Social Media for Science Outreach – A Case Study: That social media thang

This was initially posted at: as part of a series of case studies exploring how academics use social media.

Jon began university life as a geologist, following this with a treacherous leap into the life sciences with a course in biodiversity and taxonomy. Now undertaking a PhD in tetrapod biodiversity and extinction at Imperial College London, there was a brief interlude were Jon was sucked into the world of science policy and communication. He blogs at, tweets as Protohedgehog and co-runs an [infamous, probably] podcast series called Palaeocast. Jon can usually be found procrastinating in pubs, trying to exchange bad science, usually about dinosaurs, in exchange for food and beer.

Tell us a bit about you and your social media project

I’m currently a PhD student at Imperial College London, investigating the biodiversity patterns of tetrapods (anything with four limbs/wings/flippers) about 145 million years ago to see what we can figure out in a macroevolutionary sense, and whether we can find a ‘hidden’ mass extinction in the fossil record. I commit some of my time to 3 major social media platforms: bloggingtweeting, and podcasting, with a bit of Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+ and others on the side.  These activities are less of a project, per se, and more just stuff I do in parallel, and often with overlap, with my PhD research.

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The Day I was Allowed into Parliament

Yesterday, this intern was fortunate enough to attend a Parliamentary Committee meeting on Higher Education Reforms, with the Rt Hon (innit) David Willetts MP. Most people reading this will probably recognise him as the current champion for pushing open access in Government policy with the Finch Committee, so seeing him in the flesh was a starry-eyed moment for me. The proceedings were concerned with the White Paper on Higher Education Reform, published November 2011, and the subsequent consultation responses (dispatched on April 5, 2012). As the Geological Society have an input into geoscientific education in the UK, I attended to see if any of the issues we had addressed were raised.

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Why Job Applications Suck

I think this is something that pretty much all of us will be able to relate to.

How often are you filling in an online application, having spent half an hour basically re-writing your CV into the various terrible formats available in application forms, to then come across the dreaded ‘competency questions’.

If anything, these don’t reflect your competency in the slightest. They represent snapshots in a life-time of work and achievement, that you are requested to drag out in a typical marketing fashion to sell yourself as a product.

I haven’t smoked in over four days now. The desire to be cynical is overpowering. Hence,  on an EDF graduate form, when this question is presented, I’m not a happy bunny. [Disclaimer: I’m not actually a rabbit].

I’m going to break this down.

Describe a challenging situation. Now, five years of university, essentially comprising the apex of  my career, and I can’t think of a single time. Yes, coursework and exams were challenging, is that what they want to hear? I didn’t do many extra-curricular activities, as between work, like pretty much everyone, I liked hanging out with mates. Although, I can’t possibly see how you could put ‘playing the no.1 football team in the university league’ in there. “We had to like, totally change formation to combat their wingers”. Spare me.

What then does it want to know?! The only thing I can possibly think of, is a 6 week field mapping course that every single geologist out there has to have undertaken to be formally recognised as a Fellow of the Geological Society. Challenging? Yes, it was a bit. But purely because it was hard work. No amount of “creative solutions” would have made it easier, unless we invented hover bikes and trained the local chameleons to map everything for us. But chameleons aren’t very good at geology, and don’t have opposable thumbs anyway. My point is, how do you go about answering this as a graduate, without coming across as either inept or the same as every other person applying for the role. Unless you can really over-emphasize a particular project, or have been one of these people that was fortunate enough to travel the world after A-levels, I don’t see how you can come up with a proper response to this question. In fact, the question is defunct, in my opinion.

As are all the others like “Explain your role within a team and how you motivated them to achieve your goal”. So, you use one example of the hundreds of times you interacted with others at university. I’d rather put something like “Throughout all of university, I worked individually and interacted with my course mates as a team constantly.”

What were the problems and benefits of your creative solution. The problems were that it didn’t work, and the benefits are that I get to pretend to you that my ‘creative solution’ using a squirrel as a pencil sharpener was worth something in my academic career.

I think my point is, CV and cover letter, that’s all you need. Forget these nonsense questions that force you to over-describe an insignificant process during all of your time at university. With a cover letter, you can convey all of the points you believe pertinent to a particular role. With a CV, a recruiter should be able to look at it, see that you have a degree, and make an informal assessment based on that. If someone sees that you have two degrees, and wants to know if during that time you faced a challenge, they must be an idiot. If they think that you don’t know how to be creative during those years of figuring out the best angle to shotgun a can of strongbow, then they’re seriously under-valuing you as a graduate. You have a degree. You’re not an idiot. I hope.

This is just a quick rant – I have to get back to application forms. I’d like to know if anyone else ever gets pissed off by these mundane application forms, or if it’s just myself being a dick.