Some months ago, a conversation among graduate students at Emory turned to the topic of updating websites. A few of us had yet to make one, so I joked that I could write a blog post on it, which was met with more enthusiasm than I expected. Later, I did some digging on the Emory directory and Google to find that only 6 out of the 37 PhD students currently at Emory have a webpage — a number that I’d like to see grow!
To be fair to my 31 currently website-less colleagues, several are in their first year (or their first year in-person) and may not have needed one to this point. Others may be seeking government or industry jobs, where having a personal website may be less critical. I’ve also heard “but I don’t have anything to put on it yet.” To these I would reply that it’s easier the earlier you start, it can’t hurt to have no matter what jobs you apply for, and you don’t need to put much on it for your website to pay off!
The thrust of my advice on websites to a beginning graduate student in math (and the advice that was given to me) is summarized in the title of the post: you should have a website. Below I’ll expand a bit on why it matters, what you might put on it, and suggest a few ways to get started.
Why bother with a website?
The primary objective for your website is to make it possible for people – namely fellow researchers and potential employers – to find you and your work. The top answers on this Stack Exchange post put it really well; when you start writing papers and giving talks, people will look for you! Speaking personally (and reflecting what I’ve heard at countless career panels), I find information about fellow researchers through their websites. Most of the time, Googling “firstname lastname math” or “firstname lastname institution” will bring me straight to their personal webpage containing their research interests, links to papers, and contact information, so I want my website to do the same for others.
To those students concerned that they don’t have enough to share on a website, I’ll quote computer scientist Bastian Rieck from his excellent blog post on why academics should have personal websites: “everyone has something to share with the rest of the world.” It’s okay if that is just your contact information and office number for now! You’ll be doing yourself a favor by having a website in place when you do have preprints or talk slides to share in the future.
Ultimately, your website provides a way for you to communicate who you are to the mathematical community. While this can be partially done through your CV (which by the way should appear on your website!) or a LinkedIn page, a website offers much more control over how you present yourself, and the opportunity to make a memorable impression.
What should be on it?
The contents of an academic website, and how they appear, vary widely and are largely up to your personal preference. I recommend taking a look at the websites and asking the opinions of graduate students and faculty you know and trust. You’ll likely get a lot of (possibly conflicting) answers, but you should be okay if you take the average of their advice. Below, I’ll suggest possible contents of your website, starting with the bare minimum.
The bare minimum
Have something up there. It could just say your name and “I’m a grad student in math” and it would be a great start. Getting over the hurdle of putting literally anything on your webpage will make it so much easier to add more later!
Having said that, here’s what I would suggest starting with, which would all fit easily onto one page:
- Your name (duh),
- Your institution and advisor (if you have one),
- Your contact information (probably email),
- A picture of you.
A note about pictures: I really do think having a fairly recent, professional-looking picture is important, as when people look you up and then meet you (or vice versa), they’ll be able to put a face to the name. Some people may feel anxious about posting pictures of themselves publicly; if that describes you then feel free to skip the picture, but don’t let it stop you from putting up the rest!
The standard content
Having looked at lots of academic websites, most contain the bare minimum above as well as following information, in one form or another. This is the key content that fellow researchers and employers will be interested in when they look you up.
- Research: To start, this could be a sentence or two about your research interests. Once you have them, list any papers you’ve authored, including preprints, with links to the arxiv or the journal. You can optionally include links to your slides from when you’ve given talks, or even a video if the talk was recorded.
- Teaching: List the courses you have taught or TA’d in the past. If you’re currently teaching, you might include your office hours and links to the course syllabus for your students to find.
- CV: Link to your CV (which you should have!).
- Job market: If you’re on the job market, say so! You might also include your research and teaching statements for prospective employers to find.
Of course, there’s more to being a grad student than research and teaching. Do you teach math circle? Have you organized a seminar at your institution? Do you have a GitHub with code you’d like to share? Have you written any expository papers, or course notes you want to make public? Did you have an internship, and can you share anything about it? If you answer yes to any of these, find a place for them somewhere! Details like these paint a more complete picture of who you are as a mathematician.
Having fun with it
At this point you could certainly stop. But since you’ve made it this far, is there anything else you wish to share with the world? Maybe you’re big on math Twitter or have some favorite math blogs which you could link to. Or perhaps you have hobbies or pictures to share that are entirely unrelated to math that you’d like to add – I say go for it! I myself have some pictures of myself ballroom dancing in college on my website. There’s no need for them to be there, but I’m proud of them and who knows – they could one day serve as a conversation starter! This is all optional of course, but I have found that the most memorable websites tend to be the ones which give some indication as to who the person is, behind all the preprints and courses taught.
How to make it
Now it’s time to justify the parenthetical in the title: actually making your website doesn’t have to be hard. There are, however, a lot of options for doing so, which can be overwhelming if you’ve new to this sort of thing (I hadn’t made a website before grad school). This isn’t a step-by-step guide – you can easily find those elsewhere on the web – but instead some thoughts and resources which I hope help you to choose a platform and get started!
The fastest way to get your website up and running is to use a service like Google sites, Squarespace, Wix, GitHub, or WordPress (they also feature blogs, like this one!), and countless others. I only have experience with Google sites and WordPress blogs, so I can’t speak for the others, but I know they exist.
The primary advantage to taking this route is that it’s really easy. With a Google site, you could probably have the whole thing set up in 10 minutes, with zero experience. All of the platforms mentioned above offer templates that you can start with to further streamline the process. If you don’t have any experience working with HTML and don’t want to learn, or just want to get this done with quickly, then one of these services is the way to go.
Another plus of using one of these platforms is that they will host your site, often for free or for a small fee. As a graduate student, this can be really useful since you don’t have to worry about your website when you graduate and move institutions. A downside is that free hosting restricts your URL to a subdomain such as “sites.google.com,” or similar. If you have strong feelings about this, you could buy your own custom domain name for around $10 – $20 per year.
Do it yourself with HTML
Another option is to code your website yourself with HTML and have your institution host it. I went this route because I thought it might be fun and useful to learn some HTML, and doing things myself provided the most control over the appearance of my website. If you’re the sort of person who learned LaTeX and vowed never to use a word processor again, this is probably what you want to do.
If you’re just starting out, there are tons of free online resources and tutorials for learning the basics of HTML and CSS. You don’t need to be an expert – I’m certainly not – but at minimum you’ll want to be able to arrange text on your page, make lists, include images and links, and change the appearances of all these things. No special software is necessary: you can use any text editor to write your HTML code and any browser to open it.
Once you have your .html file, you’ll probably need to put files onto a department server. If your department doesn’t share instructions for this, ask a colleague who has their website set up already to walk you through the process (it shouldn’t take more than a few minutes). I find it most convenient to keep all of my website-related files (.html files, style files, pictures, and pdfs) in one folder on my computer (backed up of course!) so I can edit them locally, then I just copy the entire file to our department server using the scp command when I want to update things. That way, whenever I have a new preprint or give a talk, I only need to add one line and enter one command to add it to my website.
Linking to your department directory
Regardless of whether you choose a Google site or you write it yourself in HTML, make sure to get it linked on your institution or department’s directory page! People actually do use these directories, so make sure there’s a link to your webpage alongside your email and office number. Ask a colleague or your institution’s IT staff for instructions.
It doesn’t matter if you’re in your final year, frantically applying for jobs, or just starting out as a graduate student — you have something to share! If you don’t think you have much yet, you will later on, so setting up your professional website earlier will save you time and effort down the road (when you’re frantically applying to those jobs).
Wishing everyone a safe and pleasant winter break!