I first heard about Graduate Junction through a review from An American Physics Student in England. Flip’s verdict was something of a mixed review, and he seems to be taking a wait-and-see approach to the site. However, the concept seemed intriguing, so I decided to check the site out for myself.
The goal of Graduate Junction is to provide an academic networking service along the lines of social networking sites like Facebook. Each user creates and maintains a personal profile page including name, institution, research summary, and a list of publications. Users can create and join groups, post links, publish notes, and send messages to other users. In fact, there is basically no functionality here that is not on Facebook. The main difference is what is removed: photos, pokes, applications, personal interests, the wall… anything that isn’t strictly professional. So if this site presents nothing entirely new, what value can it have?
A Place to Call our Own
The first distinctive feature of Graduate Junction is its exclusivity; restricting itself to grad students immediately sets a tone for the site that distinguishes itself from Facebook and Myspace on the one hand and department profile pages on the other. As graduate students, it makes more sense to be interested in the research interests of students at other schools, rather than their favorite TV shows and relationship status. Also, while the Arxiv is a valuable tool for staying up to date on research in general, it is also useful to see what kind of research is being done by one’s fellow students as opposed to the research done by more established professors. Such information about other grad students can be useful as a yardstick for your own performance as well as suggesting new directions for your research to grow.
While I think that the site’s developers defined their target community correctly, their success will be determined by the site’s ability to attract a large enough community. As of today, there are just over one hundred physics students with profiles on the site, with only five who have indicated a research interest in particle/high energy physics. (Most of these students are also not from the US, which is probably due to the fact that the founders are from Durham University in England.) With a community of this size, networking isn’t really useful, especially given that, for physicists, the main value of networking is in connecting with those in our subfield.
This makes me wonder what the size the community must be in order for it to be really useful. I would think that the number would have to be in the dozens if not the hundreds for students of a particular subfield to find the community useful. There is then probably another larger number at which the community reaches a critical mass and really catches on and becomes indispensible. I think the age demographic that makes up the majority of grad students “gets” the value of this kind of networking in a way that doesn’t quite make sense to older generations. Witness how quickly facebook has taken over, even while older generations were still saying “okay, but what’s it for?” Facebook also reached its critical mass rather quickly with little or no advertising other than word of mouth. It’s growth was so fast that people went from asking “What’s Facebook?” to saying “What do you mean, you’re not on facebook?” in less than a year. This kind of growth (within the grad student community) is entirely possible for Graduate Junction.
A Place for Everything, and Everything in its Place
I remember first trying to explain to my dad the concept of Facebook. He asked why people didn’t just make personal webpages and use email. The community aspect is an important factor, but just as important are issues of simplicity and consistency. These factors play a role in the importance of Graduate Junction as well.
The simplicity of establishing an online presence on Graduate Junction should not be underestimated. Yes, today’s grad students are fairly web literate, and web page publishing is simpler than ever. However, there are still a few things to figure out when making a personal webpage, such as where to host it, what information to include, and how to make it look professional. Graduate Junction answers these questions for you, and reduces your workload to simply entering the content, rather than having to worry about the form of the page.
In researching graduate programs over the past year, I’ve seen my fair share of professors’ websites, and I’ve seen every kind of good and bad. Some have too much information (every paper and talk from a 40-year career), some too little (name, contact info). Some are fairly up-to-date, and some are ancient. And every time, you have to hunt for the information. Graduate Junction addresses this with its consistent layout, so you know exactly where to look on the page for the specific information that you are looking for. And while it won’t force people to keep their pages up to date, it does make it a little easier.
In addition, it should help to consolidate information that is already available elsewhere on the internet. True, we can find lists of articles, conference schedules, advice forums, rumor mills, and the like in various places throughout the web, but i think the value of having all of these in one place is clear. Plus, it gives us a clue as to where people are going with their future work, as well as what they think is their most important work.
A Couple of Ideas of How Best to Use the Site:
- Groups: as of right now, the groups seem to be mostly by subject: Physics, Marine Biology, Mathematical Finance, etc. However, these groups will probably be most useful the more specialized they are. So forming groups based on subfield or department will be useful, but I think a group for discussing the work of a collaboration would be useful.
- Personal Home Page: This idea cannot become reality without some tweaks by the people who run Graduate Junction. I had visions of my profile page serving as my personal professional homepage, but the site is not accessible via search engines. You also cannot provide a direct link to your profile page to a person who is not a member of the site. So the information on the profile page is useless to anyone outside the network. Since the information on the profile page is intended to be public, I would like to see the site, or at least the profile pages, visible to all web users. Perhaps they could make this an option for each individual user. (A note on privacy: profile pages are visible to all users of the site, which is different from Facebook. Users can register through any email address, not just an academic one. So there is very little privacy right now, and I don’t think there would be much problem making profiles more public.)
In short, I think that this site will be a useful resource once the community becomes large enough. So get the word out to all your grad student friends!