Student authors: Kimberly Hadaway and Peter Hollander, Faculty author: Pamela E. Harris
Most mathematicians wait until close to completing their PhD to create their academic websites, but starting sooner can really pay dividends, especially for students looking to find new academic opportunities. Luckily, there are many accessible (very often free!) sites that facilitate website creation, thereby providing an opportunity for younger mathematicians to begin building their academic profile and creating and sharing their own academic profiles. Below, we describe some common questions about why academic websites are needed, and we also provide some tips on how to start building your first website.
Why do you need a website?
PH: As a faculty member, I have been working on inviting younger mathematicians to mathematics research programs and even for mentoring opportunities. As I organize more events, I run into the same roadblock: finding little to no information about a student who someone has recommended. I mostly learn about students through their faculty mentors and professors as I post an opportunity on social media and request that my math family share who they might know that fits the description and targeted audience of the program. I always get fast responses and names of potential participants. With a recommendation at hand, I quickly move to try to find further information about them. My default is to do a quick search to see if they might have a website where I can learn about their academic journey, and mathematics background and interests. Yet, I find that very few students actually have an academic online presence. The point here is that often these opportunities arise, and without a way for people to learn about you, professors might not have the time or even feel comfortable reaching out directly to ask for information in order to determine if this is the right opportunity for you.
I can already hear that it might feel very challenging to start a website and that students, in particular those who are currently undergraduates, might think they don’t have enough information to populate a website. The truth is that by having taken mathematics classes, you already have enough to start at least the first page of a website. However, I understand the hesitation that prevents students from getting started in this task. To put this into practice, let us hear from Kimberly Hadaway and Peter Hollander as they share initial thoughts when I, as their thesis advisor, tasked them to create their first academic website.
Kimberly: I was hesitant about making a website, but my lovely thesis advisor suggested that I make one anyway. I spent a while on it so that I could feel as proud as I do when I direct people to it to learn more about me. My website is now “complete,” which means that it is good enough to be shared with the world, because I will continue to update it as I grow. Within a month, I have shared my website link in my email signature, at conferences, in graduate school applications, and people are always super impressed because this “simple” act makes me look so put together. (Not to gloat, but my website looks absolutely amazing, so feel free to check it out for some inspiration.)
Peter: If you want to really put yourself out there, a website is the way to do it. Think about it this way––you wouldn’t attach your CV to every email you send, as it just isn’t professional to do so, but how else do you share information about yourself with others? I’ve linked my website at the bottom of my email signature so that now, every person I email has a chance to look through my work and learn a bit more about me. What’s more, the information on my website spans much more broadly than just a CV, so sharing a website allows me the freedom to share anything else I want with my peers and future employers.
Just like Kimberly and Peter felt that initial hesitation, the key insight was to not let that prevent you from getting started. Now that we have those emotions out of the way, let us start with some pragmatic advice stemming from the lessons Kimberly and Peter learned as they created their websites.
Platforms to make your website
Our personal favorite platform is Google Sites, because it is completely free and relatively easy to use while maintaining a clean and crisp look. An additional benefit is that you can pay for your domain name1 if you so desire. When choosing a website template among the numerous provided, we recommend focusing on a design that you actually like and that allows you to quickly and easily update your information.
There are many other website creation platforms and services, such as Squarespace, Wix, and Weebly, which offer free versions of their products with limited functionality yet work very well for those creating their first academic website. The benefits of these services is that, if you want to later, you can upgrade to premium subscriptions and unlock additional features. These vary greatly from service to service, but they are definitely worth looking into as they include calendar synchronization, contact forms, and many other features.
What to put on your website
Your website’s primary purpose is to allow others to easily learn about you. After reading through your website, readers should feel like they have a decent idea of who you are, your mathematical interests, and your relevant academic experience. If you also convince your site visitors that you are amiable and would work well with them, you have earned a few extra credit points.
