I have spent the past few months trawling the internet and reading many student blogs to gain some insight into what I will be in for come September. Some have been really helpful in finding some tips and tricks for the journey of a PhD. Many advocate for starting a blog yourself to help you through your own journey and to develop some valuable skills.Starting your own, however, is a slightly different story.
Will I have time and will I actually be able to keep it going? I’m sure that I will be spinning a number of plates whilst studying, do I really need another?
Writing a blog could be seen as another task on an endless to do list for a PhD student, or may make you feel as though you are procrastinating from getting on with some real work.
Here, I will list my 10 reasons for starting a blog about my research and PhD experiences. Hopefully it will help give me some motivation to keep it up but also to inspire others into doing the same.
The internet is becoming saturated with bloggers; so why start a blog as a PhD student (or any other student for that matter)?
1. To develop your writing skills.
It is difficult to start writing; you can stare at that blank page until your ability to form a sentence slowly drifts away from you. The only way around this is practice. Writing anything loosely connected to your topic can improve your abilities to put pen to paper. It may also extend your spelling and vocabulary or help develop you ability to form an effective argument.
It can help you to create your own voice. If, like me, you have been trained to write succinct scientific reports tailored to an academic audience, then writing something where your own voice and opinions are conveyed can be a challenge. The informal style of blogs can help you to discover your voice, or so I am told. This may have great impact later when it comes to informally discussing your research ideas at conferences or for delivering presentations.
2. Maintaining Momentum.
Whilst I haven’t formally started my PhD yet, I am led to believe that it can be quite a feat. Other blog posts offering all of the survival tips under the sun (See PhDtalk’s: 20 tips for surviving a PhD), certainly suggest that there are times during a PhD that you will lose momentum, lose sight of where you are going and why you are there in the first place.
Writing a blog can span both the academic and leisure spheres. You are likely doing it for you, often in your spare time, but it can also form a part of your academic development. So, when you are struggling in the academic sphere you can turn to a blog post to help maintain feelings of productivity and beat that urge to procrastinate with less productive activities (ahem: cat videos, I’m looking at you), keeping yourself in the right mind-set.
3. Idea development.
Writing things down can be beneficial in straightening out and developing your ideas, or getting one’s ducks in a row, if you will.
Sometimes, you can be on the edge of an exciting idea or on the verge of seeing a new link but your mind can’t quite make the connection. Writing out these thoughts can help to stream the ideas onto paper; it may help you to see associations or connect disjointed ideas and enable you to further develop your ideas. With any luck, you may have some followers who may be able to make suggestions or consider what you are approaching from a different angle.
4. Understanding and remembering concepts.
It has been said that we are much more likely to understand and remember something when we are learning in order to teach others (Leelawong & Biswas, 2009). We study the details more carefully and spend more time learning the content. Writing a blog can be seen as akin to the teaching process due to the dissemination of information.
So, you are trying to get your head around a new statistical technique, you may write basic notes for yourself but in writing these to form a blog post and you will ensure that the notes are clear, accurate and reasonably interesting to read. All of this will help to provide clarity in your own mind and will increase your chances of remembering the details later on.
5. Developing an online presence.
Who loves networking?
The majority of students and early researchers that I have met find networking to be one of the most dreaded parts of PhD study. Now, I am hoping that this eases with practice. However, I am also hoping that writing a blog can kick start that process and give me something to talk about in awkward moments.
Also, PhD students are encouraged to develop their online presence. In an ever increasing virtual world, we are able to connect with others with similar research interests from all over the world. We can, in a sense, develop an online community; increasing avenues for collaboration and raising awareness of our research in non-academic circles.
‘A blog can help to highlight to fellow students, researchers and academics why they should read your work, why your research is important and why you are a valuable researcher.’
6. Promoting yourself, your work and your lab.
In unstable and uncertain economic times, academia can seem like a daunting place to be – ‘will I receive funding to continue with my research following my PhD?’, ‘what job opportunities are there for me after all of this?’There also appears to be a lot of weight placed on getting research published throughout PhD study, particularly to make it more likely that you will actually pass.
Sharing and promoting your research via a blog can help to highlight to fellow students, researchers and academics why they should read your work, why your research is important and why you are a valuable researcher. You may also become more recognised in your field and thus increase the number of opportunities available to you.
Blogs can be useful for communicating your research to a non-academic audience as well. Certain topics, like my own, may call for the involvement of external bodies or for a specific population to be involved and interested in your work. This is one way to promote yourself and increase the possibility that your research will be shared and used in real settings.
‘Writing regularly can boost creativity.’
7. Develop creativity and innovation.
Writing your first ever blog post is loaded with pressure to get it right, to be interesting to your target audience and to be original. Now, I’m not saying that ‘10 reasons to start a student blog’ is the most original idea that I’ve ever had, but it’s a start, it’s an introduction and hopefully my blog posts can help me to develop creatively and help me to draw on my experiences to deliver something interesting.
Writing regularly can boost creativity. It can help with idea development as touched on above but it can help to get you into the habit of thinking about your audience, how your writing sounds, your delivery and making your post eye catching. This may not be a key skill in writing a scientific report but is certainly essential in delivering presentations and creating posters for conferences.
8. Give yourself control
I found this article on the Guardian to be an interesting read in my hunt for information during the lead up to my PhD: Five things successful PhD Students Refuse to Do.
It states that as a PhD student, it’s easy to feel out of control; with demands from advisors, teaching commitments and being told what you can and, probably more often, what you can’t publish.
So, writing a blog gives you some independence in your voice, you can put your research and ideas out into the world without worrying about being turned down or given amendments. This is providing you have some forgiving followers of course.
There are numerous lists of ‘survival tips’ on various blogs and recent studies, such as Levecque et al. (2016), have demonstrated the high prevalence of mental health issues among PhD students. It is therefore evident that completing a PhD can take its toll on one’s mental health.
The suggestions that PhD students can become isolated, stressed, anxious, exhausted and all of the other words linked to poor well-being and mental health leads me to believe that we need some coping strategies from the outset.
Writing itself is well known to be a cathartic means of expression. Studies have shown the benefits that it has to health and well-being (e.g. Pennebaker, 1997), which can include providing an emotional release and working through fragmented thoughts. Participants in Pennebaker’s (1997) study were found to be significantly ‘healthier’, both physically and mentally, following a writing intervention.
This can be applied to PhD study; not only will my blog focus on my research and academic experiences but I will also discuss the trickier issues that I come across to help myself work through them and to hopefully provide advice or solidarity with others working through similar things.
10. Helping others.
Not only can writing a blog about your own experiences help you through the various phases of a PhD (I can’t say I’m looking forward to the Valley of Shit stage, as proposed by The Thesis Whisperer) but you can also be a great help to others.
There is something to be said for finding others with similar struggles to your own and an online community can be of great benefit when those around you just don’t quite get it.
Prior to starting this blog, I Googled and read so many blogs about what to expect from PhD study. It’s a whole different world and from the outside looking in, it can seem like a big, scary abyss, so some posts may help to dispel some of these big scary myths of PhD study.