Creating a Website to Promote Your Scientific Work

Emily Moravec is a postdoctoral researcher at the Astronomical Institute of the Czech Academy of Science and a support scientist at the Czech node of the European ALMA Regional Center. She is a radio astronomer and her research interests are active galactic nuclei (AGN), radio galaxies, galaxy clusters, and the evolution of radio-AGN. She investigates how the environment affects the evolution of radio-AGN and compares AGN to X-ray binaries to learn about the accretion physics occurring with AGN.

Creating a website to promote your scientific work has become commonplace in many scientific disciplines. A plethora of options exist for the framework to generate your website content, as well as  hosting it and registering a domain name. The goal of this post is to provide early career scientists with an overview of the current options for creating a website to promote their professional persona, as well as general advice concerning the written content on your site.

Why should I create a website to promote my scientific work?

As a scientist, why is it important for you to create a website to promote yourself and your work? The simple answer is that it makes it easier for other professionals to find you, learn about your work, and contact you. What comes up when someone searches your name + profession (or keyword about your work)? The following are a few example scenarios in which another professional might Google your name: (1) potential employers, (2) collaborators and potential collaborators, (3) another professional trying to learn more about you and your work, (4) colleagues at a conference, (5) a colleague wanting to invite you to give a talk, (6) a journalist who may want to contact you, either about your work, or to get your comments for other work, (7) a non-scientist wanting to invite you for seminar/outreach, and (8) potential non-academic employers who want to get in touch. Creating a website about you and your work will allow the aforementioned colleagues to find your professional persona and content relevant to your work (as opposed to other content that may not be professionally related, such as social media).

At what stage in my career should I create my website?

Through a survey, I asked those in the astronomical community who currently have a website at what stage in their careers they created it. In this sample of 54 scientists, most created a website early on their careers when they were graduate students (59% of responses). I will note that since a large majority of the participants in this survey are postdocs or beyond the postdoc stage (a more advanced stage of early career and mid career) and the most popular answer was graduate student (previous career stage), this could indeed represent the typical stage at which scientists in the community create a website. From this result and personal experience, I recommend that you create a website during your time as a graduate student or first postdoc and update it throughout the rest of your career. These career stages are when you are trying to promote your work and attain name recognition, and a website can help with that.

What are the main considerations when making a website?

The four main decisions that you will need to make concerning your website are (1) the framework to generate your website content, (2) where to host your website, (3) where to register your domain name, and (4) time versus cost. You need to think about all of these components to produce a website.

First, you will need to decide the framework that you will use to generate your website content (not the written/creative content). Generally, the appearance and style of your website is dictated by a combination of HTML and CSS (see this blog post explaining HTML versus CSS). Currently, you can either find and edit a template manually, or use a service on which you arrange the elements of your website (e.g., text, images, media) in an intuitive way and the service takes care of the HTML and CSS for you.

Next, you must make the hosting and domain name decisions. Your web host is the place where all of the files necessary to create your website are stored and your domain name tells web servers where to find the files for your website. A good analogy is that the domain name is the address of your house and the web hosting is the actual house that address points to (analogy from What’s the Difference Between Domain Name and Web Hosting (Explained)). If you would like to understand hosting and domain names better, I recommend reading this article which explains their differences and interaction.

Another decision to make is what cost you are willing to pay for your website. The cost will depend on the features that you want (on your website and in the creation process), the ease of creation and maintaining your website, and whether you want a customized domain name. It is possible to pay nothing for your website, but this typically requires you to devote more time to the process and get your hands dirty (e.g., choosing a template, understanding HTML and CSS to customize your page, finding a host and domain, and maintaining your page). The costs typically arise if you want (A) a one-stop shop (templates, hosting, and domain name) and/or a drag and drop template that doesn’t require much knowledge of HTML/CSS, or (B) a personalized domain name (such as emilymoravec.com).

What options do I have for HTML and CSS templates, hosting, and domain for my website?

“One-Stop Shops”

There are several options that provide all three requisites (templates, hosting, and a domain name). Free options include

Examples of paid options are SquareSpace and Hostinger. Most of these are WYSIWYG editors which allow the user to drag and drop and do not require much knowledge of HTML/CSS to use. That is why they are often preferred by non-programmers, but usually this benefit is at an extra cost or reduced features on a free plan.

These services will often provide a free subdomain name (e.g., username.github.io, name.wordpress.com, sites.google.com/view/yoursite, username.wixsite.com). However, if you want a custom domain (e.g., emilymoravec.com), this will cost money.

Templates

Whether you use GitHub Pages, Google Sites, Wix, or your institution to host your site and obtain a subdomain name, you can typically place any HTML or CSS template there. An overwhelming majority of the participants in the survey used a template. Below, I list a few sites where you can find free and paid templates:

At many of these sites you can also purchase templates as well.

Hosting + Domain

The most popular options for both hosting and domain name from the survey were from “Your Institution” and GitHub Pages. Using your institution for hosting and domain name is free, and you can ask colleagues or the IT staff at your institution if this is an option. If you are interested in using GitHub Pages (also free), I give more details on that below. You can also get free hosting and a domain name through those listed in the previous “One-Stop Shop” section. Other options that participants in the survey used to host and register a domain name are Netlify (paid), nearlyfreespeach.net (paid), and their own servers.

