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Tips for starting a research blog as a graduate student
June 11, 2012 12:45 PM   Subscribe

I'm an advanced PhD student and I've decided I want to make a professional website, including a research/analysis/commentary blog about my work and my field. I'm looking for general advice about the blog.

The professional website is a no-brainer as it will give me a place to host my CV and such, and I'm sure I can whip this up with Blogger on myname.com or something fairly quick. But I'm especially interested in writing more about my work, and about broader societal issues that I can comment on. My work is in the technology/environment/policy arena and there is a lot I can write about. I occasionally have things to say in my AskMe comments (e.g. 1, 2, 3) which is along the lines of what I imagine doing in a slightly more formal sense, and looking at a broader range of issues, and perhaps responding to current events in my region that are close to my area of expertise.

Goals for doing this:
- Practice writing for a broader audience
- Encourage me to engage with relevant issues so that I have things to write about
- Help me develop research ideas that I haven't had time to explore which might lead to research projects down the line
- Fun
- Give a favourable impression when Googled by prospective employers
- Get my name out there in my broader community of peers

Before I start writing articles, what do I need to know? What kind of audience should I be writing for? How frequently should I write? How detailed? How much effort is it worth putting into this, instead of my research, or instead of trying to submit articles to journals and magazines and such? Should I try to promote this, and how? Or will people just find it through Google if they look for it? Are there any risks I should think about in having my name attached to this stuff? How cautious should I be about taking a political position on policy issues -- should I try to maintain an objective science-based stance? Could there potentially be media interest if I write about something topical, and are things I should do to prepare for that in advance? Or maybe no-one will read this stuff and it's not worth the effort and I shouldn't worry? Any general tips?
posted by PercussivePaul to Education (9 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
 
I tried blogging as an early career PhD student, and my experience was mixed. To get an audience, you need to be writing all the time. Like, every day. People will stop visiting if they don't expect new content constantly. This means I ended up writing about current events rather than academic stuff because, honestly, writing a short blurb about a new journal article every day can be kind of exhausting. In terms of the goals you're looking for, it did give practice writing, encouraged me to engage with relevant issues, and it was fun. It may have helped develop research ideas.

The flip side is that I think academics in general don't really know what to do with a blogger or output from a blog. You're in a position now where you can engage with broader audiences by writing op-ed pieces, submitting suggestions for curated on-line websites (e.g. Faculty of 1000), etc. Writing longer pieces allows for the kind of deeper thought/reflection that can be necessary for difficult issues. With blogging, I found myself sort of falling back on "well, here's this news article that forgot about this key piece that anybody who's actually thought about it knows; let me come up with a new snarky way of point that out." I'm not sure blogging got my name out with my peers, but it definitely caught the attention of PR people - it's a great way to get review copies of pop-sci (and some academic press) books.

In sum, creating a blog was a lot of fun and of some value, but I don't think it substituted for anything that's expected of me as an academic: you can't really count X number of blog posts as 1 review or response for a journal (i.e. they're not going on your CV as pubs). You still need to do those things, and I ended up feeling like it was a distraction. So, if you want to do it in your "free" time and reserve your working time for the more traditional things, it's a great idea. But ultimately, if you have something to say, there are lots of other curated places (with editors who will make your writing better) who want to hear what you have to say. I think that might be a better route.
posted by one_bean at 1:14 PM on June 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


For promotion, I can't speak as a blogger, but as an academic reader, I use the blog aggregator Research Blogging to find blog posts about articles in my field. I do some filtering of a few of the rss feeds to find the subjects I want. I'm not sure how popular it is, but I found out about it on Metafilter.

The other academic blogs I read are written by some students and some professors. I notice that a few of the bloggers I follow are active (in awesome, very knowledgeable ways) on other people's blogs' comments section, and I think that's how they got noticed and linked to by more popular blogs. I also follow some of the authors on Twitter -- there is some nice activity there for my field. A good start may be to post about papers/news that interest you, and participate elsewhere online in other conversations about those topics. I don't think I read any blogs that post daily (or more than weekly). Quite frankly, as a researcher, I don't have time to read many blogs daily ok, I make an exception for Mefi!
posted by bluefly at 1:33 PM on June 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


You know your field better than anyone here, so you probably know that lots of older academics especially frown on PhD students/junior professors blogging. Noah Smith, a recently-minted PhD economist, talked about this a few months back (in addition to everything else academic job-related).
posted by downing street memo at 1:43 PM on June 11, 2012


If you're interested in an academic career, I would strongly recommend not blogging under your real name. It will make it harder for you to be taken seriously as an academic, and make it harder for you to get jobs.
posted by medusa at 2:01 PM on June 11, 2012


