A cautious online presence for a PhD student?

When I was a Ph.D. student, I got “the talk” quite often from family members, telling me that my online presence was going to be “problematic”. Not because there were pictures of me doing drugs or anything. But because I was writing an opinion column for the Daily Tar Heel (the nation’s finest university paper), and apparently I was saying things I ought not to say. What will my fellow grad students, professors, future employers think if they see some of those articles, I was cautioned?

So I held back a little bit — just a very tiny little, mind you. I thought: as soon as I’m done with school, and I don’t have to worry about what the department chair thinks of me, then I can be totally uncensored. As soon as I don’t have to worry whether if something I wrote online affects whether my dissertation is accepted, whether I get a slot speaking at a conference.

But … that’s not the case! Because as soon as you get your degree, then you want a job … if you’re worried about how your online presence affects your dissertation, then won’t you worry about the impact on your job search? And once you have a job … maybe you’ll eventually want a better job. And on and on. At each stage, there will be people evaluating you and snooping around your online life. When I was in the PhD bubble, I seemed to think that if I could just finish up, I’d be free from all such concerns. But no … they stick around indefinitely. So are you going to stay quiet about things you care about forever? What if other people can learn by the things you write about, or identify with the same experiences? Especially if those experiences have to do with racism or injustice of some type … or just how to navigate a difficult process … are you really going to keep all that bottled up inside you because you fear what future employers and your PhD committee will think? Cause if that’s the case, you’re have to keep it bottled up forever — or at least until retirement — although I’m sure in retirement we can find yet someone else whose disapproval censors what we write online.

Also, as far as I know, those Daily Tar Heel articles never became an issue for anything I ever applied to. I even have some of my favorites posted on this website, and I never ever during a job application process had a lot of people clicking on those links (WordPress tells me if people do). Even if you went onto the page with all my articles on the Daily Tar Heel website … see, I wrote 24 articles in total and a lot of them were very trusting and humble and begging. You’d have to go through all of them to find the angry, vindictive one, and a busy hiring manager doesn’t have time for that.

Also, at this point, I have even more writings online! I have this website and blog; then I have the articles I wrote for WIRED magazine; plus the articles I wrote for the Daily Tar Heel, plus other miscellaneous webpages about this and that and the other. Buried in all this, you’d really need to search to sensitive topics I’ve written about. Most people don’t have time to do that, and I guess they see the nice surface veneer of everything, and would never think anything else is lurking underneath!

So the doomsday predictions never came true. And just to be clear — I was definitely not throwing around racial slurs or anything disgusting in what I was writing about. I was mostly writing about Islamaphobia. And people told me that would cause a problem. Well, you know what? My soul might have died and the respect I have for myself would have died had I not written those things. I’m not saying I was 100% right in everything I wrote. In some cases, I realize that I even think a little differently now. But the idea of having censored myself for fear of what future employers or my PhD colleagues would have thought — it just smacks too much of mercenarial overtones and lack of integrity.

Also, and here I rest my case: Once upon a time a woman at UNC Chapel Hill was enrolled in the Ph.D. program for epidemiology. While writing her dissertation or something, she took a short absence and went on the Bachelor TV show as a contestant! Like, she was wearing pretty and skimpy dresses, and talking about her boyfriend and dating status, in front of the entire nation. She got lots and lots of press. But now she has graduated and is a professor at Duke and has published tons of epidemiological articles and shows up in videos saying very complicated epidemiological things. So if she could go on the Bachelor as a PhD student and still pull through, why should the rest of us be worried?

 

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