Regarding general content, your website should contain a biography (in which you may list things like your year in school and mathematical interests) and your CV or resume (but not both). We also recommend including (at least) one photo of yourself, your contact information, and, of course, your relevant experience. Possible relevant experience could be any research publications (or REU/research experience), teaching experience, and any other experience which you believe is germane to the goals of your website. Remember to include courses you have taken and even a short description of the type of mathematics you have found the most enjoyable.
Spacing of information within a website is important to readers; whenever possible, do spread out your information over multiple pages, each serving a unique purpose. For example, if you want to talk more about your mathematics thesis and your experience working as a TA, instead of putting both subjects on a single page you should create one page titled “Research Experience” and another titled “Teaching Experience.” This way, readers know what sort of content to expect based on the title of each page, and they are encouraged to learn more about you without encountering overwhelmingly long walls of text. You should also be careful to use a clear font and not include too much text. Only say what you need to say to not bore or confuse the reader. After all, if what they see interests them, they can always reach out to you to talk more or to inquire further.
Lastly, we want to stress the importance of including a small bit of (fun) personal information––something that makes you a strong mathematician and a cool person. This can be as little as one sentence at the end of your bio, and it can do a lot to make you more of a well-rounded person rather than just a researcher or a student. If you enjoy baking cakes, or sewing quilts, or reading books, or playing volleyball, feel free to add such information under your biography. We are full humans with broad interests, but do remember this is an academic website so you do want to be careful not to turn your new academic website into your social media hub.
Designing your website
Take a moment to think about good websites and not-so-good websites you have seen. In fact, we encourage you to visit your own professors’ websites and ask yourself the following questions:
- What are common aspects you see in these websites? What is prominently displayed in banners? This will help you determine if your website has all the things that you would want to see based on a website that you like to use or think highly of. Do be cautious of your feelings. You are not visiting these websites to compare your current work to that of someone who likely has curated their website for years. It is just an exercise to gather some initial information that you could implement in your own design.
- What makes these websites stand out? What are positive and negative features of the website? This helps you determine if one template might be better than another. It can also help you determine what you want to avoid or mimic in your own website.
- How is the layout of the contect formatted? Are there many images? How do they utilize links? Answers to these questions allow you to think about the user experience as people visit your website. We recommend you start out small and make incremental changes as you further edit your website.
With respect to designing, use one or two easy-to-read fonts, spread out your information, choose one accent color. With respect to “professionalism,” first impressions are (unfortunately) important, so do express yourself all while maintaining an appearance of a motivated, friendly, respectful, and competent individual. If you are not sure about whether something should go on your website, ask your professors or your mentor or the career center at your institution!
If you were under the impression that you needed to be a professor before you could even consider building your own academic website, then we hope by now you have changed your mind and that you agree that you need your own website right now.
Remember, your website is a living document reflecting your journey through academia. Your website is a place to unabashedly brag about yourself and your accomplishments. Your website is a place for others to learn more about you as a scholar and, more importantly, as a person. Your website can reflect a holistic version of yourself that others may not know, including matching a face to a name. Your website can start out small, and you should not let perfection be the enemy of starting your website. So, just get out of your comfort zone, and begin building your academic profile already!
Kimberly is a senior undergraduate Mathematics and Chemistry double major at Williams College, and she will be attending graduate school in Fall 2021 to pursue a Ph.D. in Mathematics. She aspires to work as a mathematician, increasing representation for other black women in mathematics and sharing the beauty and fun associated with the field. Besides mathematics, Kimberly has a passion for all kinds of art: bullet journaling, quilting, watercolor painting, and more.
Peter is a senior Mathematics major at Williams College. He is also a four-year member of the Williams Crew team and an avid runner, cyclist, and rock climber. He will be attending graduate school in Fall 2021, pursuing a Ph.D. in Mathematics, his ultimate goal being to teach and research mathematics.
 A domain name is just the main part of your website hyperlink. You might want your domain name to be your name; for example, if your name is “First M. Last,” you could make your domain name “www.firstmlast.com” so people could easily find you!