I wouldn't agree with Medusa's point (with all due respect), since the whole point of academic blogging (at least as I see it) is to get your name and your ideas out to another audience. Unless you're planning on flaming people, attacking your institution, insulting your peers, or feel like you need a blog to simply vent about your work (and I wouldn't blame you on that. A PhD can be a pretty soul-destroying process!), then don't worry about blogging under your real name. It doesn't make it more difficult to be taken seriously (I have a number of colleagues who blog regularly with massive followings and are still viewed as leaders in their field), and it might actually make it easier to make yourself stand out from the crowd once you're job hunting, provided you're still ticking off the other parts of academia like journals, chapters, reviews etc. I think that there's still this snobbery which surrounds blogging; it serves an entirely different purpose and audience than journal articles do, so long as you keep that in mind.

I wish I had started blogging much earlier in my academic career because I actually had a good amount of newsworthy stuff to talk about. I try and update my blog at least twice a week, but sometimes that's unpredictable. The most I'll go between posts is seven days, and it does get hard to think of topics to write about. Lastly, I'll second one_bean's comment that blogging relies on regular updates, not this twice a month chat. It'll take a while to build a following, and even after a year, I've only just started to break the 1000 page-hits per month stat.

It can be a long slog, but I think it's worth! Good luck.
posted by Scottie_Bob at 2:10 PM on June 11, 2012


Really great advice so far, thanks. I'm already reconsidering as this is beginning to sound like a major timesink.

Is there any point to doing this without trying to capture a regular readership? I imagine I could write articles very occasionally and just post on my Facebook where a lot of friends and colleagues will see them. If they have any value then presumably they would get sent around. Or people who come to look me up on my website would see them. I like the idea of having a place to write and having things publicly available, but I do not like the idea of having to write every other day.
posted by PercussivePaul at 2:27 PM on June 11, 2012


I'm already reconsidering as this is beginning to sound like a major timesink.

Yes, it is. If the time/value ratio is all skewed for you, you shouldn't do it.

Is there any point to doing this without trying to capture a regular readership?

The point to doing this without trying to capture a regular readership is that you are putting your neck out there and seeing how you feel about it. Let's say you write for a month and discover that you've just blogged every single one of your pet peeves and pet theories (a common thing). Now you go back and realize that instead of carrying those things around for another month with free room & board in your brain, it's time to refine and repackage the ideas.

This refining and repackaging is, to me, the essence of beginner blogging. What you end up with is usually not the thing you envisioned when you started. But it's usually worth doing because you have discovered new insights and pushed yourself to create meaning from disparate thoughts. Packaging something up for public consumption--however minor it seems--is an amazing process, both in input and in outcome.

I imagine I could write articles very occasionally and just post on my Facebook where a lot of friends and colleagues will see them.

Facebook views are extremely fleeting. The stuff in your friends' timeline keeps getting pushed down. Also, thanks to Facebook algorithms, only a small subset of your friends will actually see your posts. Facebook is trying to figure out who wants to see your stuff rather than giving everybody the fire hose.

Google is still pretty huge. You can look at your analytics (e.g. Google Analytics) reports and see what people are searching for when they land on your website. If you build on that, and try to offer real value, it's' a fast way to build up traffic, but it can feel a bit like selling out.

I like the idea of having a place to write and having things publicly available, but I do not like the idea of having to write every other day.

You don't have to write every other day. The blog concept is pretty plastic still and a thoughtful post every Sunday night is extremely common.

IMO you should get started and see where it goes. Look at all the blogs you like, and keep track of the things you like about them, their writing style, imagery, and so on.

Goals for doing this:
- Practice writing for a broader audience
- Encourage me to engage with relevant issues so that I have things to write about
- Help me develop research ideas that I haven't had time to explore which might lead to research projects down the line
- Fun
- Give a favourable impression when Googled by prospective employers
- Get my name out there in my broader community of peers


Yes, definitely. This seems to me like it's really worth trying. Give the "fun" part extra emphasis, even if you have to start two blogs, an anonymous one and a public one.

And please, please--don't delete the blog entirely or lose track of it. I wish I still had my posts from when I started & quit back in 2000-2001. I never thought I would come back to blogging but I really see the value in it now.
posted by circular at 3:24 PM on June 11, 2012


Is there any point to doing this without trying to capture a regular readership?
If you publish papers, writing a blog post about your latest one (perhaps explaining it in layman's terms) with a link to the original paper might help people find the work on google etc. (and so get more readers and so citations?) I'm certainly trying this.
posted by firesine at 3:25 PM on June 11, 2012


For a good example of someone doing this, look at Chembark - he's a postdoc, but has been going since grasd school. He's engaged with other bloggers, has an editorial stance and netowrks pretty well.
posted by lalochezia at 6:06 AM on June 12, 2012


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