a swift halt. (A recent YouGov survey of business decision-makers found that one in five employers have turned down an applicant because of their social media activity.)

We all know how polarising, even hostile, social media channels can be, especially if your field is one in which trolls are active, such as climate change, gender or feminism. The urge to launch out into the digital ether and make some waves can be strong. But the internet has a long memory, and your access to it is unlikely to be managed by a PR professional, well versed in the creation and curation of public image.

You are your own filter.

That can be hard to remember when stress or frustration start to get the better of you.

But the behaviour and boundaries you demonstrate on social media matter. They have the power to build your case, undermine any first impression you make in person – or knock you off the shortlist before you even get to interview.

So what do you need to bear in mind? Here are three suggestions:

  1. Acknowledge the responsibilities that come with your role or expertise

As an academic your words carry weight. If your social media bio identifies you as an expert in a particular area, your views will be seen to have authority. If it mentions your institution, you will be considered its representative, whether you recognise that or not.

For that reason it may be wise to include a disclaimer that your views are your own. But bear in mind that they will still be closely associated in readers’ minds with your role or institution.

Retweeting or posting a link to someone else’s content can help amplify their audience or advance a debate, but it may look like an endorsement, so tread carefully. Is the source reliable?

Social media thrives on novelty and extremes. You may find your finely nuanced research findings repackaged in a simplistic or misleading way by a third party looking to generate a reaction. It can therefore be worth tracking mentions carefully and keeping an eye on the wider conversation.

  1. Set and stick to clear boundaries

It’s a good idea to give thought to the distinction between the personal and the professional. Conveying a warm, unstuffy impression is great – you shouldn’t feel the need to stifle your personality. But if your social media profile includes reference to your job, your behaviour should be professional.

It may be best not to post publicly on social media in circumstances you would avoid for a face-to-face work conversation – such as when you’re angry, feeling overwhelmed or exhausted.

Keep your activity relevant. A breadth of interests is appealing, but the use of what looks to your followers like random, unrelated hashtags will seem disjointed, even potentially spam-like. If you want a channel for sharing more personal views or subjects, opt for a platform you can keep private.

Honour other people’s boundaries, too. Don’t overlook press embargos, confidentiality issues or commercial sensitivity when you’re excited about sharing an announcement or a new piece of research.

  1. Be generous

It’s easy to feel strongly about pressing issues and to assume that any sensible person must agree with you. This polarisation is worsened by the filter bubbles we end up inhabiting online. Because we miss the norms and nuances of face-to-face communication, our responses on social media can be far fiercer than they ever would be in real life. But if you would refrain from having a loud political argument at an interview, it’s best to do the same on your public social media profiles.

Wherever possible, choose a generous approach that promotes constructive debate and honours freedom of speech. Do whatever you can to avoid any defamatory, derogatory or discriminatory language.

Think through the qualities you would like to convey at interview: thoughtfulness, sensitivity, respect – and model them in your online interactions.

Lastly, consider an audit – and edit – of your online profiles to ensure coherence across them. A quick Google search should reveal most of them, so don’t forget to search for yourself and see what comes up. When applying for your next academic job, it’s well worth investing the time to make sure your social media presence highlights rather than undermines your credibility.

Further reading

Possibilities and pitfalls of social media for translational medicine’ – of interest and relevance to a wider audience despite its specific focus

Andy Tattersall’s ‘Don’t be a giraffe – How to avoid trolls on academic social media’ on the LSE blog

Twitter and academics: a personal view of the academic Twitterverse’ from Wendy Stone, Director of Global Academy Jobs

Social media and the unwritten code of conduct’ by Diana Hayes

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Jo Mitchell is an experienced writer and editor. After studying Modern Languages at the University of Oxford she worked in fundraising at Oxfam GB and Viva, where she specialised in writing communications for major donors. She now provides freelance editing and copywriting services at Nightingale Ink in the firm belief that sometimes words can sing.

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