Growing up in Silicon Valley, Ali Mattu, PhD, was — by his own admission — a full-fledged technology geek. By age 14, he had launched a webpage about science fiction. As an undergrad in 2001, he created another site where he mused about world politics and photography.
But it wasn't until Mattu, now a clinical postdoctoral fellow at the New York University Medical Center and member of APA's Board of Directors, was preparing to teach his first class in graduate school that he thought about how his Internet presence would influence his career. His outdated webpage had suddenly experienced a spike in hits, thanks to curious incoming students' Google searches.
"It hit me like a brick wall that this new generation is going to be interacting with professors and clinicians in a different way than I have," he says. "I decided that the most important thing was to have a presence that I controlled and fits with what I do professionally."
That's when Mattu built a more professional site, and later established a psychology blog read by fellow psychology graduate students and a Twitter feed with hundreds of followers.
Taking a proactive approach to your public presence, as Mattu has, is a smart way to set up your psychology career, whether you're planning to be a scientist, practitioner, academic or consultant. By being visible, you can connect with colleagues, advocate for causes you care about and — perhaps most important — improve the public's understanding of psychology.
"We know from consumer research that the public appreciates psychology, but not to the extent that they value or appreciate what they perceive as science," says Rhea K. Farberman, APA's executive director of public and member communications. "So, one of our public education goals has to be to communicate that psychology is a science so that we can benefit from the public's perceived value of science."
What's more, promoting the profession will, in turn, promote you, says David Ballard, PsyD, MBA, assistant executive director of marketing and business development in APA's Practice Directorate. After all, if no one knows you know what you know, what's the point of knowing it?
"We have an obligation to be out there in public because there is nobody better informed or more expert in human behavior change than psychologists," Ballard says.
To Tweet or Not to Tweet?
With hundreds of social media platforms out there, and more sprouting up daily, it's easy to feel overwhelmed. But you don't have to — and shouldn't — do it all, says Mattu, who often speaks to grad students and psychologists on the topic.
First, ask yourself: Do I want to build my network? Get the word out about my lab's research? Fight a stigma against a certain population? "Establish your professional goals and then work backwards," he says.
For Mattu, a website was a good first step because it allowed him to control some of what appeared when students searched his name. Now that he's a practicing clinician, the site promotes his research and clinical work. One man, for example, recently emailed Mattu after searching for a New York City psychologist who could treat his daughter's trichotillomania. "He needed to find help quickly and my professional Web page made that possible," says Mattu, who's since seen the girl in therapy and has helped others find treatments.
For Ballard, Twitter was the obvious media choice because it fits his work routine, which involves skimming about 50 different online publications each morning. Through the platform and related tools, he's able to quickly share links to the articles he thinks would most benefit his more than 11,600 followers, such as stories about the business of health care from USA Today or blog posts about neuroscience at neurobonkers.com. The platform also connected him with colleagues and helped to spread the word about the importance of a psychologically healthy workplace, one of APA's major initiatives.
If you feel hemmed in by the 140 character limit of Twitter, blogging might be the way to go. Jason G. Goldman, a PhD candidate in developmental psychology at the University of Southern California, first used his blog, The Thoughtful Animal, as a way to become familiar with research on animal behavior.
"Nobody was writing about what I wanted to read about," he says. Now his voice on the topic is well heard: His blog is housed on Scientific American's website and has been featured in The New York Times, The Guardian, USA Today and other publications.
There are also more traditional ways to promote yourself and your work. If you're a performer at heart, give presentations to the PTA, to a small business association or at community health fairs. Do you express yourself better with a pen? Write an op-ed or start a regular column in a local newspaper. If you have recently published research, you can also reach out to the media. "It's about finding how you work and what works for you," says Ballard.
Doing it Right
Keep in mind that being in the public eye can raise important ethical and professional questions. How do you maintain patient confidentiality? What if someone perceives your blog posts as medical advice? Is your public presence supported by your university? Here's how to help manage these risks:
Make a plan.
Promoting yourself or your work should begin with a well-thought-out mission statement, advises Pamela Rutledge, PhD, MBA, director of the Media Psychology Research Center and blogger for Psychology Today. First write down your purpose, and then outline a strategy for achieving your goals, keeping your resources such as time and money in mind. Your strategy should also include such details as how frequently you'll post or Tweet and what you'll do in such sticky situations as when someone posts an inappropriate comment. "You have to set boundaries very clearly because they will be tested," she says.
Talk to your advisor.
As a graduate student, any time you open your mouth — or Tweet or blog — you are representing not only yourself, but your university, lab and program. That's why it's important to sit down with your advisor and program director to ask about social media policies and to go over "what-ifs" before you get in too deep. While some programs will be more supportive than others, initiating the conversation is an important step in moving the profession forward no matter what the outcome, says Mattu. "Established psychologists really understand the professional implications of new technologies, but they might not understand the technologies themselves," he says. "Grad students can really be the flag bearer on this issue."
Wait before you speak, Tweet or post.
The efficiency of new media is both a blessing and a curse. "We have a culture of ‘now,' and one ramification of that is that we might hit the send button [prematurely]," says Mattu. That can mean conveying something misleading or downright wrong despite your best intentions. Before you communicate, consider how your message could be perceived — or misperceived — and then do the "your mama" test, Mattu suggests. Would you be embarrassed to show your posting to your mom? If the answer is yes, don't do it.
Write about what you know and care about.
Goldman's choice to write about animal behavior — as opposed to organizational psychology or autism, for instance — was simple: It's what interests him most. "Everything I write about is because I want to, and I'm glad that other people find it interesting," he says. "But if it's not interesting to me, then it's not going to be good." Online audiences are receptive when that genuineness comes through, says Ballard. On the other hand, if the only reason you engage in social media is for personal gain, you will get caught. "People are going to pick up on it if you're only doing it to get business, to get the job, to make money, to rack up contacts," he says. "That backfires because people find it distasteful."
If your blog posts sound as dry as a peer-reviewed journal article, you'll never stand out in the social media sea. Write professionally, but with personality and humor, says Ballard. "People appreciate that, it makes you more real." Graduate students also need to be sure they don't come across as someone they're not — namely, an expert. Be explicit about your level of training and your purpose (e.g., sharing the latest research on adolescent depression or opining about the perils of grad school). When it comes to social media, you can't always pick and choose what you want people to see, reminds Rutledge. "If anything goes viral, you will be scrutinized," she says.
Listen to Rutledge's podcasts about media psychology.