In olden, pre-Twitter days, graduate students traipsed around academic conferences meeting peers and mentors. But Twitter chats—or hashtags, the number signs indicating a topic of conversation—are the new networking spaces, at least according to a recent blog post on The Daily Muse, "10 Great Twitter chats for Grad Students."
"Participating in regularly scheduled Twitter chats can help you learn the tricks of your trade, connect with colleagues who share your interests, and begin to build a name for yourself within your field," writes Tamara Powell, a California State University—Sacramento lecturer and doctoral candidate at University of California—San Diego.
But data from the social Web index, Topsy, indicate that the chats on Powell's list might not be so well trafficked, and some graduate students question how effective Twitter can actually be for academic discussions.
Although #gradchat has only generated 743 Tweets so far—127 in the past 30 days, according to Topsy—it earned the No. 1 slot on Powell's list and the accolade of being a "one-stop shop for all things graduate education."
Justin Cohen, a Ph.D. candidate at International Bible College and Seminary in Independence, Mo., has participated in #phdchat—No. 5 on the Daily Muse list—but he and his peers prefer to use the video conferencing tool GoToMeeting to communicate and share resources. "Students can gain from the experience [on Twitter]," he says, "but the question is 'gain what?'"
At Claremont Lincoln University in California, advisers generally recommend that students spend little time on social networks and "instead focus on getting published in peer-reviewed journals and presenting papers at conferences," says theology doctoral candidate, Katherine Rand. Twitter chats would have to be issue-oriented, rather than broad, to be useful to grad students, she says.
Kelly Heuer, a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at Georgetown University, has never participated in a Twitter chat, and most of the people she knows who have are bloggers or business owners. "Academic self-promotion is usually a far subtler enterprise, and a pretty uncomfortable one at that," she says.
But Eric Schulman, a graduate public relations student at Georgetown, and Mohammad Arfeen, a biomedical sciences M.S. student at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in Chicago, encourage graduate applicants and students to participate in Twitter chats.
"Twitter chats provide the opportunity to connect students and professionals from practically anywhere," says Schulman. Twitter chats can be particularly beneficial for public relations, marketing, and advertising students, whose disciplines "pull heavily from relationship-building and communication," he adds.
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Arfeen sees chats as a means to an end. "Chats are useful for figuring out who's active on social media in a field, but if you want to establish a meaningful relationship ... you'll have to go out of the chat," he says.