The Value of Conferences & Blogs for Ph.D researchers

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I explain to first year theory students that sociological theory is like lego blocks. We use them to build our knowledge. These blocks are our foundation, and also our tool for building our ideas and presenting them.

Well, being a Ph.D student is no different. We have to be the complete package, market ourselves as independent researchers. We need to collect and know how to use different blocks in different formations. We have to build ourselves. I have written on the value of conferences here, and list my papers and experience here. (Shameless plug for guest lecturing opportunities and other chances to boost my CV).

I also recommend Dr Nadine Muller’s blog on academia for excellent advice and tips on the academic world.

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Tonight I have been reading tweets from We Are Humanities and it inspired this post. I sent a few tweets myself on conferences which I will repeat here.

Conferences, like blogging and social media, are not an add on to your academic research. They do not detract your focus, waste time or resources. They are an essential part of your research journey. They help build your confidence, both in presenting and defending your arguments. You will have to defend your thesis in your viva, so it makes sense to start developing those skills now. Conferences give you the opportunity to get feedback, questions, criticisms, opposing views. They give you the opportunity to revise your arguments, build on them, deconstruct them, test them out. You can mix your blocks with a block you pick up here and there, a different theory, a new method, an inter-discplinary idea. Your knowledge grows, your enthusiasm grows.

They are necessary for networking, and I am not talking about some forced scary corporate networking, thrusting a vista card into some clenched fist. I am talking about having a genuine interest in the work of others, and enjoying talking about that work. I come away from each event with usually a key contact or ally. It’s so nice to have a supportive network of Ph.D students, especially in my field. We are the future generation of academics (if we do indeed stay in academia) so making it an engaging and friendly place is the least we should be doing.

Nor am I talking about some big fancy conference. I have been lucky enough to present a paper at the British Sociological Association this year, and co-convene and chair sessions at the Royal Geographical Society Conference 2014. These experiences were great, but I love small events, and I love Ph.D conferences, and conferences which include a mix of public, NGOS and academics. I love that we are sharing knowledge and learning from one another. I helped organise the postgraduate conference at my university which was a great way of seeing how the academy works as well as be able to engage with my peers.

Your research becomes real living breathing tangible thing that people can see and discuss. You leave the safe confines of your office and start contemplating impact, where your research fits, who it will affect. How does your research compare to what else is out there? Your Ph.D is of course a unique contribution, but how does it fit with the body of research in your field? In other fields? What are the future prospects and implications for both your research and yourself as someone who will be seeking employment post-Ph.D?

I keep notebooks, so many notebooks, and every conference or event I attend I am tweeting and scribbling throughout. Sharing ideas, contacts, thoughts. Research should be alive, accessible and out there for people to engage with. It should be growing, changing, morphing. It is so nice to sit and listen to what others are doing. To have all those different researchers delivering their work in front of you.

It makes you question your positionality as a researcher, as an ‘academic’, why are we doing this, how is knowledge produced, what are the alternatives? For methods in particular, there is no better demonstration than seeing them in action, being used to full effect, with real participant’s data.

Conferences are your chance to get your name out there, to potential future employers, colleagues, collaborators. They are your chance to build a support network and an audience. They are essential researcher skill. Writing abstracts, papers, blog posts about papers, they are all part of the writing journey. You can return back to them. Why did you use that quote, that word, what made you change that theory or perspective? Conference papers and subsequent reflection are part of you Ph.D.

As for twitter and blogging? Exactly the same. They are not time-wasting exercises or nice extras if you get the chance. They are a crucial component in the modern early career researcher. As Tim Hitchcock argues here: “The most impressive thing about these blogs (and the academic careers that generate them), is that there is no waste – what starts as a blog, ends as an academic output, and an output with a ready-made audience, eager to cite it. For myself the point is that these scholars don’t waste text, and neither do I. If I give a talk, I turn it into a blog”.

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And this is the thing, I blog about papers but I also write papers influenced by my blogs. There is no waste. I have well over 100,000 words on this blog that I started in May 2013. That is the word equivalent of a thesis. If I get writer’s block, (and believe me, I often do) I blog. Many of these are kept private, an online diary of ideas, reflections, lists, references, prompts, questions. But they are all neatly there. I often use my own blog to search for research or quotations. I also use it to see how far my thinking has developed already. Yes, my earlier posts do make me cringe, but I am interested as much in the process of constructing knowledge as in the end result.

I have had over 54,000 hits. That is a lot of views for my ideas. How many people will read my journal articles or any future books? 10!? Certainly nowhere near 54,000. Blogging about research opens up a free accessible space to share ideas. I have also have involvement with the media through my blog, another key platform.

As Professor Pat Thomson argues on her fantastic blog here, blogging counts as publication. People cite your work.

Conferences and blogging give you the confidence to find your academic voice, and to share your research and ideas with an audience. This in turn refines your thinking and writing. You get instant feedback, bounce ideas and learn from others. Ph.D research cannot, and should not, be done in isolation. Yes we need to finish within 3 years of funding, but we also need to share our research and ensure we are employable at the end of it. I would of course say read this, and be wary about what you blog due sadly due to plagiarism.

What are your thoughts on conferences and blogging? Please send me a message or tweet me @princessjack.

Why do academics blog? An analysis of audiences, purposes and challenges

I also wrote Ph.D Help, and When is it Right to Write. An early post on blogging is here, and an early post on Ph.D experience is here.

Blogging our Criminal Past

Why blog? Personal evolution & community transformation

2015: The Year of Writing Boldly, Abundantly & Dangerously

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