Blogging your way to a PhD?

Calvin Ho (@calvinhyj) is a PhD student in Sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles. He researches skilled labour immigration policies in Western countries. Through the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship program at UCLA, he also mentors minority students planning to pursue doctorates in the humanities and social sciences.

Calvin is an avid blogger and in this post he will tell you how blogging can help you with your PhD writing. If you want to see how PhD students blog, have a look at our page of PhD blogs. Take it away Calvin!

Screen Shot 2015-05-04 at 3.37.05 pmAcademics don’t often talk about how they write. By how, I mean the nitty-gritty how. Sure, you may set up your laptop in a coffee shop and open up a Word document, but how do you go from blank page to finished thesis?

One strategy is to write blog posts. Many academics are wary of blogging because they’re concerned about letting ideas out there before they’re fully baked. In my experience, you don’t even need to have a blog to reap the benefits of writing blog posts! In this post I’ll take you through the steps of writing one particular post, explain why I didn’t finish it, and tell you why I it wasn’t a waste of time.

One of my main research goals for this semester is to write a solid draft of my thesis proposal, something done in the middle of PhD programs in the US. To do this, I am trying to follow I’m tackling this in a piecemeal fashion that feels more appropriate for this early writing stage.

Rather than starting a Word document entitled “Ho thesis proposal.docx” and filling it out section by section, I’m taking Tanya Golash-Boza’s advice and writing something towards the proposal every day. That ‘something’ can be anything: a page of a literature review, an explanation of my research questions, a few paragraphs on methodology, or even a blog post.

Blog posts have become my favourite intermediate step in a larger project. They help me zoom out and think about why I’m doing the project that I’m doing and what about the project is most important to communicate. Since blog posts are generally short and focused, they also help me zoom in to think about individual tidbits of data and singular theoretical arguments. As Heather Davis wrote in a Thesis Whisperer post a few years ago, you don’t have to connect them to the larger argument if they don’t fit or if you don’t see the connections just yet.

Today, I was thinking about a conversation I had with someone a few days ago and made a mental link between that conversation and some ideas that I wanted to explore in the thesis. I sat down, created a blank post in WordPress, and started to tie these two thoughts together.

I was going to write this blog post for a general audience, and I was going to keep it fairly short. No citations, no jargon, no footnotes, no nonsense. Because it was so short, I didn’t even think to make an outline, as I usually do for academic writing.

The lack of a concrete plan for this piece of writing turned out to be both useful and supremely frustrating. I realized halfway through that the link between the conversation and the argument I was going to make was not as straightforward as I thought. I tried out new ways to connect them, but nothing really worked. Then I thought a bit harder about the point I was trying to get across. What exactly was it? What am I trying to convince people of?

All of this re/thinking and re/writing resulted in about one printed page of incomplete paragraphs. After about two hours, I realized that I needed to take a break. At that point, I was so frustrated with the post that I decided to leave it as is. The post remains in my WordPress drafts. I may pick it up again at some point if I feel like it.

Today’s frustrating-yet-fulfilling writing experience made me think about why I think about blogging as a genre of academic writing in the first place. The point of academic blogging is to get a point across to other people, who have an interest in your topic but are not necessarily experts. In trying to make my ideas intelligible to the imagined blog audience, I had to try to connect the dots for myself. And though the dots aren’t all connected, they’re more connected than they were before I started writing. Even though I didn’t finish my post today, and may not finish it in the future, I got a lot of analytical clarity out of the process of writing it.

Short, focused pieces of writing, like blog posts, are great intermediate steps to larger projects. Writing pieces for a general audience (even an imaginary one) can help you think through your ideas and turn your big project into many smaller projects. When you break down your thesis into tiny, manageable tasks, it does not seem so intimidating.

What do you think? Do you keep a blog where you consciously try to compose for an audience? Or do you write emails as a way to make your thoughts tidy for someone else? What are some of the tactics that you use to move towards writing?

Related posts on social media

Social media and your PhD

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28 thoughts on “Blogging your way to a PhD?

  1. I may decide to do a PhD one day and this is an inspiring idea as I am already blogging (and doing some other writing gigs) anyway… Never thought about using a blog as a building block towards a PhD chapter, plan paragraph 😊

  2. Thanks for a really interesting post. I also write a blog and it’s certainly helped me through my PhD process (which I, hopefully will complete over the next few weeks). I don’t tend to blog directly about my research – partly because I hope to publish some of that material in peer reviewed journals, but I have blogged more generally about my area of expertise and also about science communication and clinical matters. Blogging has helped me in a number of ways, first, it gets me writing more (and somehow, the more I write, the better I get at the discipline of writing). Second, because blogging is a public thing it has helped to hone my skills at putting an argument across, something that is a real challenge for a large piece of work like a thesis. Finally, blogging and tweeting has put me in touch with a wider network, which has enhanced my learning. I would thoroughly recommend it and will certainly continue after I finish my PhD.

