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A few days ago, there was a lively discussion on the Twitterbox between myself, Linda CampbellJason VenkiteswaranAndrea KirkwoodSarah BoonAudrey Reid, and many others on a favourite topic of mine: academic websites.  I offered to summarize our discussion, and add some resources, so here we go.


Why have a personal academic website?

The purpose of a personal academic website depends on where you are in your career, and what your goals are.  For faculty, a personal website is a recruitment tool for students (and collaborators).  Most people won’t follow it through time unless you have a blog (ideally with an RSS feed, or e-mail subscription), and it will usually be on the first page of search engine hits.  It can also host course material (though more and more of that function is being shifted towards centralized interfaces like Blackboard), particularly syllabi.

For grad students and postdocs, your personal website will be among the first hits when a collaborator, prospective graduate or postdoc supervisor,  a search committee member, or potential employer searches your name on their search engine of choice.  Your other name-associated sites, like Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, and Google Scholar will also be on the first page, so take the time to make them professional, or set them to private so they won’t show up.

Regardless of your career stage, your website is your face to the online world, so pay it some attention.

What goes on an academic website?

Faculty: include a list of current students (with their contact info, or a link to their own personal website).  This is important for prospective students who can write your current cohort for advice on the department and city.  Include your publications, and ideally, links or PDFs.  A statement about what research you do, adverts for open positions, or recent news should be on the main page.  Photos from the field/lab or images from papers are fantastic.  Somewhere, there should be a (recent) photo of you!  Links to course websites (or if you use a centralized service like Blackboard, at least a PDF of the syllabus) can help not only students looking to take your class, but those looking to fill in that sessional slot when you go on sabbatical.

Students/postdocs: your academic website is the online version of your CV.  It should include your research and teaching interests, list of publications & any courses you’ve taught.  Like a faculty site, make sure there’s a recent picture of you somewhere prominent.

Regardless of where you are career-wise, there should be some contact information (e-mail, mailing address).  If you’re freaked out by having this info so publicly available, remember that it’s found on every paper you’ve published as a corresponding author (and the likely source for all that academic spam you get inviting you to liver physiology conferences in Crete).

How to build an academic website

There are three main ways to build your website, and your choice will depend on your skill level and comfort, as well as your university’s technical support / limitations.

The most basic (and inflexible) is when your institution uses a Content Management System (CMS).  Typically, you log in to a central site to edit your own pages, but can only add text, photos, files, and links – the layout, colour scheme, and overall style are dictated by the university.  You may be allotted a certain amount of space, but can usually request an increase (particularly faculty).

Next up on the ease-flexibility continuum is to set up a site using a third provider, like WordPress, Google Sites, Weebly, Zohosites, or something similar.  This is very much like a university CMS, but you can choose the design, layout, colour scheme, and style.  Like CMS, the technical stuff is mostly hidden, so you only have to deal with text, images, links, etc. like an online word processer.

Lastly, the most flexible option if to build something yourself from the ground up.  This isn’t as intimidating as it sounds! If you can use a word processor and crop images, you’re probably fine.  It’s more work than the first two options, but you can basically do whatever the heck you want.  Back in “the day”, this usually meant extensive HTML coding (which is where I cut my teeth back in the 90s), but nowadays, programs like Apple’s iWeb (standard on any Mac made after ~ 2004), Adobe Dreamweaver, or even Word can be used to put a site together.  These are called “What You See Is What You Get” (or WYSIWYG) because you typically don’t work with the HTML code, and work in a word processor-like environment.  If you go this route, you’ll also need an FTP client to upload your files from your computer to the website host’s server (I use one called Fetch, but there are many out there; Dreamweaver has one built in!).  Here’s a list of HTML editors sorted by various categories.

Where to put your website

The first step in deciding what you’ll use to build your website will be figuring out where you want your site to be.  Most (all?) universities offer free web space to faculty, grad students, and postdocs (using either a CMS or not).  Your address will usually be something like webpages.myuniversity.edu/~username where “username” is your basic e-mail address prefix.  Faculty pages are often nested within the department: myuniversity.edu/mydepartment/username.

Using third parties like WordPress or Google Sites will pretty much dictate your address, though some, like WordPress, may offer you the option of purchasing a domain.  The last option is for you to outright purchase a domain, and third party host.  With the last two options, you can decide what you want your website address to be.  Keep in mind that this is a professional site, so FrogDude827.com probably isn’t a great idea.  Some combination of your name or initials is best (if available); it doesn’t really matter if you use .com, .org, .net, or a country code top level domain (ccTLD; .ca for Canada, .uk for the UK, .au for Australia, etc).  Purchasing a domain isn’t that expensive (depending on your country, and what suffix you choose).  It can be as cheap as $30/year, but remember that you’ll also need someplace to host it (again, the price depends on the options you choose, but it’s not that expensive).

This usually also has the added bonus of e-mail addresses.  You could use “name@mydomain.org” as your professional e-mail address and avoided changing it every time you switch institutions, and make it easier for people looking for you as a paper’s corresponding author.  Note that some universities are sticks-in-the-mud and won’t let you use anything but your university-issued e-mail address for official communication, and won’t let you forward it to a third address, so check on this first.

Tips & Tricks

The most important thing about a website is to keep it current.  Published a new paper? Update your site.  Teaching a new course? Update your site. Just got back from the field with some awesome photos? Update your site.  Nothing says apathy like a website that hasn’t been updated since 2004 (don’t laugh; they’re out there).

Keep it professional.  This goes for content as well as design. If you want to link up your Twitter account, make sure you’re not RTing the latest antics of the pop star du jour (remember, potential employeers, supervisors, and students will be reading this!).  Same goes for your blog – if it’s a professional one (like this one), then a link is fine, but your fan site for Liza Minnelli (lovely though she is) doesn’t belong on your professional site.

If you’re not using a CMS, then much of the design will be up to you (more so if you build your own site entirely).  Keep things looking nice, and be consistent among pages.  We’ve all sat through PowerPoint presentations that were so graphically offensive that they induced actual pain (yellow text on a red background? Really?).  Don’t make your website do the same thing.  Neutral tones (or your university’s colour scheme) are safe bets.  Break up blocks of text with block quotes or images.  Keep the contrast between the text and background colours high (generally light background, dark text works best).

Keep your image sizes reasonable – monitors can’t display much more than 100 dpi, so if you’re going to use photos, drop down the resolution a bit (or see if your WYSIWYG program does it automatically for you).

Final Points

When in doubt, ask someone else.  Get a second opinion.

Before you start, check out websites of your peers (at your current institution, and at others).  Write down specific things that you like, and things you don’t like.  See what works, and what doesn’t.  If you wonder what they used to build their site, go look at the page source (Ctrl-U in Chrome), and look near the top for:

<meta name="Generator" content="{program name}" />.

Most universities offer some guidance through their IT departments, and if it’s not stated explicitly, ask.  If you’re a PI with a large lab, you could farm it out to a competent grad student after the initial design is done, and give them a small honourarium for maintaining and updating.

And lastly, if you want some advice, or have a question, leave it in the comments below & I’ll do my best to answer it.

Disclaimer: I haven’t used all of the services mentioned above.  Some have been recommended to me, others I found but haven’t tried.  I can’t guarantee anything about them, but I can help troubleshoot a select few if you get stuck.