How to Create a Professional Website: A Guide for Academics
October 11, 2017
By Erin Zimmerman, PhD
If you’re in the academic job market these days, or plan to be in the future, you’ve probably given some thought to setting up your own website or been told how important it is. The idea is that a customized website gives you a much greater degree of control over how your public persona comes across online compared to the random scattering of sites and social media a Google search by a potential employer may turn up. A personal website allows you to showcase your accomplishments, affiliations, awards, and interests. But creating a website from scratch can seem daunting with all the different services and layouts available today. In reality, once you’ve made a few initial set-up decisions, the process is more user-friendly than ever, and you can make a good start in the space of just a few hours. In this post, I’ll go over some of the current popular platforms, what to include on your website, and how to bring people to it by cross-promoting on different social media services.
Choosing a PlatformFor the sake of user-friendliness, I’m going to assume that you’ll be choosing a hosted service. Hosted services are less customizable, but considerably simpler to use than self-hosted options. If you’re up for the challenge and want a greater degree of design freedom, however, there are several good online guides to creating a self-hosted website. I’ll go over three of the most popular, user-friendly, and free hosted services here. There are, of course, many easy to use options for a fee, but if you’re just starting out, it’s nice to not have to make an investment.
A quick note on terminology: themes are pre-packaged designs for a website that include colour scheme, fonts, and the overall aesthetic of the page. Templates (or layouts) refer to the location on the page of images and text, and they aid in the organization of information. To some extent, the theme you choose will influence the layout of the page.
Wordpress: A Wordpress.com website (not to be confused with Wordpress.org, the self-hosted option) is easily the most common choice for those creating a blog or personal website. Wordpress uses a "what you see is what you get" (WYSIWYG) interface for writing, so no html knowledge is necessary. The platform provides a number of free and paid themes to choose from in order to customize the look of your website, and provides a small number of simple "widgets", such as a Twitter feed, to be placed in the sidebar. Basic stats are also available for your site. Drawbacks of this platform are the sometimes confusing admin pages, which can make looking for tools tricky, and no ability to drag and drop elements where you wish on the page.Wix: Meant for people who want their website to look visually stunning, Wix has among the largest collections of themes and blank template designs, and it uses a drag-and-drop interface, allowing you to drag elements such as images or text boxes to the location you wish, making for an easy learning experience and a good amount of customization. Wix also tends to add new features (in the form of "apps", which are analogous to Wordpress widgets) regularly for an up-to-date experience. Downsides to Wix are an inability to easily switch themes once you’ve started placing elements and particularly prominent advertising on websites when using the free version.
Weebly: The most user-friendly of the three, Weebly offers themes and a drag and drop website builder, making design simple for those who aren’t naturals at it. It also gives access to the code behind the free themes, so those who are able to tinker with it can customize extensively. The flip side of this, however, is that customization of themes is very limited for those who aren’t willing to dive into the code. Weebly is also slower to introduce new features and offers a blogging experience that is very low on features, so it may not be the best choice if you’d also like to blog on your website.
All platforms have their strengths and weaknesses, but since they’re free, it’s easy to toy around with any or all of them and see which you like best. Just don’t make too big a time commitment before making a final choice.
A word on domain namesWhen you sign up for a website on one of these sites, you’ll be able to choose its web address (or at least part of it, as I’ll get to in a moment). In most cases, your best bet is to just use your name, if it’s available. Your Wordpress site could be janedoe.wordpress.com, or if that’s taken, some slight variation, like drjanedoe, or janedoelab. The idea is to be both simple and memorable. As for the "wordpress.com" part of the address, that’s a subdomain and comes with all the free website hosting plans. It’s not a problem, and many people leave it there without a second thought. If, however, you’re dead set on your web address being janedoe.com, you’ll have to pay a small annual fee to register a domain name. This costs around $20-$25 CDN per year and is offered through most web hosting platforms. Once you register a domain, it’s yours for as long as you pay the annual fee.
AppearanceA professional website should, above all, look… professional. This means a clean layout with only a few complementary colours, a standard font, and dark text on a light background. Keep the layout fairly simple, and avoid having too many large blocks of text. Bullet points are a good way to convey information in an easy-to-read format. To keep the layout simple, you’ll want to use menus and spread different categories of information across multiple static pages. Nested menus can contain a great deal of information in a logical and accessible format.
What to includeIn short, include anything that’s relevant and conveys a positive image of you to prospective employers, colleagues, and students. And don’t forget to update your website regularly with new achievements, as you would with your CV. Here are some ideas to get you started:
- A list of your publications with links to individual papers and your Google Scholar profile. You may also want to include plain language summaries of your work, so those outside of your field can understand what you’ve done
- Other CV-type information such as your educational and work history
- A statement of your research interests and goals
- Your teaching portfolio and a statement of your teaching philosophy
- Student evaluations of your teaching
- Awards, honours, scholarships, and other achievements
- Conference presentations, either embedded or listed
- A list of lab or field techniques in which you have experience
- Photos or videos documenting your academic life and work
- Affiliations with scientific societies and other professional groups
- Journals for whom you have served as a peer reviewer as well as other forms of service and outreach to the scientific community
- A link to your blog, if it’s work-related, as well as links to LinkedIn, Academia.edu, and other academic social networks
- A page about your lab and its members or a link to such a page on your institution’s website
- Your contact information or, if you don’t wish to list your email address publicly, an embedded email form for those wishing to reach you
How to promote your siteYou can spend hours and hours crafting the perfect website to represent your professional self, but it won’t do a lot of good if no one sees it! Your website should be a home base, with everything else you do on the internet (professionally, at least) linking back to it so people can learn more about you and what you do. It should appear on your Twitter, LinkedIn, and other social media profiles, as a link on your CV, and in your email signature. If you have a profile on your university’s website, you can link to it there, as well. If you carry business cards at conferences, make sure your website is listed with your other contact information.
In today’s competitive job market, in which employers look to the internet to learn more about possible hires, an attractive, informative professional website is a must. They can also be a lot of fun to put together, since it’s your own little space to create. Enjoy the process and reap the rewards.
Erin Zimmerman (@DoctorZedd) is a plant biologist turned science writer and illustrator. She holds a B.Sc. in plant biology and physics from the University of Guelph and an MSc and PhD in fungal genetics and molecular systematics, respectively, from the Université de Montréal. She blogs about evolution at Questionable Evolution. Find more of her writing at her website.