Being honest online helped my career reach new heights

An image showing a woman in a lab coat with butterfly wings that have the logos of social platforms printed on them

Source: © M-H Jeeves

Out of the chrysalis emerged a confident chemist

Two months into my PhD, things were going really well. I discovered a new C–H halogenation reaction and I was over the moon. I thought I could have a first author publication before the end of my PhD. This could have kicked off a great and successful career as an academic, landed a postdoc in a prestigious university and possibly granted me a professorship or lectureship within a few years.

The excitement didn’t last long. The research group was small and no one else was working on catalysis. I didn’t learn anything new, the quality of my research was horrible, and I ended up failing my first year.

During this challenging time, I used to question myself every day. Was I wasting my time doing research? Would a career outside academia be possible? Was I a good scientist?

Back then, I didn’t have any answers. However, I noticed that many PhD students were using social media for personal branding – building their reputation on something unique about themselves. I thought that it was a brilliant idea. Looking for opportunities and trying to escape the sense of isolation and impostor syndrome, I started my own blog and an Instagram page, using them to document my experience as a PhD student, and as a means to express myself freely and explore my creativity. In doing so, I found my identity – meaning that I am fully aware of my value, my strength and my weaknesses.

I started by sharing snaps from the lab and talking about the chemistry I was doing. I shared the latest scientific discoveries and explained how to differentiate real science from fake news. But my page wasn’t just another science communication page talking about electrons and protons or how to prepare a chromatography column. I also offered my authentic voice, by talking about sensitive topics such as how poorly women and minorities are treated by the system, the devastating problem of mental illness in higher education, and the hostile and competitive environment we have to navigate on a daily basis.

I realised that I was talking about everyone’s journey in Stem 

Many people on social media, above all on Instagram, only show their academic highlights: good grades, publication, being accepted into a programme, pictures of their graduations. I was sharing the bad and the ugly of the system, and how I managed to thrive despite the hardship. Although it came from my unique perspective, I wasn’t just sharing my story; at some point, I realised that I was talking about everyone’s journey in Stem and how difficult is to succeed and fit in.

At first, I wasn’t sure how people would see me and I was initially uncomfortable with criticisms for expressing honest opinions. Eventually I realised that the way people perceived me was a reflection of themselves, not who I was. I couldn’t possibly please everyone and having a strong voice that challenges the status quo inevitably creates tensions and clashes. And for the most part, the response has been positive.

Some of the negative remarks implied that having a strong voice and calling out the outdated mentality of academia would prevent me from landing a job. This has not been true. I successfully completed my PhD (things went better when I changed supervisors after the first year) and secured several job interviews. My interviewers said they were impressed with all I achieved during my PhD. It was clear that I knew the chemistry, and my CV stood out for the soft skills. To start with, I could provide loads of examples to prove my excellent communication skills that I gained by blogging and engaging with my followers when they asked for clarifications on some scientific posts.

Being a strong communicator wasn’t my only asset. Balancing research and creating a personal brand also meant that I had to step up my time management skills. I learned how to be sensible with my time by creating daily, weekly and monthly objectives and prioritising tasks. Getting out of the fume hood and engaging with people taught me a lot about emotional intelligence. Research is a team endeavour and being able to build connections, network and influence people is crucial for career progression. Your education is just the starting point of your science career. Gaining soft skills outside of your technical knowledge will help you move higher on your career ladder. Of course, my experience is only an example of how you can gain skills and open your mind about science careers and possible options to pursue after your degree.

I believe that doing activities outside the traditional ones, such as research and teaching, should become mandatory for every PhD programme. Doing research has taught me how to become a scientist and use the scientific method in a reproducible and reliable manner. Blogging and having a public profile has taught me how to become me.