Graduate students and blogging

I've received a tremendous response to my essay earlier this week, the first part of my series on blogging and tenure. I wanted to thank everyone for their congratulations. More important, I got a lot of questions.

Some of these questions will be answered during the series -- strategies for writing, ways to quantify your blog's impact, framing the right comparisons for your committee, and how to broaden the impact of your research.

But I also got a few questions that I hadn't been intending to write about. Still, the topics are so interesting that I have to try!

The first has to do with anonymity as a graduate student and blogging. One reader wrote:

I was wondering if you could speak to graduate student blogging. I recently started a new blog under a pseudonym. I used to write a blog under my real name, but I'm in the process of scrapping it in favor of my new cryptically-authored blog. I did this for several reasons: (1) I was not pleased with the format of the old site/server, (2) I was embarrassed by my earlier posts, since the blog was largely an experiment in writing colloquially about science, and (3) I feared reprisals, especially with regard to funding/ the opinion of my work from faculty. I know you advocate using your real name when blogging for faculty, but what about graduate students? Do you know of dissertation committees viewing blog-writing as wasting valuable research time? Is there any data on the relationship between regular blogging, tenure, grant acquisition, etc.?

When I started thinking about how to answer this question, I thought I should probably just beg off. I mean, I'm not a graduate student, and when I started keeping my blog I was in the third year of a tenure-track job.

But after reflecting a bit, I realized that even though my blog is at the front of my mind, three previous failures lay behind it. Those failures began when I was a graduate student, young, ambitious, and full of misdirected energy.

Let's start with the end of the question. As far as I know, there are no data concerning blogging and career success -- or, for that matter, between any kind of public outreach and success in research careers (as opposed to teaching or industry careers that directly involve outreach). Anecdotally, there are some people who spend a lot of effort on outreach who have very well-respected research careers, and others who don't. I'd say it's up to the individual to chart her own course.

A waste of time?

Will your committee think you are wasting your time? No matter what you are doing -- even if you are spending 18 hours a day doing benchwork -- your committee will think you're wasting your time, if you don't meet deadlines.

In fact, there is nothing you could possibly do that is so noble that your committee won't think it's a waste of time. Heck, I was a postdoc when Gretchen and I had our first daughter, and I had colleagues (thank goodness, none that I worked with directly) who thought Sophie was a waste of time!

Only you can decide the best use of your time. Certainly, you should seek the advice of your committee and other faculty members. But your job is not doing their bidding. Your job is educating yourself.

You are not a passive consumer. You need to decide for yourself what kinds of activities will help you learn most effectively. Do you need practice writing about science for a non-technical audience? Do you need a mechanism for sharing drafts of your work? What about a collaborative writing environment? Or maybe just a way of sharing what's interesting about your work?

Pseudonymous blogging has its own allure, but is actually a lot less different than it may seem. You can, after all, learn from an activity whether people know your identity or not.

Or maybe it isn't about education, but instead enjoyment. Writing can be a great release. Participating in arguments or online communities can alleviate some of the alienation of graduate school -- where the independence and apprenticeship system may leave you feeling much more alone than as an undergraduate.

In either case, you need to set realistic deadlines that work with your education. Your life may include teaching, second jobs, family, and everything else. You have to be realistic about whether you can take on another project. And you have to weigh how important those deadlines are -- do you want to finish your degree in five years? Or eight? Or twelve?

Blog your dissertation

I have known a number of people who blogged (or participated in message boards) as students under a pseudonym, but later stopped. What once was worthwhile ultimately changed to be less so. Why? First, because it worked. They became good at it. They learned the tricks of online argumentation. But also, with this achievement come diminishing returns. Eventually message board trolls all start to sound alike. It's like Tetris -- the blocks just keep on coming. You either bring something new to it, or you find something else to keep you interested. For a number of my correspondents, the "something else" has been their professional careers.

I'd like to advocate for a model of blogging that many graduate students might find useful. If I were starting out today, I'd blog my dissertation. Why not? Is there really anything so secret in your history and literature review that it couldn't be read by the few hundred people who will find your blog?

Now, you don't want to write things that would allow someone to scoop you. As a graduate student, you can't afford to lose your projects, because they create the publications that build your record. So don't write about research methods if they're new and don't blog results that you want to publish in a journal.

It will make the writing a lot easier if you commit to a few pages a day, and plugging it into a content management system is a good idea whether it's public or not. The beauty of a blog is that it doesn't have to be finished to be good!

There's no single answer to the question of reprisals or the relation of blogging to graduate funding. It may be that your committee is full of stodgy geezers who will never understand, and insist on things being done in exactly their way. Keep in mind: they might just know what they're talking about.

But it seems to me that integrating your writing with your online presence can be a way to accelerate your work, meet deadlines, and network for your future professional career all at once. And if you've posted regular extracts from your work, you'll be ready to go into those meetings with committee members having already accomplished something.

Final thoughts

I once knew a graduate student who didn't want to be introduced to anyone at meetings. Why? Because he hoped to do something first, so that he could make an impression on people he met!

It's not an irrational view, but it is counterproductive. Not irrational, because sometimes people do accomplish great things, and splash onto the scene, making great impressions on everyone. But counterproductive, because meeting people may help you accomplish those great things.

Maybe you have something great to say to the world, and want to blog for everyone to read. But you can also blog in a small way, spending a little more effort making your notes legible, putting up first drafts of sections of your dissertation, or just writing a little about your field site. You might make contacts you would never have expected, or at least make your own corner of your field more aware of your work. And as you're doing it, you're helping your own research: developing a more polished and accessible writing style, or finding ways to tell stories that you will be retelling in job interviews and classes.

Later: Some examples of how a blog might work for you.