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Why have an academic website?

I recently read a Tweet by an academic who explained the difficulty he had in gaining name recognition and citations because he had a non-Western name, and people (a) couldn’t remember it, and (b) didn’t connect the face they met at conferences with the person who’d produced the research. This is a problem, because if people can’t remember your name—or spell it—they’re not going to cite you, and this has direct implications for your career as an academic, or your brand recognition as a non-academic.

(No, I can’t remember the tweet author’s name. Yes, I am kicking myself.)

Undercitation of women and POC is a recognised problem in academia, so I wanted to point at the role an academic website or blog can have in raising your profile and establishing your brand. Before you ask “who the heck do you think you are, and why would I listen to you anyway?!”, I’ll throw in that I’ve worked in marketing and PR (including as marketing director for a national firm), built websites galore for a range of clients, and my personal blog has had nearly 2.5 million visitors and counting, without ever taking my clothes off.

Let’s take a look at some of the problems having an academic website may help address for you:

The Solution to All Your Problems*

* Except, you know, your research problem

Problem: People can’t remember my name

Do you have a name more difficult to spell or pronounce than ‘John Smith’? My colleague Reda Mahajar certainly does. I’ve known him twelve years, and still have to double-check how to write his name. (PS, he works on Shia/Sunni identity issues. PPS, I realise I’m not exactly establishing a good history with ‘remembering names’ here…). Short of changing your name, you will need to conduct a branding exercise. This means finding a way for people to either be able to remember your name—I say to spell my surname like ‘skilled’, but with an ‘n’ rather than a ‘d’ at the end (Skillen)—or create a way for people to easily find you and remember who you are. You need a face, and a voice, and some unashamed self-promotion.

This means setting up relevant social media profiles, talking about your work, and hopefully finding a place to unify all that. In the context of websites, it means making your name your brand. For this website, I chose ‘lauramay.live’, not because I’m concerned about my imminent death, but because ‘Laura May’ is my primary brand for written work. It’s also something people can easily spell.

If you have a name which people stumble over, think about using two domain names. For example, ‘Reda.net’ could automatically forward to ‘RedaMahajar.net’. When selecting your domain name(s), try insofar as possible to select a mainstream ending (.com, .net, .org) or something people can remember. The theme here is make it easy for people to remember you and your brand. By doing that, your name will be more likely to come up when somebody is looking for experts to cite.

Problem: People can’t remember my research

If people can’t remember your research, you need to find a platform to talk about it. An easy way to do this is via blogging. You could absolutely blog on platforms such as The Conversation, or on your institution’s website—or you could get people to remember you as the origin of the idea by tying it to your personal brand. You could manage this using LinkedIn, Twitter, or other social media, but an advantage of blogging over these methods is that blog posts are more ‘findable’ in search results from desperate grad students looking for handy citations. Regularly posting helps to boost your website’s appearance in search results, meaning your name is seen more. Blogging can also lead to conversation, broadening the reach of your research, and help from a public engagement perspective. Lastly, if you’ve done some research which you’re dying to talk about but have nowhere else to put it, recording your thoughts or ‘baby findings’ via blog posts can be a way of ensuring they don’t just die a lonely death. (Grim.)

Problem: My academic profile is tied to a particular institution, and I secretly want to burn the place down and run far, far away…

Perhaps you’ve been at a particular academic institution for a while, and you haven’t had to worry too much about branding. You’ve had a secure job, for example, and you were magically hired straight out of your PhD or postdoc. However, the time has nearly come to set some things on fire, and your entire academic profile is bound up in this one institution—your institution ‘staff’ page and an underloved ResearchGate profile is perhaps the limit of your branding. When you leave (burn down) the institution, you lose that material, and you no longer have a ‘centre’ for your academic brand. Creating an academic website can help you to avoid this problem: by all means, link to your other professional profiles, whether on ResearchGate, LinkedIn, or your institution’s homepage, but make sure that your academic profile is separate to that of your institution.

Problem: I’m invisible to the media/public/my friends and family!

