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Thing 18: Professional Social Media – Instagram

In previous years we’ve provided a lot of content on getting set up on Twitter as an academic social media tool. This year we thought we would put Instagram centre stage, as it has increasingly become a place for sharing research, portfolio-building and finding interested communities. Two different contributors today – Daisy Shearer, a current PhD at Surrey who has a large following for both her research and her activism, and Elaine Hickmott, who started experimenting with Instagram as part of her own business, and has some great tips on getting started.

Daisy Shearer

Communicating your research using Instagram

Instagram can be a great tool for science communication. I’ve been sharing posts about my research on the site for a few years now (under the handle @notesfromthephysicslab), so I’ve been asked to share some of my experiences and tips on the subject.

One thing I’d really like to emphasise up front is that Instagram is a tool that can become very addictive (as is all social media), so you need to use it wisely if you don’t want it to take all of your attention away. Over the years, I’ve developed the habit of scheduling half an hour of ‘Instagram time’ after I finish work where I make my posts, reply to comments and see what other people have been up to. Outside of this time, I block the app. This works well for me and I encourage you to try and take control of your social media use too.

So, why do I use Instagram to communicate my research? Here are some of the main reasons that came to mind:

Practising the craft of writing about science

This has become my main reason for using Instagram. Communicating your research to a lay audience is a skill that you can develop, but only through practice and receiving feedback. The platform has a character limit which means you need to be concise with your caption writing. For me, it’s become a place where I go to try and do some daily(ish) writing to keep developing my skills and get creative. Coupling the caption with an interesting image makes the post even more appealing and can help people understand what you’re trying to convey, especially for visual learners. Over time, I think I’ve improved a lot at communicating my work to a lay audience which in turn helps with the clarity of my academic writing too.

Some examples of 'science communication' posts exploring physics concepts related to my PhD research. These are often the posts with the most engagement from others! Instagram also allows you to interact with your audience quite readily. Research communication at its most effective is a two-way street so that means having conversations and discussions with people about the concepts you’re trying to communicate. You can gauge from the comments on a post how people are responding to your writing. I’ve had many times where people ask for clarifications or who are confused, so that shows me that I need to try and be a bit clearer! This can highlight areas where your explanations are lacking, but it can also illuminate something that you want to learn more about.

Two images of Daisy, one in front of a whiteboard full of equations and one in front of a bookcase. One side shows the example science communication posts on Instagram.
Some examples of 'science communication' posts exploring physics concepts related to my PhD research. These are often the posts with the most engagement from others!

Connecting with other researchers from a variety of fields

This is probably one of the things that surprised me the most about joining Instagram. There’s quite a big community of PhD students, postdocs and other researchers on the app who share their own work. In my experience, everyone is really keen to cheer each other on. I’ve even found mentors and role-models through the site as well as encountering lots of opportunities to talk about my research that I otherwise wouldn’t have had.

Sharing my progress on my PhD project and lessons I learn along the way

I like to share snapshots from the lab or from my desk. This can lead to exploring an experiment or dissecting a paper I read that day in the caption. Day-to-day posts are probably the most common type of post I like to make. They take very little time to write and allow me to share my passion about physics with others. I find that people are often keen to share planning and research tips as well as hearing how others manage these things. Linking into the research community aspect of Instagram, these are the kinds of posts where others get to know you and see what your everyday research life looks like. I love getting a glimpse into the lives of researchers in other fields and connecting with those doing similar work too.

Two images: to the left, an image from Daisy's lab, to the right a desk with computer, papers and coffee.
I like to share snapshots from the lab or from my desk. This can lead to exploring an experiment or dissecting a paper I read that day in the caption.

Challenging stereotypes surrounding science, academia, and productivity

This was another unexpected drive for posting on Instagram that I developed after using it for a little while. I noticed that many of the content around academia and productivity seemed to promote an unhealthy work-life balance. So, I try to use my page as a space to air my thoughts on these topics and to show that I take breaks and rest! As well as this, I’ll often be found talking about disability and mental health topics as well as sharing rejections and ‘failures’ to combat the curated nature of social media and to show that failure is an inherent part of both research and success in reaching your goals. I like to think of my page as somewhere that showcases many sides of me (without breaching my personal boundaries).

Signposting people to other content

Some of my recent posts showcasing my writing elsewhere. If you have a following on Instagram, it can be a good place to let people know about other things you’ve been doing online. For me, this is usually pointing to a blog post or other science writing that has been published elsewhere online. These kinds of posts allow you to expand the type of communication you’re doing as they simply point to somewhere where you have a higher word count and the ability to cite relevant resources. Instagram unfortunately doesn’t let you post hyperlinks in captions, but you can write out the link and the title of your content for people to find.

Two more images of instagram posts, featuring laptops.
Some of my recent posts showcasing my writing elsewhere.

My top Instagram tips

· Don’t get hung up on numbers – the algorithm is constantly changing and there’s no point in second-guessing things. Have fun with your page and try not to let ‘popularity’ get in the way of your creativity.

· Think about accessibility – when using Instagram, try to make your posts accessible for those with disabilities, especially those using a screen reader. You can add alt text to your posts or just type out a little image description after your caption. You should also try to use #CamelCase when using hashtags as it is much easier to decipher individual words this way!

