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PhD Tips: Small but Mighty – the Power of the Blog!

5th May 2016

blog-793047_1280“What are you doing?” my colleague asks one lunchtime, seeing me hunched up over my iPad, bashing away on the screen. “Just updating the blog,” I reply, as I select some photos taken in the lab that morning. “Oh,” they reply dismissively, “I’m simply far too busy to do anything like that!”

I often get the impression that a lot of people in academia view science blogs as a “nice little hobby” as long as it doesn’t impinge on time for experiments and thesis writing. They certainly don’t see blogs as the dynamic public outreach vehicles, key networking tools, conversational icebreakers and CV-enhancing assets that they are.

I’m not saying that everyone who writes a blog will end up with a book deal, like the amateur cook in “Julie & Julia”. But since I started writing about my research, my blog Science as a Destiny has benefitted me in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

But first, blogs are brilliant at actually getting you to write something and overcome the inertia that often accompanies, for instance, starting to draft a research paper. I may sit down with an air of “I suppose it’s time I posted an update” but suddenly the words begin to flow onto the page. My mum hit the nail on the head when she commented, “I guess it comes readily because you are writing as you think”. And with apps like Blogger, it is so easy to post while you are on the move, add photos and links and save drafts to work on later.

Blogs also allow you to have a relationship with your readers and to reach a wider audience than simply those with journal subscriptions. Although a blog is a personal expression, it is ultimately shaped by what your readers want to see. Blogger stats allow you to see which of your posts are the most popular and where your traffic is coming from. Allowing comments, discussion forums and opinion polls can open up wider debate around your work, making it a much more dynamic beast than the dry, dusty research paper. Understanding the questions people have about your research is critical for later academic life, when you have to convince funding bodies of its importance.

Meanwhile, blogs are also effective ways to introduce yourself and network with potential colleagues. Conferences are often far too rushed to allow you to properly introduce yourself to that possible collaborator/future supervisor, but giving them a business card with your blog address allows them to get a full picture of your work at their leisure. A blog helps to reveal “the persona behind the labcoat” and people are much more likely remember it than another LinkedIn profile. When you send out enquiries or applications, if there is a link to your blog as part of the email signature, anyone intrigued about you can instantly find out more.

Meanwhile, blogs may be “informal” but they certainly improve your writing. Your readers aren’t obliged to stay on the page and, in the modern fast-paced world, you must arrest their attention before distractions kick in. An eye opener for me was when an external website declined to host my blog post about an event because it was “far too long”. Since then, I have learnt to cut the waffle and my posts have tightened up into much clearer, more concise nuggets. It’s a vital skill which of course has transferred over into all the writing I do.

Once a search engine can find you, blogs can also open all sorts of other doors. Complete strangers have contacted me out of the blue asking if they can feature my blog posts in textbooks and exam papers. I have been invited to be a guest blogger for major biotechnology companies and scientific institutions. My blog also played a critical role in helping me to secure a media internship and various writing commissions. Instead of seeing it as a hobby, you should give your blog pride of place on your CV as it demonstrates key skills in digital communication and adapting your language to public audiences.

So, yes I think I will be keeping up my “nice little hobby”, so far, it has served me very well indeed!

Newspaper meCaroline Wood is midway through a PhD studying parasitic weeds at the University of Sheffield. When she’s not agonising over her experiments, she loves to write and will cover most scientific topics if they stay still long enough. In her spare time, she enjoys helping at public outreach events, hill walking and escapism at the cinema. She blogs at http://scienceasadestiny.blogspot.co.uk/

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