Social media and your PhD

This is the first guest post by Heather Davis, a PhD Student at RMIT University

In this post I want to reflect on the value of using social media and what it might have to offer research students. As a full time PhD student investigating a messy phenomenon in real time–leadership literacies for the knowledge era–I made a conscious decision to be an active learner, to learn by doing and learn by connecting with people as well as through the literature.  I was always a reflexive practitioner and wanted to also be a reflexive researcher.

The ‘learning by doing’ part began by mapping out conferences where I could present drafts of my work. I wrote abstracts about what I needed to develop arguments for.  I thought that there would be no better way to focus the mind than presenting on that topic in 3 or 6 months time!  Yes, it might be the ‘extreme sport’ style of PhD, but it did work for me.

The risks associated with presenting work that was not ‘perfect’ and still in development have to be considered, but the benefits of receiving valuable feedback really helped me with my work.  The ‘connecting with people’ part occurred at these conferences, where I met theorists in the field (yes they are human beings!) and people with aligned interests.

The ‘connecting with people’ part was also met by the interactions with the social networks I’ve built up using Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, and to a lesser extent Academia.net.  The sharing of ideas and resources has been a two way thing and even though most of what I’ve learned through these networks will not go into the thesis, they have been invaluable as an action learning tool to pick up on trends, test ideas and to get a feel for what is emerging or fading.  This has helped strengthen the research instrument that is ‘me’.

The reflexive researcher part was taken up with the blog where I have written a lot about my struggles with ‘text work as identity work’ (For more see Kamler and Thomson’s book “Helping Doctoral Students to Write). I started my blog in November 2008, inspired by a  Professor at RMIT,  Brian Corbitt, telling a story about Germaine Greer writing “The Female Eunuch” from her collection of vignettes.

A vignette is a small piece of writing which tries to encapsulate a story or a moment of insight in a stand- alone piece. The beauty of a vignette is you don’t have to try to connect with other ideas.  This is opposite to how one might normally think about a thesis, which is meant to be a long, densely inter-related document. The vignette approach seemed a compelling idea, and one that I reflected on for a few months as I pondered just how I was going to become a writer, specifically how I was going to write A LOT.

I thought that blogging might be the modern day equivalent of Greer’s vignette approach. Brian was quite pleased that he had inspired such endeavours and, in typical professorial fashion, suggested that there could be a paper on ‘blogging as a research method’ in it! I have yet to write that paper, mainly because I don’t feel like I am leading that charge, unlike Lila Efimova whose blog and PhD studies are well documented at Mathemagenic and widely cited.

My blogs were written when I needed to think and reflect and this seemed to be in the period leading up to the confirmation and when designing the research.  I am currently using these blogs–these placeholders of my thoughts–as I draft my thesis chapters.

I remember commenting to my supervisor at one low point that I couldn’t write anything, not even a blog posting.  I was expecting a blast for being a terrible PhD student but reassuringly Sandra mused that perhaps I didn’t have anything to write because the issues, for now, were sorted.  Instead, perhaps, this marked the shift to a new stage of the PhD–a ‘doing the research’ stage, rather than ‘thinking about the research’ stage.  That was indeed an ‘aha’ moment for me and it is true that I didn’t feel the need to write many postings while I was ‘doing the research’ but now that I am back into writing and analysing I think that the need to blog will be more frequent.

A blog can be an archive of reflections about what it means to do a PhD. It can be a placeholder for the vignettes that build to become arguments in the thesis and, unlike a personal journal, the thoughts and arguments are open for scrutiny and feedback.

Blogs about the PhD journey–like thethesiswhisperer and by individuals–remove the veils of mystique that mask the hard work.  It shows us the ‘invisible work’ which never makes it into ink in the final thesis document.  A blog does not a PhD make, but a blog can help develop the necessary confidence to become ‘writerly’ which is necessary to tackle the thesis itself.

7 thoughts on “Social media and your PhD

  1. I absolutely agree with what you recommend! I have only recently started a blog – so I am very much on my “L” plates in terms of blog management itself, and writing in a public forum. I still struggle with what to write, how to express it, is it significant or meaningful enough….? I have been trying to address the reflexive process for some time. My capacity for note-taking or journal writing, while occasionally inspired, was random and sporadic. Trying to locate the notes was also problematic! If a PhD examiner ever wants to audit my research process – they will have a might wild trail to negotiate!

