Blogging: What’s in it for PhD students?

Should PhD students blog and when should they start blogging? Two years ago Laura Mair began her blog Victorian Ragged Schools<http://raggedschools.blogspot.co.uk/>. Here she tells us what she gets out of blogging, how it complements her postgraduate research and how it helps her build a scholarly profile and online presence.

I am the creator of Victorian ragged schools blog (http://raggedschools.blogspot.co.uk/) and I am also in the third year of my PhD at the University of Edinburgh. I began my blog in March 2013 with the intention of sharing my research with a wider audience and of fostering more relaxed writing habits. I blog haphazardly, go long periods without posting, and certainly upload less than perfect posts. My priority, as any good doctoral student would say, is my thesis. Though my blog may be quiet at times, this doesn’t reflect my research activity. If my blog is quiet, it probably means I’m squirreled away somewhere, hunched over my keyboard and soldiering on or squinting at illegible nineteenth century letters.blog shot

I was once advised that no PhD candidate should keep a blog if they cannot create timely, well-honed posts that show them to be a catch to any employer. I would like to refute this claim as I don’t think it’s particularly helpful. A lot is expected of PhD students. We are advised to attend conferences, to present papers, to tutor, to be involved in the life of the department, and, of course, to write a sparkling thesis. To add an immaculate, ground-breaking blog to this list seems to push the boundaries of possibility. However, it is possible to gain solid benefits from blogging without being a slave to it.

The nature of a blog is less than perfect­

A blog is not a place for preened and processed work but an arena for creative writing and thought testing. I don’t have the patience or the time to be especially precious about posts. Yes, I read through posts after writing them and am careful to only make claims I am happy to stand by, but I see my blog as a place to test the waters.
There is an argument that you should only represent the best of yourself online. Of course nobody wants potential employers to come across sub-standard work. However, there is a balance to be aimed for here. Ideally posts showcase ability without detracting from either the body of your thesis or time you should spend on it. However, it’s not just about saving time. Blogging seems to use another part of my brain to academic writing (though I have no scientific research to back this claim up!). When I recently stayed at the Gladstone Library I worked on my thesis 9 to 5, on average writing a thousand words a day. Yet, I composed a 1,000 word blog post about my stay at the Library in an hour before going to bed.

I find blogging a very different practice to everyday thesis or paper writing. Normally I am continually interrupted by the need to check a particular source, find a certain page, or footnote a reference. But when I blog, I just blog. Blogging is a free way of writing that allows thoughts to be gathered and formulated into a few hundred words. Sometimes I simply need to ‘finish’ something. During my PhD one of my biggest struggles has been dealing with the absence of deadlines and end points. It can bring a very welcome feeling of accomplishment when I click the ‘publish’ button. Blogging is refreshing. It re-awakens my enjoyment of writing so often deadened by the long hours of word-searching and editing.

Discerning your boundaries

It’s important to discern what you are comfortable sharing online. Being a cautious person (which correlates with my generally pessimistic outlook), I feel it is ‘better to be safe than sorry’. From the offset I was determined to be careful about what I share with the wide web world. I am happy to discuss the general direction of my thesis but not to outline my research aims or broadcast my initial conclusions. Because of this, my blog posts have covered broadthemes. The screenshot to the left shows my post on animal cruelty in the Ragged School Union Magazine. This issue interests me but it not an important element of my thesis. This, in some ways, is a real set back. I don’t benefit from readers’ thoughts on my central research and my blog posts inevitably detract from ‘thesis time’ rather than contributing to it. However, I’m pretty sure I have less sleepless nights. Perhaps bloggers who have established their names within their field can afford to share more online. For me it seems appropriate to blog with caution. I would much rather see my research published in an article under my name than someone else’s.
butterflies blog
A dormant blog is not a dead blog

I know countless fellow PhD students who have decided not to begin a blog because they are worried about how often they will be able to post. I don’t think it’s beneficial to compare our own productivity too closely with that of others with entirely different commitments and priorities. I began my blog aiming for at least one post a month, yet much to my surprise even when my blog was lying untouched I benefitted from it.

So what kind of benefits have I had from my blog? The greatest advantage of having a blog, dormant or otherwise, has been connecting my name with my research area. Google searches throw up my blog, and even in quiet blogging periods and any inquirers can quickly find my more active Twitter feed. After finding my site when googling ragged schools, the Head of Social Work at Edinburgh University, Dr Mark Smith, asked me to present my research in the department’s seminar series. This was a great, cross-disciplinary experience that wouldn’t have materialised without an internet presence.

We’re forever being nudged about the importance of public engagement and knowledge exchange, and a blog is a simple and effective way to think about marketing your research to a wider audience. Perhaps one of the loveliest things about keeping a blog has been receiving the occasional message from individuals personally connected to ragged schools. As any PhD student (and any academic for that matter) knows, researching and writing can be a very lonely experience. Blogging allows me to connect with others interested in my area and to impart something of my work outside of a conference setting. And sometimes it’s those outside of conferences who are most interested in what I’m doing.

Blogs are great tools for getting your work out there. Though my blog is overshadowed by weightier and more faithfully maintained blogs I have reaped benefits from it that I had never intended. In an ideal world I would invest more time in my blog but, as it is, I have benefitted from it without affecting my research schedule. I encourage any PhD student reading this to consider starting a blog and thinking early in your career about communicating beyond university walls.

How do you feel about blogging? Do you have any concerns about how a blog may affect your research?

2 thoughts on “Blogging: What’s in it for PhD students?”

  1. Thanks for this! I’ve been wondering whether to blog, what to blog, how much to blog as I begin my PhD. I’ve been blogging for a few years now and have a little band of followers. Now that I’ve started my PhD I’d like to thread this experience through my posts, but I also don’t want to alienate my existing readership by suddenly becoming an “intellectual wanker”. Your thoughts are helping me to gather mine.

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