It’s September, and a young person’s fancy naturally turns to applying to grad school/postdocs/faculty jobs. And in this day and age, questions inevitably arise: Are they going to google me? What will they find? Followed immediately by: Should I have my own web page (if I don’t already)? And what should be on it?
Roughly speaking, as you climb up the academic ladder, the scrutiny one undergoes becomes increasingly close. If you are in high school and applying to colleges, I would be extremely surprised if any admissions committee googled you — there are just too many of you, frankly. Mostly this also holds for undergrads applying to grad school. At least, that’s the situation among theorists; for experimentalists, who might be joining a specific lab on day one, the number might be smaller and the individual attention correspondingly greater. By the time you apply for faculty jobs, the numbers are very small, and nobody gets an offer without being poked and prodded in person, and having their CV examined under a microscope. In that case, the web page is (almost) beside the point, as they’ve seen you up close and personal.
It’s for postdoc applications, then, that the googling question becomes most relevant. Remember that most research groups have relatively few postdocs, so they take the selection process very seriously — mistakes can be costly. But in many cases the decision-making timescale is sufficiently short that they don’t have the luxury of seeing each candidate in person. So I would say: yes, at many places where you apply for postdocs, they will be googling you to glean information that might not show up on a formal application. That is especially true if you’re applying to individual professors or groups (rather than wider-ranging fellowships), and also if the relevant decision-makers are younger.
So: if they do google you, what will they find? You can see how it might make sense to put up your own web page: that way you have some influence over their first impressions of you. There is a systematic issue, of course, that some names are more easily googleable than others, but we won’t address that here. If you do have a web page, you can simply include the URL in your CV, so they will have it in front of them.
If you do decide to have a web page, what should it look like? There is an overarching principle at work here: the Web is World-Wide. That is, everything you put on your page can be viewed (ordinarily) by everyone. You can’t put stuff up that “is only meant for your friends,” and then be surprised when it is examined by prospective employers. If you have pictures or stories that are in any way private — keep them private!
There are two basic things that a prospective postdoc employer wants to know about you. The first, obviously, is what kind of researcher you are. Presumably you have largely addressed that in your application, which includes a list of publications and a statement of research interests. But you can do that again on your web page, in a less formal and correspondingly more accessible style. Write something about the questions you are interested in, the work you’ve already done, your future plans. Include links to your online papers and talks if you have any. Have you written up any useful notes or tutorials? Here is where you could make them available. Any pretty pictures related to your work that didn’t find their way into papers? Now is your chance.
But the second thing, equally important, is: what kind of group member would you be? Very few people hire postdocs with the intent that they will sit in an office/lab for three years and not talk to anyone. Are you a good communicator? Do you enjoy collaborating with others? Do you have useful skills that don’t manifest themselves in your list of publications? Are you proactive, participating in journal clubs and other activities, rather than just going along for the ride? Try to put yourself in the shoes of the people trying to decide who to hire. You are going to be colleagues for the next several years, and there are a lot of things that go into being a good colleague. If you can get across something of that on your web page, great.
Meanwhile, of course, try not to embarrass yourself along the way. Those Spring Break pictures might have seemed hilarious at the time, but aren’t necessarily what your next employer wants to see. Likewise, that poem you wrote sophomore year — are you sure that everyone else will think it’s as good as you do? I’m not saying that it’s not, just that you should be appropriately self-critical here.
More generally, try not to give people the chance to downgrade you for the wrong reasons, even if they are the wrong reasons. For example, we live in an academic world where sexism exists, even if it shouldn’t. So let’s say that your favorite web page background shows images of Hello Kitty playing with unicorns. That’s fine, and more power to you, but you should be aware that some crotchety old men will take you less seriously, no matter how many heroic calculations show up in your papers. You have to make a personal decision about how much you want to let the Man stifle your personal expression; but it should be an informed decision.
Finally, there is the question of a picture (of yourself). I tend to think it’s usually good to include a picture. This has nothing to do with how attractive you may or may not be; it’s just that pictures have a humanizing effect. Whatever you look like, that’s what you look like, and once you actually get hired and show up, they will know. But having that picture allows people to put a face to the name, and perhaps they recognize you the next time they see you give a talk or bump into you at a conference.
Remember: once you have reached the level of applying for postdocs, the most important factor by far in your future success is the research you have done. Everything else, whether it be web pages or how many influential physicists you’ve met personally, is a higher-order effect. But sometimes higher-order effects make a difference.
See here for previous installments of Unsolicited Advice.