Unsolicited Advice VII: Should I Have a Web Page?

By Sean Carroll | September 16, 2008 7:48 pm

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.

  • http://www.savory.de/blog.htm Ole Phat Stu

    Also : “The web never forgets”

    There is embarrassing stuff out there which I published well over a decade ago.
    Of course, now I’m retired, it doesn’t matter. But young folks need to know that the web does not forget.

  • http://www.loblog.de Lore

    I love this series. Keep posting! :)

  • Knut

    How does the one googling you know the information they find really is about you and not about someone else with a similar name? Our HR department does not recommend googling candidates when hiring. Even if you were to find the correct John Doe, what makes the information truthful? Relying on information solely from the net can be painful, as The Wine Spectator found out when it gave an award to a non-existant restuarant (using information off a web page and e-mails sent from the prankster)

  • Mike M

    I would also suggest that potential postdocs think carefully about how professional a job they do on their website: make it too all-singing-and-dancing, and a potential boss might wonder quite what you are spending your time doing, and if your talents are better directed toward web design than scientific research…

  • Mike M

    Mind you, one could use the a similar argument for persistent bloggers… not to mention those who comment on them.

  • Zzz

    I’ve hired people at the graduate student, postdoc, and even faculty level. One thing that always counts against a candidate is a web page that’s silly or emphasizes extracurricular activities — especially if it’s a work-hosted site advertised on the candidate’s CV (so I don’t even have to Google to find it).

    If I am looking for a postdoc and Jack Jones applies, and his CV has a URL, I will definitely check the web page out. If the page is full of blinking text that says “Howdy! I’m Jack Jones, salsa dancer, snowboarder, and physicist!!” then I will wonder where “physicist” ranks in his priorities. Beyond that, it speaks to a not-very-professional mindset.

    There’s nothing wrong with having your snowboarding photos on your web site — as long as there’s nothing embarrassing there. But put it behind a link and don’t advertise it to the first-time visitor.

    One place I’d disagree with Sean is where he says that this is less important for faculty candidates. I’d say it’s not so important once you get an interview — but it’s so hard to form an interview short-list that any off-note can get you dropped from it.

  • Spiv

    Any recommendations for those of us whom the world has decided we warrant a wikipedia entry? So far I simply ignore its existence and assume my name is “common enough” that it will get lost in the barrage of famous runners and photographers, but I can’t help but wonder if it’s ever come up on an HR department’s screen for review.

    At any rate, it’s not something which I can exert control over (well, I suppose I could, but it would probably just be edited back immediately).

  • http://backreaction.blogspot.com/ B

    Thanks for the heads up. That reminds me I should update my website. Humm. Seems like the new Internet Explorer has a problem with the template… You should have mentioned: try to make sure your website doesn’t have fatal bugs that causes browers to crash down or is infected by some virus, eg through embedded scripts.

  • Mike M

    Maybe I am just weird or shallow, but to be honest a job applicant can have furry bunnies and embarrassing photos all over his website, but if he has published a sensible number of well-cited papers on interesting relevant subjects then I will happily hire him.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/julianne Julianne

    Mike — I think that might make you the opposite of “shallow”.

  • http://mingus.as.arizona.edu/ Ben

    One cloudy night at the telescope several years ago, a friend of mine and I were checking out various astronomers’ web pages, famous and not-famous. On looking at my web page (which even more barebones than it is now; I’ve added some software and a few things to the “Unprofessional Stuff” category), my friend said “Yeah, this looks like the webpage of someone who’s looking for a job” [and put up a web page to satisfy the requirement]. In other words, B-O-R-I-N-G.

    So, in my opinion, go ahead and put up salsa dancing pictures. Just avoid the blinking text. If we want to read things that are written in a gray, formalized style and avoid the first-person or any self-expression, we can read the ApJ.

  • http://mingus.as.arizona.edu/~bjw/ Ben

    Ironically, I bungled the link to my own boring web page in the name attached to the previous post. It’s fixed now.

  • M

    There are some excellent points, but I disagree with the web presence not being important for tenure-track and higher positions. In my discipline, we get several hundred applications for a typical TT line, and our affirmative action office which oversees the searches requires that we do the exact same things for all applicants. If we google one or look at one person’s webpage, we have to look at them all. So we do, and there is often information on their webpages or their web presence that is either encouraging or discouraging. If we can save ourselves the trouble and expense of having an interview with someone who isn’t likely to work out in our department, time spent googling/searching is very well spent. Our expectation is that anyone we hire will need to have a decent webpage here, for example, so a candidate who has no or minimal web presence is missing an opportunity to convince us that that would be likely. A candidate who seems reasonable and has a strong, professional webpage is more likely to be considered, sometimes, than a slightly stronger candidate who has only a default webpage set up by their current institution.

