Personal Academic Webpages: How-To's and Tips for a Better Site

Rochelle Terman
March 08, 2012
Image of a magnifying glass illuminating "W W W" over the Earth.

Many academics, from graduate students to emeritus faculty, maintain a professional web presence, either through a personal site or a profile on their departmental homepages. But despite the ubiquity of personal academic websites, the process of setting up a site remains daunting to many scholars outside of computer science. This article provides basic tips and best practices for scholars who wish to build their own personal sites for professional purposes.

Why a Personal Website: Goals, Visitors, and Communication

A website is always a means to an end, not an end in itself. Thus the first step in planning your academic web presence is to think about your basic communication goals. Given the stage of your career, why do you want a web presence? Who will be visiting your website? What do you hope to communicate to these visitors? Always keep these questions in mind when you are planning all aspects of your site.

Once you have a clear vision of your ideal web presence, the next step is to decide whether departmental profiles or personal sites are the best way to go. Many departments offer web space to graduate students and faculty to showcase basic information such as their research interests, contact information, and CV. For established tenured faculty, these single-page profiles are perfectly functional. But many graduate students and early-career academics find these pages too limiting, and find that personal academic websites are better suited to their needs.  For those scholars who wish to share other kinds of content such as publications, photos, or data, personal websites are the way to go.

URLs and Hosting

If you do decide to build a personal site, the next step is to decide where your site will be located. This involves two basic issues: 1) what is the site’s domain name or URL, and 2) where is the site hosted. There are three basic options:

First, you can have your university host your site so that the domain name will be something like http://myname.berkeley.edu. For tenured faculty who are likely to remain at their institution for the foreseeable future, this option makes the most sense. It also benefits from the sense of legitimacy that a “.edu” suffix provides.

On the other hand, graduate students or early career academics may find that personal hosting (http://myname.com) is the better option, as they can take their website with them even if they switch departments. In addition, if you have a unique name, reserving your domain now prevents the unfortunate but common scenario of someone else reserving it in the future and turning www.rochelleterman.com into a Justin Beiber fan site or X-rated marketplace.

Pricing will vary for both university and private hosting. For Berkeley folks, IS&T can help you choose the appropriate option for your needs if you wish to have you site hosted there. For private hosting, Bluehost ($6.95/month) and Dreamhost ($8.95/month) offer similar services including choice of domain name, unlimited storage space, and FTP/SFTP file transfer.

There is a third – and free – option, which is to set up accounts on sites such as Google Sites, Wordpress, or Academia.edu. You will end up with something like http://myname.wordpress.com. The Open Computing Facility at Berkeley also offers free hosting with domain names such as http://ocf.berkeley.edu/~myname. The advantage of this option, which is the zero cost, must be weighed against the disadvantages: lack of a personal URL, and (except for OCF) limited design and content features.

Content Architecture

Once you have decided where to host your site, you must now think about kinds of information you want to include. Most scholars want to communicate the following:

  • Biography: short introduction on professional history, and a professional-looking picture
  • Research Activities: including research interests, publications, working papers, and past/current research projects.
  • Teaching Activities: information on past and current classes, syllabi, approaches to teaching.
  • Curriculum Vitae: either in HTML, PDF, or both.
  • Contact information: departmental address, office hours, and email.

Other common features include: data, image galleries, links to favorite academic resources, and transcripts or videos of lectures.

It has become increasingly common to include more “personal” content such as travel photos, blogs, pages on hobbies, and non-academic-related links. When deciding whether to include content such as these, the basic rule of thumb is: the earlier you are in your career, the more conservative you should be. This applies as well for content tone and design.

Navigation

Navigation refers to how visitors move around the site. All academic sites should have a primary menu (usually horizontal but sometimes vertical) that organizes the site’s content. Expect that people will spend on average about 30 seconds on your site. Building a simple and intuitive navigation system insures that visitors find the information they need quickly and efficiently.

To build a better navigation system, keep these tips in mind:

  • Limit the depth, or complexity, of the navigation: Visitors should be able to reach the information they are looking for in less than 3 clicks from the main page.
  • Limit the number of navigation menu options: Do not use more than 5-6 menu options on the primary navigation menu. Split content up into big blocks (About Me, Research, Teaching, Resources) and use submenus or headings for more specific information (Current Publications, Past Courses).
  • Make it simple and easy to read: The navigation menu should stand out from the rest of the page (either through an accent color or a prominent location), and contain brief, standard menu titles.

Design

When perusing academic webpages in researching this article, I found that design stood out as the by far the weakest element in these sites. While professional academics should not be expected to become experts in web design, scholars would do well to remember a few basic tips when building their new site:

  • Be consistent: format all graphic elements, fonts, sizes, and colors consistently. For instance, the main navigation menu should be in the same place on all pages.
  • Use simple typography: There should be no more than 2 different fonts on your website. Use readable, web-safe fonts such as Verdana or Helvetica, 12 or 14 pt sizes, and use italics or bold sparingly and consistently.
  • Limit use of color: Choose a white or neutral background, a black or charcoal font color and a limited (1-2) accent colors for your menus and links.
  • Design like it’s a billboard, not a newspaper: Empty (negative) space is your friend. Make sure each page is 25-50% blank.  Write short paragraphs and use bullet-points to break up content and make for a more aesthetically pleasing page. 
  • Limit the amount of details such as lines, graphics, and frames. They tend to clutter the page.

When in doubt: use a simpler, cleaner design. For academic websites, a good layout is one that goes unnoticed. 

Programs and Builders 

Building a website can be intimidating, but there are now several tools available to help builders of all skill level. Here are some of my favorite web building solutions:

  • Adobe Muse: Adobe is currently in the process of building a new software program that allows you to build webpages as you would an InDesign document. And because the program is currently in Beta, it’s free. If you love making your own designs but lack any HTML skills, Adobe Muse is the way to go. You can customize the look and feel of your site without any writing any code, and if you are familiar with other Adobe programs such as Photoshop or InDesign, Muse will be very familiar to you.
  • Wordpress: As mentioned above, users can sign up for a free Wordpress account to have a “myname.wordpress.com” site. But Wordpress is also a content management system, meaning that it you can use it on personal domains as well. Although Wordpress is best for blogging, you can also make static pages in order to build a more traditional academic website. People love Wordpress because its powerful yet intuitive. Knowledge of code is completely optional, and dozens of themes are available to customize the look of your site. Many private hosting companies offer “one-click” Wordpress installation.
  • Dreamweaver / iWeb + CSS Templates: For scholars with basic HTML/CSS knowledge (or are up for a challenge), there is always designing your own site using code and an FTP client. Hundreds of free CSS templates are available to help you get started (see here and here). Just open the documents in a web-editing program such as Adobe Dreamweaver (available free for Berkeley students and faculty) or iWeb (for Mac users) and customize the code to your needs. Then upload the files to your hosting server.
  • Open Scholar: Finally, students and faculty at UC Berkeley will soon have access to Open Scholar, a tool specifically designed for scholars who want to build and maintain personal websites quickly and easily. This is perhaps the easiest and most efficient solution for Berkeley students and faculty, and will be soon be available for a wider campus rollout following the current pilot period.