The benefits of blogging for PhD students

Photo by Noesis at Morguefile.com
Photo by Noesis at Morguefile.com

If we were to start a game of word association with “writing” and “PhD”, you’d probably come up with “thesis” pretty quickly, whilst perhaps not considering the more fluid and informal options presented by blogging. It may seem counterintuitive to add to the significant task of writing a thesis with more writing, particularly when the blogging style is so different, but I hope here to convince you of the benefits for PhD students.

Obviously during a PhD, as with any research, there will be restrictions about what can be openly shared. Unless funder and supervisor grant permission, students shouldn’t share data or early results as this can impact on opportunities to publish. If in doubt, ask them to check with editorial staff if they have a journal in mind for your work. It may be helpful to read blogs produced by other PhD students – there’s a list on the Thesis Whisperer blog, but bear in mind the note from Dr Inger Mewburn at the start.

Listing a blog here does not imply we endorse the advice being offered. Not all advice will be relevant to your needs and situation. Different countries have different systems of examination. Different disciplines have different expectations of writing. If in doubt, check with your supervisor or a trusted mentor before applying advice you read on the internet.

Before starting students should also look at the University’s guidelines for social media. In addition, there’s more advice and information on the Social Media wiki. With my disclaimers in place and your students’ critical judgment skills on high alert, we’re ready for my thoughts on the value of blogging as a research student.

Habit

I blog regularly on the IAD4Researchers site which is aimed at our research staff and students. Although it is challenging at times to stick to my self-imposed schedule of a blog post every week, I am determined to develop a writing habit which keeps my thinking flowing and makes me test some ideas out. A typical blog takes less than an hour, but some only 20 – 30 minutes, time which I make myself find each week. The discipline of producing something each week keeps my writing muscles in shape.

Resilience

Sometimes weeks go by without any discernible progress (another transferable skill from my PhD is being able to cope with marathons, rather than sprints!) Having a blog that appears weekly is a small, but important achievement which reminds me that I have ideas and things to say even if I can’t always bring them to fruition as quickly as I would like. Blogging also embeds the strategy of minimising the constant pursuit of perfection. Blogs are read with the acceptance, expectation even, of an informal style. I’m building a habit of writing without feeling the strain of creating perfectly crafted sentences.  My blog is deliberately informal – it isn’t meant to be perfect and I embrace this enthusiastically. Even during a PhD, perfection isn’t expected for everything. Lots of what we do doesn’t need to be perfect. More dangerously, I’ve seen when talking to researchers a desire for perfectionism that stops them from sharing ideas and moving forward on tasks. In anticipation of thesis writing, start building your resilience and habits which will sustain it.

Networking

Blogging is a way to find friends, professional contacts and engage with people with similar interests and values. A reciprocal partnership is developing with other researcher developers – something more tangible than a nod across the table at occasional meetings. We write for each other and develop shared experiences, commitment and trust. Blogging also gives a stronger sense of who I am and what I care about, which I hope makes me more approachable. Someone once described a blog as being like a conversation with a speaker at a conference – you build a more personal sense of them and why they do their research.

Building a profile

Blogging is particularly valuable now as I’m still relatively new in post. I need to create a strong profile for myself and to make the role and value of the researcher development team in IAD clear to researchers and managers around the University. Blogging could be a way to develop the profile of your student’s research group or topic as well as them as an individual. Blog posts will demonstrate the quality of their writing and thinking, and help position them for opportunities when they move on after the PhD.

Honing your craft

Even though the demands and approaches taken when blogging and thesis writing are different, they complement and support each other. I’ll finish with thoughts from two regular academic bloggers who have set out the benefits they have enjoyed (you’ll find many other testimonials for academic blogging). First Professor Pat Thomson, whose blog on academic writing is a valuable resource for all researchers. Although Pat believes that blogging is a form of academic writing which doesn’t need to be justified as an accompaniment to the “Real Work of Serious Academic Writing” she sets out seven pay-offs from blogging in a post which was reposted on the Times Higher Education site (republishing on high profile platforms being another benefit of writing a well-regarded blog). You’ll see some overlap with my thoughts, but I’ll draw out one which has helped me to improve my blogging and writing.

A blog post is the ideal place to talk about one thing. (This post, for example, is about blogging and academic writing and nothing else.) A lot of academic writing rests on the writer having one point to make and arguing it through – the journal article, for example. If you write a journal article with too many ideas and points it is a sure-fire recipe for rejection. So getting the hang of writing about a single point in a blog and doing so regularly can support other forms of academic writing, even if the actual format (genre) is different.

I’ll finish with the words of Professor Duncan Green, who highlights another benefit which may have particular appeal to those of you trying to hold too many thoughts in your head simultaneously.

Remember that a blog is a ‘web log’, i.e. an online diary. Regular blogging builds up a handy, time-saving archive. I’ve been blogging daily since 2008. OK, that’s a little excessive, but what that means is that essentially I have a download of my brain activity over the last 7 years – almost every book and papers I’ve read, conversations and debates. Whenever anyone wants to consult me, I have a set of links I can send (which saves huge amounts of time). And raw material for the next presentation, paper or book.

So, if you are convinced and want a place to start PLEASE consider encouraging your PhD students to write a short post for the IAD blog for researchers. It has featured a Masters by Research student and will soon be featuring one of our many valued research technicians. I’m keen that this should represent our whole researcher community, so why not make this a first step into blogging?

Dr Sara Shinton

Sara is the Head of Researcher Development and Assistant Director of the IAD. Her role is to oversee IAD support for all the University’s researchers including doctoral students, research staff and technicians, principal investigators, supervisors and research leaders. She also works with senior management to implement university strategies which relate to and affect researchers.

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