    A particularly delicate issue concerns two-body problems. Often, a candidate with a significant two-body problem may not mention it on their application, but it may be quite obvious from their web presence. I’ve been on both sides of this question far too many times and I don’t know the best way of addressing it, but it certainly becomes more likely to become an issue with googling/searching. When I have applied for positions, I typically mentioned explicitly that my partner is also applying for positions at the same department/ same institution/ same city/ same region, but a number of other people work hard to conceal their two-body problems from search committees. Our attitude has been- its going to be an issue eventually, we may as well get it on the table and not go through the hassle of interviews if it is going to be a huge problem later. Other people have felt that any mention of a constraint relegates their application to the circular file. Different strategies have worked well and poorly for people we know, so I can’t recommend one strategy over another, as there are many variables.

  • Postdoc

    First thought after reading the article – I must do something about my web page. Second – why should I waste my time on it? It does take time to make a good quality web page, because it requires knowledge beyond HTML editing. Even a simple thing as making a picture can take a lot of efforts, because it needs to be done by professionals to look professional as well as all other parts… On the other hand if I don’t find TT position, I may become profession web designer if I do my page professionally :)

  • Zzz

    Of course, I hope people recognize that everything we’re talking about is a marginal consideration. We hire scientists, not web designers. If you have a dozen TOPCITE=100+ papers nobody cares what’s on your web page unless you’re advertising prostitution or illegal drugs. If your advisor tells us he had to finish your analysis and write your thesis for you, you’re toast no matter how great your web presence is.

    By the way, when I speak of a “professional” web page, I don’t mean something slick or modern necessarily: bare-bones HTML is fine as long as the content is reasonably serious.

  • estraven

    I think professional doesn’t have to mean high tech. It means it contains: a cv; a commented list of papers; a research project or at least research area description; academic material (slides presentations, lecture notes, etc). Photo optional.

    Once I was considering someone for a postdoc. I clicked on his website and all I could find was kitchen recipes (very good ones, at that). I phoned his advisor and the next day the page was fine – and the recipes where still there, which I appreciated. If you have a large extra-academia activity, consider putting it on a non-department page and just add a link.

    My own webpage sucks, but I’m tenured so I don’t care ;-).

  • Postdoc

    2 estraven

    99.9% of people tenured in 20 years from now won’t care about their web pages as well just because they have other things to worry about. If you are in a field that google is the only source of useful information, you doomed to get random people anyway.

  • Mike M

    Good grief, M. I wonder what your HR department would make of your post and established procedures. Maybe things vary from country to country, but if I were to make employment decisions on anything as vague as my perception of a website, I would, quite rightly, end up in the deep proverbial for not assessing the application against clearly-stated criteria applied uniformly to all applicants (since you did not require the applicant to have a website as part of your application procedure). As for rooting around to dig out information about two-body issues, well that is also ill-defined and ill-conceived. Not to mention the fact that it is probably illegal because of its barely-concealed disproportionate impact on female applicants, who are generally more affected by two-body issues (since more male than female applicants have non-employed or flexibly-employed spouses).

  • http://www.davidnataf.com David Nataf

    Sean Carroll,

    Thank you for writing one of these every few months. I just my finished my first year of graduate school so my website must be the 173rd most important thing for me, but I’m sure I’ll spend a few hours going through these sometime around 2010 or 2011.

  • M

    @Mike: some years ago, I asked for clarification on the googling candidates question from our AA officers. This is an unbelievably PC office at a US research institution. Their policy is that things a candidate puts on their webpage are volunteered information for the purposes of our evaluation. If we google one candidate, we have to google them all, as it is important that we treat all candidates the same. I am merely suggesting that people keep this in mind when they are on the market- and given that webpages have a way of being archived and you never know well you’ll be on the market, I think being prudent is a good policy.

    There are long lists of things interview committees cannot ask about during an interview, but if the candidate volunteers information (in person or on their webpage, for example) that is different. In theory, such information should typically have no bearing on the hiring process, but in reality committees consist of humans with strong human prejudices about the oddest things. The job search process is a tough one and it is pretty random. I’ve seen lots of dreadful things from both sides of many searches. The reality is that people judge you on lots of ridiculous things.

    It”s worth mentioning that webpages can work both ways, at least to some extent in that when I’ve been on the market in the past, I’ve looked at weblogs to see what institutions may be checking me out. And I noticed what pages they looked at. And what parts of my colleagues’ and some rivals’ pages they look at. Fair or not, candidates need to keep it mind.

    Clarification- when I mentioned “professional” web page, I didn’t mean professional as in done by a professional, I meant professional as in “professional behavior”- a simple page with contact info, publications, projects, schedule is a reasonable thing to expect someone to have. The primary thing should be your profession. Sub-pages on your interests are fine but if they dominate the page, that is not a good thing by most people’s standards.

    A good read for people interested in academic positions is “Ms. Mentor’s Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia.” It’s funny but true, and it’s got a lot of interesting things in there, many not applicable to science, but many eye-openers across the board. Many of my male colleagues have found it interesting/useful as well, as it really covers a broad spectrum of issues.


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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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