  3. Hi

    I’m writing to ask you to take elite editing off your website. I used them based upon your recommendation and not only are they completely overpriced but they did a terrible job. I was so disappointed and question your association with them considering you recommend them – do you know the company owners personally?

    Please reply to this email.


    Kristie Drucza Social Development (inclusion, protection, gender) PhD Candidate Deakin University +61 (0)451822099 Australia


  4. Couldn’t agree more! Just sitting down to write my monthly blog and realised that the process was being most useful in finding the link between my PhD – conversation and the argument.
    The common wisdom of PhD writing something every day seems productive for all who try to do this and maybe the blog provides the framework to put that writing into – works for me!

  5. Thanks for the helpful post. It is very encouraging to know that short baby steps eventually make the journey of writing a full blown proposal easier. All the best to you fir your research.

  6. Sometimes you can’t write the words you think you should be writing, because your brain needs to get something else out of the way first. Blogs are great in this regard. But even if you just write in a personal, private journal every day, you can still achieve the same effect. The blog just provides you with an audience to keep your writing focused!

  7. Thank you for writing this post!

    Sometimes feel guilty for spending some of that precious PhD/manuscript writing time towards my blog, and it is validating to hear your experience. I agree, blog writing forces me to crystalize concepts and I hear echoes of this process when I then present the same concept later with greater clarity.

    One thing I always do before posting is ask one of my non science friends to read through quickly. Usually they come back with several sentences that were hidden jargon- something I think about everyday, but needs a proper introduction in order to give a non-expert reader context for the info. This always makes my posts, and my understanding of the underlying science, stronger.

    My blog:

    • It’s interesting that we feel writing for pleasure is somehow ‘wrong’ – I’ll admit to feeling that way about blogging myself. It’s lucky you all give me so much great feedback or I might have guilted myself out of it!

  8. Reblogged this on Science Martini and commented:
    In the publish or perish world, sometimes it feels like a guilty pleasure to write for fun. However, polishing individual concepts in clear language rarely gets in the way of stimulating broader connections. Here is a wonderful blog post by Calvin Ho from the Thesis Whisperer on blog writing as a practice.

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  10. My blog is in no way connected to my PhD or thesis topic (PhD is in health sciences and neonatal care, blog is about books), but writing for it has certainly improved my style and my ability to write lots without editing as I go along (saving that for afterwards)–something that has proved useful for me when trying to get chunks of my upgrade document written without constantly doubting what I’m writing.

  11. I didn’t write a blog throughout my PhD candidature (graduated earlier this year), but wanted to set one up after I completed. I used a research journal througout which was really really valuable, in fact essential. I wrote stream of thought writing almost daily too as an exercise, and sometimes my PhD was getting itself written in those pages. I had no interest whatsoever in blogging about my processes of doing PhD work. So it’s not for everyone as a must do either. But great to read of others’ experiences with it. And I have looked now and then at PhD bloggers, though fairly rarely, just out of interest really.

  12. I didn’t write a blog throughout my PhD candidature (graduated earlier this year), but had decided during studying that I would set one up after I completed.
    I didn’t want the extra distraction of having yet another thing to do online. ( I had another website and online music etc already to try to juggle as well as my PhD).
    I used a research journal throughout which was really really valuable, in fact essential. I wrote stream of thought writing almost daily too as an exercise, and sometimes my PhD was getting itself written in those pages.
    I had no interest whatsoever in blogging about my processes or frustrations of doing PhD work. So it’s not for everyone as a must do either. But great to read of others’ experiences with it. And I have looked now and then at a few PhD bloggers, though fairly rarely, just out of interest really.
    I did definitely find PhD mentoring sites helpful though, such as this one.

  13. I have started to really enjoy writing my blog and receiving responses is always encouraging. But I agree, that it does slowly add to the guilt build-up especially when I glance at the watch. I also grimace after posting my blog that all that time blogging could have gone towards my research study and it is a bit unsettling. Almost like cheating!

  14. Calvin, I resonate with the idea of blogging as an intermediate step to larger projects, although I hadn’t looked at it like that before. I recently reflected on blogging and tweeting as ways to connect us to others – – so for me the blog is both a writing/meta-writing/clarifying-thinking tool, and a way to feel less isolated in my PhD journey.
    Thanks for your post.

  15. I’ve tried blogging a few times but have never managed to keep it up, my interest just tails off. I find for writing success, that making use of onenote to organise my notes and ideas is more successful.

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