Research life

How social media helped my PhD

Post originally published at my old site, August 11, 2013.

It’s been about a year since I launched into the blogo- and twitterspheres. So now I feel qualified to list the ways it’s been awesome for my PhD.

Developing a writing culture
Blogging feels a little bit like being let off the ‘writing leash’. You can be casual, emotional and even bend some traditional writing rules. But blogging isn’t just about enjoying a bit of literary delinquency. It helped me fall back in love with writing. I enjoy it, so I do it more, it gets easier, so I do it more, and so on and so forth. It’s a great way to practice writing early in your thesis when you’re not a the ‘chapter drafting’ stage. Write about your field, write about fieldwork adventures or write about PhD life (some great examples from my lab group here and here). Pick a topic, any topic, and just write. Sitting down to write thesis chapters becomes less of a chore and more of a habit.

Engage or be ignored
This cold, harsh reality forces your writing to get better. And by that I mean clear, brief and engaging. Writing a blog forces you to find the story in your research and tell it in a way that is so interesting that people feel compelled to; 1) finish reading and, 2) share it. This means using active language, avoiding jargon and cutting nominalisation. Tweeting forces you to do the same thing using only 140 characters. I don’t care what anyone says, that takes skill.

startedablog

Big picture thinking
When setting up a blog, you inevitably develop a publishing schedule – an overview of the content you want to deliver. Mine is of the sketchy, back-of-a-napkin variety, but still exists. What topics do you want to cover? Do they need to be presented in a certain order? How do they relate to other articles on the same topic?
Can you think of any other document that would benefit from the same approach? Oh that’s right, a dissertation. Developing a blog has helped me think about the most logical structure for the epic tale that is my thesis. Perhaps Peter Jackson will turn it into a trilogy one day…

Stay informed
I used to leave our weekly lab meetings feeling completely out of the loop. How did everyone know about that upcoming policy debate, the paper that was released online five seconds ago, or the research opportunity in Fiji? HOW MUCH READING DO THESE PEOPLE DO?!?! Turns out you just need to be on Twitter. Follow government departments, journalists, non-profit organisations and others in your field to get the latest. It’s like having an online newspaper tailored specifically to your interests.

Celebrity!
Just kidding, but in a brave new era of virtual networking it helps to at least be google-able. Even a short ‘about me’ page with your name, research interests and contact details. You’d be amazed at the opportunities that come knocking (from media stories about your work to job opportunities!) And you can reach an astonishingly wide audience. My blog is small, but has been viewed by people in over 80 countries. 80 countries! That’s 78 countries more than I would have expected.

whatstodaysblogcartoon

Truly the most difficult part of blogging

Science communication
But my favourite thing is that people who want to know about your work will find you. When someone types ‘what are the rope crossings over the Hume Freeway?’ into Google and ends up on my blog, I feel like I’ve done my job. Although I’m fairly confident the people who found my blog through the following searches left unsatisfied:
-‘can a magpie eat a possum?’
-‘burning galah’
-‘phd oboe projects’


Still not convinced?

Two common reasons for students not getting involved are 1) lack of time 2) potentially saying the wrong thing with horrendous consequences. First, blogging and twittering (tweeting?) have never taken time away from my thesis. If you’re truly in the mood to procrastinate, you will find a way to do it. Facebook, YouTube, the sudden urge to organise the Tupperware drawer – never underestimate how creatively you can avoid working on something important. Blogging or tweeting about your research topic is closer to ‘extra-curricular professional development’ than it is to procrastinating.

As for the second reason, personally, I think it disappears if you follow one simple rule: be honest. Don’t blog or tweet anything that you’re not prepared to say in a room full of real, live people. Yes, you might still get some disagreement, but so what? If you’ve thought the argument all the way through and really believe what you’re saying, go ahead and defend it. People love a good academic back-and-forth. Always be respectful. Avoid engaging with trolls.

So that’s it. That’s been my year on social media. The sky didn’t fall in, my thesis hasn’t imploded, and no rotten tomatoes have been hurled. It’s all good. You should try it.

blogger-shakespeare-cartoon

Just do it

Some links to get you started

A reflection on academic blogging and advice for newbies by Pat Thompson

A balanced take on Twitter from Research Voodoo

Why grad schools should require students to blog, from Scientific American

Advice for starting your own blog from Get a Life, PhD.

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