DNS Services

As mentioned before, many of the services where you host your site will provide a free subdomain name (e.g., username.github.io, name.wordpress.com, sites.google.com/view/yoursite, username.wixsite.com). However, if you want a custom domain (e.g., emilymoravec.com), this will cost money. You can determine whether your desired domain name is taken using hover.com.

Many of the aforementioned sites that provide templates and hosting services allow you to purchase a custom domain through them (listed in “One Stop Shops” and “Hosting+Domain”). However, there are other sites through which you can buy and register a domain name that may be cheaper:

Many hosting providers will allow you to host with them and specify a customized domain name that you have purchased. For example, my website is hosted on GitHub Pages and I bought my domain name through Hover.com. The instructions for linking the domain name to the hosting provider are available on the hosting providers’ help pages.

GitHub Pages

I have found that more people are migrating to using GitHub Pages as it is a convenient, free hosting option if you are already familiar with GitHub. However, using GitHub Pages will require that you either upload an HTML/CSS template to GitHub or learn Jekyll and use a Jekyll theme. If you don’t want username.github.io as your website address, you will have to purchase a custom domain name. And it will require knowing Git to some degree. However, if you are familiar with Git and are willing to spend a bit of time working with some HTML/CSS it is a fairly streamlined process. If you decide to do this, below are a few resources:

  • GitHub Pages How To
  • GitHub gist that I wrote after creating my site with Jekyll, GitHub Pages, Sublime Text, and a Mac
  • Astrosites which is a GitHub repository maintained by Steven Stetzler and Leah Fulmer

What are the most popular framework, hosting, and domain choices in the astronomical community?

Survey

I wanted to know what services and frameworks scientists in the astronomical community use to create their professional websites. Thus, in August 2020 I created a survey and posted it to the “Astronomers” Facebook page and my LinkedIn, and emailed it directly to a few colleagues. Over the next month, I received a total of 54 responses from 23 (46%) people in an academic position beyond postdoc (faculty, scientist, etc.), one (2%) individual research fellow, four (7%) people in their third postdoc, four (7%) people in their second postdoc, 16 (30%) people in their first postdoc, and six (11%) graduate students. 53 of the participants were astronomers and one was a computer scientist. I do not claim that this survey reflects the full distribution of services and frameworks used by the entire scientific or astronomical community. This survey was instead intended to be a vessel to collect ideas as a resource for early career scientists.

Framework

The most popular option for generating the HTML code for a website is to use a template, typically HTML or CSS.

Hosting

The most popular options for hosting among the surveyed scientists were their institutions or GitHub Pages.

Domain

The most popular options for domain names among the surveyed scientists were their institutions, GitHub Pages, Google Sites, and WordPress. I will note that ~30% used a smattering of other services.

Overall, the survey showed that the most popular option among astronomers is to find a template, edit it, and host it at their respective  institutions or on GitHub Pages. However, I will note that at least four people mentioned in the comments section of the survey that if you host at your institution you will have to move your website every time you move institutions. And for early career scientists this is quite often.

What should I put on my website?

Based on information gathered from personal experience, the survey responses, and discussions with colleagues, I highly recommend that you include the following content on your website:

  • An introduction page with a photo of yourself, an introduction to your interests, and a short bio.
  • A shortened CV highlighting the most important items and a downloadable full version.
  • A list of your publications. Make this prominent. You could include links to your papers on the SAO/NASA Astrophysics Data System (ADS), ORCID, Research Gate, Google Scholar, etc.
  • A page describing your research in more detail.
  • Contact information.

Other content ideas:

  • A description of your outreach efforts.
  • A teaching page.
  • A “Science digest” page describing your research in layman’s terms for the general public.
  • A link to your LinkedIn page.
  • Statistics about your papers, citations, and talks given.
  • A blog of professional updates.

Conclusion

A few final words. For my work on creating this resource, my advice is as follows:

  1. Create a website early in your career (recommended is graduate school). Having a website is better than having none. What do potential employers and colleagues find when they search your name?
  2. Keep your website simple, clear, and updated.
  3. Include an introduction to your interests, keywords about you and your work, some version of your CV, publications list, and a summary of your work.
  4. Be prepared to invest time into making your website (1–2 weeks).
  5. It is possible to create a website that costs <$15 per year.

A full writeup of the motivation, survey questions and responses, options, advice on content and web presence, and tips and tricks is available through the Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society and on arXiv.

The intent of this post (and the corresponding written document) was to lay out many of the popular options for creating your own professional website. However, you may still feel overwhelmed with options. How do you choose? My best advice is to look over the options presented in this post, and then ask your colleagues how they created their websites and what they recommend. Then decide for yourself which option best suits you.

Thank you to all those that filled out the survey and colleagues who edited the full manuscript. If you have any tips or tricks to share, comment below with how you’ve created your own professional website.

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