    So, here I am, finally blogging (only 2 posts young!) and looking forward to the journey becoming an important research tool – to engage family folk (we all come from families) to interact, respond, comment or quietly view the blogs, and for me, to manage my thoughts and theorising about the research process.

    P.S. My blog is at http://connectedfamilybytes.wordpress.com – any feedback is greatly appreciated!

  2. Hi Heather, and other PhD bloggers.
    I began blogging my phd in 2006…and am still at it…
    The highlights of blogging a PhD in my experience have included:
    Critique of a journal article and having an author of said article respond.
    Being able to be more playful on the blog than with the more serious thesis book writing.
    The ability to hypertext, which i havent managed for the thesis book.
    Linking with others worldwide who share similar methodology and a similar journey.
    My favourite blogs I have posted are ones that weave together the serendipitous learnings: a woman who sewed threads into spider webs…Turkles evocative objects we think with…

    I started blogging at the suggestion of my thesis supervisor, and continued because it provides the highlights above as well as chronology and tagging capacities making it user friendly for searches. My 2007 post is longer on this http://amusingspace.blogspot.com/2007/12/blogging-phd.html

    I’m struggling to maintain my blog interest because of the viagra and thesis writing markets. If i set up bot barriers, i find it puts off people who might post if it were easy. Without the barriers i get annoying rubbish responses.

    Like Inger I am bemused that i have more readers here than any evidence of readers for my other research outputs, but the NZ PBRF world of research outputs in a University does not recognize this. 15476 visitors since i started…must confess most of them come to visit the manga post on panties being the dark side of a novel media…there really are certain words that increase the readership!

    feel free to visit and please say Hi, i need better comments :)
    http://amusingspace.blogspot.com/

  3. Great post. Thanks Heather. I am trying to pull a first draft of a very reflexive thesis together, and my blog posts over five years are proving really useful.

  4. Regularly writing in a blog is a good way of combining that all-important reflection with an equally important need to make it easy to navigate what you’ve written. I tend to use lots of tags to help sort through what I write – it’s an easy way of retrieving entries that share a common theme. Being able to sort and search for entries is a powerful tool… if I still relied on handwritten journals, I think I’d rarely revisit the things I’ve written.

    Of course, the social element of social media is the big drawcard. Most of my online time has been spent on forums (as both a community member and moderator), where collaborative idea-building is taken for granted. While blogs can languish in obscurity if the author doesn’t actively build an audience, that seems much less likely in a well-run forum – your writing is exposed to many more people, and threaded discussions encourage people to treat posts more like a conversation. There isn’t always a forum community tailored to the kind of work that a research student needs to do, though, and it’s much easier to start a blog.

    I started my thesis thinking that I’d be looking at how small businesses used social media as a marketing and promotion tool. Many months later, I’m seeing it as a much more important factor in building and maintaining networks… something that applies even more directly to a postgrad student.

    Like Heather, I use social networks to share ideas and resources. I also rely on them to find people and expertise that I don’t otherwise have access to – like many of the people I’m researching for my project.

  5. Very interesting post. I like the ‘extreme sport’ approach which you mention. I find that agreeing to conference and seminar papers certainly does concentrate the mind. I was intrigued that you did say you were putting work forward before it was ‘perfect’. Is there such a thing? I have formulated the idea now that all research can be developed and if published is probably awaiting some else to come along and improve in some way. A never ending process but it is how all intellectual disciplines advance and improve. I do like what you say about blogging and how you view this as assisting your development. Some people may do this and not realise they are aiding their research. Well done! I agree with the comment about moving between different stages of development in a PhD and I do find that I am more focused and able to right at certain periods in time and not others. This worried me but now I think it is part of the process of the PhD I am undertaking. Adjusting between a research and writing orientation.

  6. Interesting reflection here. I am particularly drawn to the notion of wiring as thinking and sometime this ‘writing turn’ is something that is not easy given varying struggles in the PhD writing process. Social media however, provides the necessary tools and environment to enable this sort of writing as thinking in a more emancipatory way.

  7. I am currently organizing a list of the top 100 education advice blogs and your site was recommended by another blogger. I wasn`t sure if I had the correct contact info but I was wondering if you could e-mail me so I could ask you a few questions about you and your blog. Please include the title of your blog in the e-mail, thanks!

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