Graduate Junction, what’s your function?

11Jul08

[Kudos if you got the Schoolhouse Rock reference.] I’ve gotten a few messages now about the Graduate Junction, a social networking site developed to help postgraduate students. After noting it was endorsed by Durham, I decided to give it a try to see what it’s all about.

Update: see Dan’s comment below for further discussion.

The site’s goal is to facilitate academic networking, which is often an under appreciated aspect of academic professions. Users have a CV-like profile page describing their research interests and accomplishments. They are able to join groups reflecting their research and post to forums for advice about all aspects of PhD life. Users can send messages to one another and even (in the future) set up a calendar for conferences.

Does it sound familiar? It should. In many ways it’s just an academic version of Facebook. (“Academic” here means “without embarrassing photos.”) In fact, the whole interface can probably be reproduced on Facebook.

I support the community that Graduate Junction is trying to foster, but I have my reservations about whether it can successfully take off. It requires a large number of users to be useful. This is very much like Wikipedia. Why does Wikipedia have no competitors? Because of economies of scale. (Look it up in an econ textbook.) If there were two Wikipedias, each one would be worse off because they would only have half the capacity to develop articles.

In the same way, a lot of the social features in the Graduate Junction already exist elsewhere for theoretical physics PhDs, making it largely redundant:

Why not Facebook? Call me old fashioned, but I don’t think that searching for collaborators should work the same way that one searches for a new iPod. It should be more like finding the right pair of shoes: while reputation is a start, you actually need to try it out a bit with the guidance of an adviser. This is why we give talks and why conferences have discussion time. There’s much more to a good collaborator than a shiny CV. Research projects need to be taken seriously so that we can’t afford to find collaborators the way one would find an on-line date (which is itself is already somewhat dubious).

So with that I’d have to say that Graduate Junction still needs to develop a larger user base and determine what “new” feature it brings to the table before it can become useful.

For example, they could try to copy Facebook’s “poke” feature, only reimagined as “scoop.” (“You’ve been scooped by ___. Would you like to scoop back?“)šŸ™‚



3 Responses to “Graduate Junction, what’s your function?”

  1. Hi FT,

    Thank you for writing an article about us. I appreciate your honesty, but would like to make a few points of my own.

    Esther and I started the Graduate Junction because we felt isolated in our studies. The projects we were working on were so specific that even the people in our research groups didn’t have the same interests. Conferences are a great way to meet and discuss with other researchers but attendance is usually limited by time and access so we decided that there should be an easier way of making contact with others people working on similar projects.

    From our own experience with friends we also realised that there were huge numbers of graduate researchers around the world but many students weren’t receiving the support they needed. The dropout rates for PhD’s in particular are very high. We believe that by bringing all of the different types of resources (some of which you mention) for graduate researchers together in one place, providing academic as well as peer support, we can try and reduce this problem.

    Many responses from members so far confirm that we are not the only people who felt this way.

    The Graduate Junction still has a lot of development to undergo before it fulfils its aims as well as possible, but we hope we are moving in the right direction. It can be hard to fit all of the work around our studies but we are motivated by the responses we are receiving from our members.

    Of course, the more members the site has the more useful it will become. The site has only been online for a short time, but our database already contains over 1000 research links and members have sent hundreds of messages to each other.

    Hopefully we can spread our message a little faster as a number of Graduate Junction fans are volunteering to help us spread the news.

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