Why PhD Students Should Blog: My talk at UK Science Blog Prize Evening (also, I won)

28 November 2012 by Suzi Gage, posted in Uncategorized

As I wrote recently, this blog was shortlisted, along with nine others, for the first UK Science Blog Prize. The award was the brainchild of Simon Singh and Ben Goldacre, and the judging panel were some of the finest minds and science writers around. It is no exaggeration to say that I have been directly inspired to start blogging by two of the judges. In 2010 when I applied for the BSA's Media Fellowship, I namechecked my two science writing heroes: Ben Goldacre and Martin Robbins (I didn't get it though!!). