How? SEO. Graduate schools and employers could easily help their student’s and postdoc’s job searches through Search Engine Optimization (SEO). More specifically, I mean by helping students and postdocs control their online identities. This could be done by having better profiles of students, postdocs, -and especially of past student and postdocs.
It’s no secret that employers are using Google as a first level background check of potential employees. That means that what employers find by googling your name will directly affect your job search. The result that comes up first, followed by what’s on the first result page, is most important. Hence the now widespread advice to protect and manipulate one’s online reputation. There are even companies springing up that sell SEO services, some claiming to be able to remove or bury unwanted search engine results (some at exorbitant prices, e.g. $5000 for comprehensive services –but not including a guarantee). Thus SEO is important.
The specific algorithms that search engines, like Google, use are proprietary. That said, search results are well-known to be generally prioritized by the number of incoming links, the quality of those links (defined by how many the linker has), and other factors like the importance and frequency of keywords, and quality of keyword matching. Less well-known are SEO techniques such as site verification and site mapping. All of these things can be manipulated, and you don’t have to be a programmer to do it. Thus SEO is possible.
There are specific actions that schools and employers of science graduate students and postdocs can take to help their charges in their SEO efforts, and thus directly help their job searches. Graduate schools and employers should have profiles of students and postdocs. These profiles can be simple, including name, department, and research topics. Many departments do indeed have such listings, either as part of the department or lab, but they are typically insufficient in terms of SEO. What the profiles are frequently missing are links. The web sites of universities and companies will have much higher rankings than any blog a student could start from scratch. That means that links from universities and companies carry more weight in search engine result ranking. Thus SEO is easy for schools and employers to assist.
Schools and employers typically list current students and postdocs, but delete them once they’ve moved on. This practice has to stop and be replaced with a past student and postdoc listing. Not only will this help SEO, but potential employers will be able to verify education and employment history more easily. Ideally a former student or postdoc should be able to log on and manipulate their profile. That way they can update contact information and links themselves, freeing webmasters from having to handle email or web form requests. In the absence of allowing students and postdocs access to a server, and at an absolute minimum, a profile should have one link to a specific type of webpage with a URL that will be stable in the long term. Principal investigators should list their student and postdoctoral collaborators using links that go to that webpage. Thus as a student works on various projects, moves on to other programs, gets a postdoc or two, high quality links will build up all pointing to the same place. Thus SEO can improve over time passively as a consequence of simple professional practices.
For this to work, all those links should point to one place before others. What profiles should be linked to are homepages of the student or postdoc. Ah, homepages. Those of us who were online during the early days of the web remember “freestanding” personal homepages, i.e. homepages not affiliated with a network like Facebook or LinkedIn. That was when you did the html programming yourself –yes even before Dreamweaver and the like. Freestanding homepages gave way to online networks and blogs, but now we’ve come full circle. Students and postdocs, really every job seeker, needs a homepage that he can fully control. This homepage should then become the target of the high-quality links from schools and employers. Thus SEO requires effort on the part of the student or postdoc.
Students and postdocs can work on SEO themselves, independently of the actions of schools and employers. Yet those schools and employers have great influence they are not using. Moreover, graduate programs and postdoctoral positions exist to help the professional development of the student. Thus making simple changes to existing websites for SEO is a no-brainer.