Why every academic should have a personal website

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Every academic should have a personal website. I have strong opinions on some topics, but allow me to convince you—my apologies to my poor colleagues who had to endure me talking about this topic ad nauseam already.

Let me preface my arguments with saying that numerous other disciplines have the same discussion; we academics are not alone in this regard. A recent article discusses the benefits of having a personal website for software developers, for example. It is also common advice for those who seek professional advancement. Some even refer to it as a life hack. I would not go as far. I merely think that, as an academic, you should have a personal website.

In the best tradition of the neo-scholastic discourse1, I shall first present some arguments that are compelling to me, followed by half-hearted attempts at answering common objections2.

It is your portfolio

Academic output can be hard to measure—sometimes, despite our best efforts, that magnificent paper just does not get accepted right away. A researcher is obviously not defined by their paper output. Especially in machine learning, many researchers also learn more skills than writing a good paper, so why not show them off somewhere?

Have some good code that you want to share? Put it on your website.

Have some nice notes about a certain topic or conference that you want to share? Put them on your website.

Have a game that you wrote while you were an undergrad and had plenty of time to kill? Put it on your website.

Have a workshop that you gave for an outreach programme? Put the slides on your website.

Not only does this have benefits for your ‘clients’ (such as the people using your software, or the students in your workshop), it also clearly ‘marks’ certain documents or artefacts3 as belonging to you.

For example, if you feel inclined to do so, you can share some documents with the rest of the world, such as:

  • Your CV or resume
  • A teaching statement
  • A research statement

Objection: ‘But I do not want to treat everything I do as being a commodity that may or may not increase my employability!’

To which I say: And neither should you! I am emphatically not advocating for creating, say, a GitHub repository just for the sake of increasing your chances of being employed in the future at some technology company. I am merely stating that if you created something that others could find useful, why not share it with the rest of the world?

Objection: ‘But I do not have to share anything with academia!’

To which I say: Even if you are a budding Ph.D. student, you surely have something to share. It could be a preprint (or a link to it), it could be a set of slides for talk you gave, it could be a summary of what you intend to research, along with your office address, or a picture of a cat. Everyone has something to share with the rest of the world.

It is your interface for interacting with academia

The first argument was more about ‘showing off’ your skills, but a personal website also serves as a well-defined interface (in the sense of software development) for interacting with academia. You can put your most recent papers on there, along with information for how to cite them4, or news about your lab, or whatever you see fit. Moreover, you can put a photo here, which will simplify finding you at a conference for discussing your cool papers.

The website constitutes an interface because you can disseminate information that you consider worthwhile. For example, if you are looking for collaborators, put it on your website prior to visiting the next conference. Same goes for open positions in your lab or in your research group. There is no harm for you in providing these things; it is to everybody’s benefit.

Plus, you can mention your most favourite ways of contacting you. For example, Matt Might gives clear expectations of what is going to happen when you send him an email:

If you’re trying to reach me by email: due to the volume of email I receive, email has become an ineffective means of communicating with me.

Even if you have not given up on email yet, you could provide other important details, such as messenger handles (Skype, Hangouts, …) or PGP keys.

Objection: ‘But I am not important enough for providing these things!’

To which I say: You are merely providing a service for other people. No one forces them to visit your website, but if they do, carefully provided information will always be well-received.

Objection: ‘But I do not want people to access that information!’

To which I say: The best way to make sure that people cannot access information you do not want them to access is to not have them in the first place. People will find your employee page on the website of your university, for example. If you do not feel comfortable with putting an email address on your website, you do not have to put it there. If you are not comfortable putting a photo of you up there, you do not have to use one. However, information that is public should be treated as such; you could for example simply provide a picture of your university email address and nothing more.

It is entirely under your control

Setting up a website for yourself also has the benefit that everything you do on it is under your control. I am not only talking about design, such as fonts and the like5, but also about who is responsible for the website.

For example, if you change jobs—as you are wont to do, since this is academia—you merely have to change a few lines on your website. Nothing else gets lost in the transition. Your employee website might be deleted, but your personal one will endure6.

Being in control of your own personal website also has an interesting legal implication: many publishers permit putting preprints on your personal website, but not, for some inane reason, on your institutional website or on, say, arXiv. This is a great way to share your research with other people (including, but not limited to, your own research community).

Objection: ‘But I share all my preprints with arXiv.’

To which I say: And you should! But in some cases you might not be allowed to share a preprint on arXiv before publication. In these cases, putting them on your personal website is the best way to share them. Moreover, putting something on arXiv does not prevent you from also putting it on your website. Google Scholar is perfectly capable of finding multiple versions of the same document.

How to start

By now, you should be convinced that a personal website is in your best interest. The only question is how to start creating one. Many people consider this a daunting task, but in reality, it is just a matter of using a few tools. If you are capable of doing science, you are capable of creating a website!

Since there are many more ways to create a website than I could possibly cover in such an article, let me point you towards a few resources. My personal preference is to use a static website generator, such as Hugo for creating my website. I realise that this may not be everyone’s preferred way, though, because it requires additional tools and hosting. GitHub offers GitHub pages, a great and easy way to host some pages about yourself and your projects. If you are more into nicer user interface, you might want to give WordPress a shot.

Now is the perfect time to start setting up your own website. Try it out, develop your style, and you will be surprised about the results. Until next time!

  1. The one practised in many corners of the internet, consisting of a lot of fallacies and more straw men than you would find at your traditional harvest festival. ↩︎

  2. Those ‘common’ objections are, in reality, not all that common. I made them up on the spot. But some of them have been uttered, in some form or another, by friends and colleagues with whom I discussed this topic before. ↩︎

  3. I am using this word in the sense of anything that has been created by a human being↩︎

  4. I aim to add one authoritative BibTeX file to each of my papers because most of the ones that are generated automatically leave a lot to be desired. But this is a different story for a different post. ↩︎

  5. Although it can be nice to break out of certain templates. One of my previous universities had a very ugly template, for example, that I was not inclined to emulate in the slightest. ↩︎

  6. This should not preclude you from having a homepage that is hosted at your employer, by the way! ↩︎