Leveraging Social Media for Your Career, An interview with Dr. Matthew Sparks

We recently sat down and spoke with nephrologist and social media expert Dr. Matthew Sparks to talk about how fellows can create and maintain a social media presence to build their careers. Whether you’ve been building your network since med school or are starting fresh, Dr. Sparks has some fantastic insights to share.


How has social media impacted your career?

That is both a very hard and very easy question. Social media has completely changed the trajectory of my career and continues to do so. It has allowed me to make an impact in the lives of others and given me opportunities to get involved on a national level and even an international level in the field of nephrology.

Visibility creates opportunities and social media is the best vehicle to quickly gain that visibility.

What are the best social media platforms for networking?

All platforms have their strengths and weaknesses. The most effective tool right now is Twitter. It allows for two-way communication in a way that most other platforms don’t. If I had to recommend one, especially for professional purposes, that would be it. 

Having said that, almost every social media platform can be helpful if you know how to use them. For example, Instagram is great for sharing pictures and videos, but not as good for dialog. Youtube is popular and can reach a broad audience, but you have to be invested in creating good content. Creating polished videos take a decent amount of time and commitment.

WhatsApp is a hybrid model that has a larger audience, but true social media needs to be public-facing.  

Facebook is probably the least effective platform currently because it’s now a pay-to-play, which makes it a hard place to build a community and get thought leadership out.

TikTok is a newer platform that requires a wholly unique skill set to be effective. There are only a handful of nephrologists using it effectively. 

It’s important to point out that I use the word “skill” very deliberately. Each social media platform has its own rules and requires its skills to be effective, which is why we spend so much time and energy teaching people the right way to use them.

If someone has absolutely no social media presence, where should they start?

As I mentioned, Twitter is the most effective networking tool right now so I would start there. Twitter is big and can be intimidating, so open an account and choose a few people to follow that you want to emulate. This will let you get a feel for the culture. Each specialty behaves differently on Twitter, and it’s important to notice these subtleties before jumping in. 

Once you understand the communication style, you need to grasp social media’s unwritten etiquette. For example, always attribute to others when you quote them or use their data. Don’t just talk about yourself. Engage others, congratulate others on achievements, and respond when people tag you.

Twitter chats are a great way to introduce yourself to the community. To join, you simply follow the Twitter chats’ hashtag (#NephJC for example) and use it yourself when you want to respond. This lets you engage in open conversation with people you may not know and ultimately expand your network.

If you are particularly interested, anyone is welcome to join our internship program, the Nephrology Social Media Collective (NSMC) Internship.  Our interns get to dive in to learn how to do podcasts, make visual abstracts, run NephJC chats, and become true social media experts in the field.

You mentioned starting by following a few accounts. Do you have any you recommend?

Societies, journals, and nephrology educational sites (@RenalFellowNtwk, @ASNKidney, @NephJC, @Neph_SIM, @GlomCon for example) are great places to start. Once you’ve picked a couple of those, look who is following those accounts. Then check out their feeds to see who is offering good advice and follow those accounts. You can repeat this process as much as you want until you get your “Following” count to a place that works for you. 

It should go without saying, but be as inclusive as possible in the individuals you are following. It’s important to have a diverse range of opinions and perspectives in your feed, lest you get caught up in an echo chamber where everyone thinks the same way.

Finally, a word of warning about lists. A lot of people create lists of “Best Accounts to Follow” or something similar, but I think they are dangerous. I don’t have a list of top nephrologists because inevitably I’m going to accidentally leave someone out who should be on there. Having a “Top 10 Nephrologists” list is an unnecessarily exclusionary thing to do and I wouldn’t create them or seek them out.

Are there any non-nephrologist groups that nephrologists should look into?

Of course! There are a lot, so I will run through them relatively quickly. Follow pathologists. I’ve also recently enjoyed conversations with the palliative care group and several patient advocacy groups. 

Rheumatology has a great Twitter presence that’s welcoming and a great connection. Cardiology is a very interesting field and the cardiologists online are renowned for their spirited debates. I love Twitter because you can tap in and see what’s happening in so many fields. 

Another fascinating thing to do is seek out fringe groups that are growing. The American Society of Onconephrology just emerged a month ago and it’s fascinating to see that happen in real-time.

Effective use of hashtags can be a confusing topic. Can you shed some light on how to use them appropriately?

Generally speaking, don’t hashtag regular words. Most people find that to be a turn-off. Beyond that, hashtags have a different feel for different specialties and platforms. I’ll speak primarily on Twitter since that is the platform I understand best.

Use them sparingly and pointedly for Twitter, as there is only a small group of hashtags that get much attention. #NephJC is the one you use to do the Twitter chat, and then there are hashtagged events like #NephMadness during March. Historically, the most impactful hashtags are the ones that are tied to an event, except #NephForward is for inspiring content.  

