Communicating your research using Instagram

This post was originally written as a contribution to this blog post as part of the 23 Things for Research course in 2021. 23 things is a unique global collaboration and online programme introducing researchers to powerful online research tools for all disciplines, and profile-building opportunities.

Instagram can be a great tool for science communication. I’ve been sharing posts about my research on the site for a few years now (under the handle @notesfromthephysicslab), so I’ve been asked to share some of my experiences and tips on the subject.

One thing I’d really like to emphasise up front is that Instagram is a tool that can become very addictive (as is all social media), so you need to use it wisely if you don’t want it to take all of your attention away. Over the years, I’ve developed the habit of scheduling half an hour of ‘Instagram time’ after I finish work where I make my posts, reply to comments and see what other people have been up to. Outside of this time, I block the app. This works well for me and I encourage you to try and take control of your social media use too. (Edit: Since I wrote this post initially, I’ve actually deleted the instagram app off my phone and set up posts via my computer using later. I still have my half hour slot to peruse my feed on my laptop, but having it off my phone has helped a lot as it’s not as convenient to check it on a computer)

So, why do I use Instagram to communicate my research? Here are some of the main reasons that came to mind:

Practising the craft of writing about science

This has become my main reason for using Instagram. Communicating your research to a lay audience is a skill that you can develop, but only through practice and receiving feedback. The platform has a character limit which means you need to be concise with your caption writing. For me, it’s become a place where I go to try and do some daily(ish) writing to keep developing my skills and get creative. Coupling the caption with an interesting image makes the post even more appealing and can help people understand what you’re trying to convey, especially for visual learners. Over time, I think I’ve improved a lot at communicating my work to a lay audience which in turn helps with the clarity of my academic writing too.

Instagram also allows you to interact with your audience quite readily. Research communication at its most effective is a two-way street so that means having conversations and discussions with people about the concepts you’re trying to communicate. You can gauge from the comments on a post how people are responding to your writing. I’ve had many times where people ask for clarifications or who are confused, so that shows me that I need to try and be a bit clearer! This can highlight areas where your explanations are lacking, but it can also illuminate something that you want to learn more about.

Some examples of ‘science communication’ posts exploring physics concepts related to my PhD research. These are often the posts with the most engagement from others!

Connecting with other researchers from a variety of fields

This is probably one of the things that surprised me the most about joining Instagram. There’s quite a big community of PhD students, postdocs and other researchers on the app who share their own work. In my experience, everyone is really keen to cheer each other on. I’ve even found mentors and role-models through the site as well as encountering lots of opportunities to talk about my research that I otherwise wouldn’t have had.

Sharing my progress on my PhD project and lessons I learn along the way

Day-to-day posts are probably the most common type of post I like to make. They take very little time to write and allow me to share my passion about physics with others. I find that people are often keen to share planning and research tips as well as hearing how others manage these things. Linking into the research community aspect of Instagram, these are the kinds of posts where others get to know you and see what your everyday research life looks like. I love getting a glimpse into the lives of researchers in other fields and connecting with those doing similar work too.

I like to share snapshots from the lab or from my desk. This can lead to exploring an experiment or dissecting a paper I read that day in the caption.

Challenging stereotypes surrounding science, academia, and productivity

This was another unexpected drive for posting on Instagram that I developed after using it for a little while. I noticed that many of the content around academia and productivity seemed to promote an unhealthy work-life balance. So, I try to use my page as a space to air my thoughts on these topics and to show that I take breaks and rest! As well as this, I’ll often be found talking about disability and mental health topics as well as sharing rejections and ‘failures’ to combat the curated nature of social media and to show that failure is an inherent part of both research and success in reaching your goals. I like to think of my page as somewhere that showcases many sides of me (without breaching my personal boundaries).

Signposting people to other content

If you have a following on Instagram, it can be a good place to let people know about other things you’ve been doing online. For me, this is usually pointing to a blog post or other science writing that has been published elsewhere online. These kinds of posts allow you to expand the type of communication you’re doing as they simply point to somewhere where you have a higher word count and the ability to cite relevant resources. Instagram unfortunately doesn’t let you post hyperlinks in captions, but you can write out the link and the title of your content for people to find.

Some of my recent posts showcasing my writing elsewhere.

My top Instagram tips

  • Don’t get hung up on numbers – the algorithm is constantly changing and there’s no point in second-guessing things. Have fun with your page and try not to let ‘popularity’ get in the way of your creativity.
  • Think about accessibility – when using Instagram, try to make your posts accessible for those with disabilities, especially those using a screen reader. You can add alt text to your posts or just type out a little image description after your caption. You should also try to use #CamelCase when using hashtags as it is much easier to decipher individual words this way!
  • Use hashtags to find connections – I find hashtags really useful for connecting with people. Here are some suggestions to get you started: #ResearchLife #AcademicLife #ScientistsOfInstagram #ScientistsWhoSelfie #LaboratoryLife #GradStudent #PhDLife #PhDChat
  • Interact with others – if you see a post that you like or read a caption that interests you or resonates, don’t be afraid to comment. You can ask a question, share an experience or just show appreciation for the post.
  • Experiment! – I’ve found experimentation to be the best way to find what kind of posts I enjoy making the most. You might want to use those hashtags to find inspiration for what kind of posts people make or just take something from your imagination. Get creative!
  • Maintain a balance – this is probably the most important tip. As I mentioned earlier, Instagram is a tool and you shouldn’t let it take over your free time. Try to reap the benefits that it can offer but don’t fall into the endless scrolling and comparing spiral. If you’re anything like me, you might need to install a blocking app to help with this!

If you like my work, I’d love your support!

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