Look, you’re an expert, but sometimes it may not feel like it. Either your nearest and dearest don’t understand what you’re talking about (though are undoubtedly proud…unless you’re not a lawyer or ‘real’ doctor, of course 😉), or they know just as much about your research as you do (the lonely cry of vaccine researchers and political scientists everywhere). Having an academic website which generates interest and clearly portrays you as an expert is helpful in positioning you as somebody who knows more than the latest meme. It’s also a non-threatening way for those who care to get to grips with your research on their own time, so that next holiday gathering, they know exactly why they’re so proud of you. Which brings me to the next problem…

Problem: I find it difficult to express myself when writing about my research

Perhaps you are the President of Academese, and your oblique references to fancy French philosophers and their swirly ideas are the talk of the establishment. While you are indubitably almost unbearably precise in your writing, and you really know how to sound like a grown-up, Aunt May down the street would not have a clue what to do with your ‘journal jargon’. Nor would the BBC—unless, of course, you imagine journalists having spare time to kick around digesting your material. Nobody is better placed to translate your work for the public than you are.

To engage with the public, you need to learn to write for a wide audience. This can take practice, and blog posts or website content are a much less concerning place to figure it out than when you’re trying to give your first interview to a journalist (or your tenth, for that matter).

What should an academic website contain?

(This is where mild hypocrisy comes into play, as I have just set this site up, and have not yet incorporated all the following elements.)

An academic website should contain, at the least, your name and profile, links to your professional profiles, and any research or resources you would like people to have access to. You may or may not choose to incorporate a blog, though for reasons outlined above, I urge you to do so. If you do include a blog, make sure people can easily share it—and set it up so that it shares to your social or professional networks. Get your institution, school, or colleagues to reshare. Depending on your topic, you may wish to allow comments or suggestions on posts. By including a citation plugin (I use ‘Cite‘), you will reinforce (a) that this material was produced by you, and should be cited; (b) your name/brand—because people are looking at it again. They’re not going to forget you so easily, this time!

Cite this article as: Laura M Skillen, "Why have an academic website?," Laura May: Live, 14 December 2019, https://lauramay.live/2019/12/why-have-an-academic-website/. Accessed 19 October 2020.

Further reading and resources

  • First, you will need a snappy domain name. I use Namecheap for domain names, because they offer free domain name privacy protection. When you buy a domain (e.g. lauramay.live), you need to fill in the international register saying who the ‘owner’ is. If you don’t want the world at large having access to your full contact details, from email address to phone number to address—spoiler, you don’t—then you will want domain name privacy. With that said, if you’ve never set up a website before and aren’t too comfortable with the idea of navigating hosting etc, perhaps also purchase your domain from Siteground, and wear the small additional cost associated with privacy protection.
  • Second, you will need a web host. I use Siteground for website hosting, and they are amazing. Clients for whom I’ve built sites have been likewise stoked with them. This is a referral link for Siteground hosting. Siteground offers cheap plans, solid service, free SSL (that’s what gives you secure https:// website links), and free basic Cloudflare set-up to speed up your site. For the love of spaghetti, do not use GoDaddy.
  • This site is built on WordPress. I started building websites some twenty years ago, and nowadays I don’t see the point in handcoding a website—go for the easy and flexible solution, and that is WordPress. Once you set up your web hosting, you will likely be given a ‘one-click install’ option for WordPress. (One recommendation: set up two ‘administrator’ logins for your website using different email addresses, in case you ever accidentally lock yourself out or lose access to one of your email addresses, e.g. following an entirely unpredictable fire in your office building…)
  • I use Zoho for free mail accounts—not for this website, but for work and for my consultancy. I also use their invoicing software, Workdrive and more, if you are looking to branch out into independent consultancy. So if you want to have an email address including your fancy new domain name—e.g. me@myawesomename.com—then Zoho would be a cheap (free) and reliable way to do that, while still being user-friendly and having good customer service.
  • To keep building your brand, you may wish to revise your LinkedIn profile. Chris Cornthwaite has a fantastic blog post on things to take into account when developing an academic LinkedIn profile here: https://roostervane.com/day2/

What do *you* think?