The other hashtag worth mentioning is #AskRenal. It’s a bot that picks up anyone who uses the hashtag and retweets it to all of NephJC’s 20k followers. It’s been a great tool to quickly propel people who are newly involved in nephrology on Twitter. We analyzed the data and found it a very effective tool to get cited answers from the community. Feel free to use it to ask a question or follow the hashtag to answer a question yourself.

How do you think social media can benefit one’s job search? What are some strategies you would recommend?

Earlier I mentioned my mantra of “Visibility = Opportunity.” Private practice is much more apt to hire you if they know you or at least know of you. If you are a positive voice on social media, someone who is uplifting others, that is going to do wonders to help your job prospects. 

Social media is also a great tool for vetting potential employers. Eventually, you’re going to see job postings from people you follow on social media. That’s a good avenue to get an inside look at a practice: what’s the attitude like there? Do they have a science- and medicine-first mindset? Is their culture one where you believe you would fit in?

Finally, social media is an excellent place to ensure you’re always aware of the latest information and news. Once you get a job, you’re going to be in private practice. You have to learn new advances on your own because you don’t want to rely on biased information from pharmaceutical companies. If you follow the right accounts, you’ve got a built-in way to learn about medical advances in real-time.

You spoke earlier about how important it is to engage with the community. How should nephrologists look to build a platform balance posting original content vs. sharing the work of others?

My best advice is to be the kind of person you want to hang out with. Do you want to hang out with someone who talks about themselves all day long? Of course not. You also probably don’t want to be around someone who only ever talks about their job. 

Social media is just an extension of yourself. Be a good conversation partner and don’t be afraid to let your personality show.

Speaking of being yourself, how does one balance their social media “voice” while maintaining their professionalism?

This is an evolving area and topic for me. No doubt, there is no way to separate your personality from whatever you are going to talk about, but there are limits to that. For example, there are some sporting events I might tweet about, but I try not to do it all the time because I know my audience is international and they don’t know anything about my local college sporting team. But I still do it occasionally because I think it’s important to show that I’m a real human being. 

It’s completely fine to inject whatever level of your personal life into your social media that you are comfortable with. You’re inevitably going to do it a little bit, even subconsciously, because it’s simply not possible to make a completely clean cut between your personal life and professional life. It’s a spectrum. 

It’s worth mentioning that building a social media presence inherently comes with a certain amount of risk. It’s up to you to determine how much risk you are willing to take. 

Can you talk more about what those risks are?
Absolutely. Some people think that as long as they don’t reveal any patient HIPAA information in their posts that they are fine. But if a patient happens to see a post and even thinks that their doctor is publicly talking about them, that is when a doctor-patient relationship erodes and has the potential to cause irreparable damage. 

Personally, I have a “no risk” policy. I don’t talk about patient-related things at all. If I see a patient with a specific disease type, I might not even talk about that disease for a few days simply so my patients don’t see a tweet and think I may be talking about them. Unless the patient consents for this 

Not everyone follows these rules, partially because case discussions often get a ton of engagement. But just because something gets a lot of interaction doesn’t mean that you should be talking about it. That’s not to say it’s universally an unethical thing to do, but you need to take careful consideration that you are doing it honestly and professionally.  Consent is important as well. These are the sorts of things that we have to consider as physicians when we enter an entirely public space and speak in any kind of professional capacity.

Let’s wrap up by talking about some good advice for nephrologists to build their social media presence.

If you want to be effective, you have to have a nice, steady drumbeat. Post once or twice a day. Share something new you’ve learned. Reply to someone’s post. Consistency, that drumbeat, is important so people know that you’re there. It doesn’t have to be anything too time-intensive, but that consistency will help you find your community.

With that in mind, set your own goals for a certain number of posts and replies to keep yourself accountable.

Second, I would say know your limits. Social media is great, but it can be addictive. Don’t be afraid to take a break and disconnect every once in a while. We all have enough to worry about without getting burnt out on Twitter.

Finally, social media is just a communication tool, don’t be scared of it. Use it correctly and it can jumpstart your career and connect you with fascinating people you may never have met otherwise.

About Dr. Matthew Sparks

Dr. Sparks is an associate professor at Duke University and program director of the nephrology fellowship program.  He focuses on leveraging social media to enhance learning in nephrology. He serves as program director for the Nephrology Social Media Collective (NSMC) internship and member of the board of directors of the nephrology journal club (NephJC), a non-profit organization dedicated to enhancing free online medical education in nephrology. I am also co-founder and advisory board member of the first nephrology blog associated with a journal- AJKD Blog, the official blog of the American Journal of Kidney Diseases. Co-creator of the popular educational project NephMadness.