· Use hashtags to find connections – I find hashtags really useful for connecting with people. Here are some suggestions to get you started: #ResearchLife #AcademicLife #ScientistsOfInstagram #ScientistsWhoSelfie #LaboratoryLife #GradStudent #PhDLife #PhDChat

· Interact with others – if you see a post that you like or read a caption that interests you or resonates, don’t be afraid to comment. You can ask a question, share an experience or just show appreciation for the post.

· Experiment! – I’ve found experimentation to be the best way to find what kind of posts I enjoy making the most. You might want to use those hashtags to find inspiration for what kind of posts people make or just take something from your imagination. Get creative!

· Maintain a balance – this is probably the most important tip. As I mentioned earlier, Instagram is a tool and you shouldn’t let it take over your free time. Try to reap the benefits that it can offer but don’t fall into the endless scrolling and comparing spiral. If you’re anything like me, you might need to install a blocking app to help with this!

A crowd of marrows of different types and colours
"I don't understand it, I've been posting on 'Welcome to the The World of ToMarrow" for months now, and still only 3 followers. (Thanks mum.)

Elaine Hickmott

Title: Painting a Picture One Square at a Time

Before we get started I need to confess something...

...I’m not a high profile Instagram influencer with a cult following. Phew, that feels better!

What I am is a connected, curious individual with professional and personal aspirations. Some of which, I have decided, can be achieved by entering the Instagram-o-sphere.

Up until a few years ago, I had never considered myself as an Instagram-type person. Whatever that is! My head said it wasn't for me. You see, I'm much happier with face-to-face interaction. The social media world still feels a bit alien to me even after using it for several years. This however, was not going to hold me back.

To get my Instagram experiment off the ground I first asked myself a series of questions.

A 3x3 grid of 5 questions and 4 images. The questions are: What are my aims?; Why will Instagram help me achieve my aims?; What style am I going to adopt?; What value do I want to create for my audience?; What personal or professional image do I want to portray?  The images are a bee on a flower, some cuddly toys, a drawing of some cyclists going up a hill, and a yellow submarine.
Image by Elaine Hickmott

By asking and having answers to my questions I was able to begin imagining and deciding on what my account would look like and its purpose. My answers were:

Question 1: To raise awareness of my career development approach, The Innovate Approach

Question 2: Research indicates some of my groups of interest are active Instagram users

Question 3: Bright, colourful, eclectic. Like a cupboard of curiosities

Question 4: As well as vibrant imagery include practical tips and useful insights

Question 5: Friendly, thoughtful, supportive person who takes a playful, purposeful perspective on life

Like most online platforms, information on how to physically get started is readily available so I did my research (there’s a link below to a site which I found useful). Appreciating the basics of platform is important to me. That’s part of my ‘process’ J. I wanted to get a sense of how I was going to translate the answers to my questions into reality.

Because Instagram is all about the visuals I also looked a variety of profiles to get a feeling for what I liked and what resonated with me personally. To gain ideas on how to create my own style and replicate reality in the digital space.

Then it was time to dive in. I started with 12 posts on the first day to make the account look strong and followed up with a post every day. After an initial trial period I decided to give myself a rest at weekends! Now I post something every week.

I am still learning and evolving my use of the platform. I love the visual nature of it and how it challenges the artistic side of my creativity. Plus I’m enjoying painting a picture of myself and my business one square at a time.

Oh, yes, nearly forgot, my Instagram account is @careerenergiser. Drop by and say hello.

Try It Today

Go and explore Instagram for 15 minutes. Find 5 profiles which resonate with you and note down why. What does their imagery and style say to you? Think about how you would like to make people feel if they were looking at your account (you don’t need to have your own account to have a go at this)

Other Bits n Bobs

Check out this article on Hubspot’s blog for useful Instagram hints and tips -

Montage photographs and doodles by Dr Elaine

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Unknown member
Jun 20, 2022

Thank you! I guess the top thing I learned from that post is: Train the tool to serve our research and career and never turn the other way round


Unknown member
Jun 10, 2022

Thank you Daisy and Elaine for sharing your social media Instagram experience. I am not one for social media, after reading I now understand the significance it has depending on which POV one would like to take. This has given me a new perspective and approach regarding social media.


Unknown member
Jun 06, 2022

This Thing has touched me personally; I found a new perspective to looking at Instagram, and generally social networking sites. The way you described your Instagram experience is really engaging and attractive. I found it a new way that I can myself adopt while using this app for research-related social networking which is brand new experience to me! The tips your provided are extremely helpful and easy to grasp. Thanks for that!


Unknown member
May 28, 2022

Good morning, good evening, or good night depending on your location. I went through the Things of the week. I was more interested in using social media to share your science, your stories, and your achievement, in other words, your journey in science! Personally, I don't feel very I found the idea very innovative and attractive for people who might be curious. I especially like the idea of just post pictures with a limited and concise caption. However, it could take some resilience to stay committed to doing that when you estimate having more urgent or important things else to do (lectures, student supervision, several reports, etc... or any other things putting you under pressure). You might be interested to…


Unknown member
May 23, 2022

I feel that the problem with social media sharing is not that its hard to do but that my field is so fraught that any research I circulate would simply make me a target. The current political climate in my country simply doesn't like historical facts laid out in the open. How should I get over this limitation?

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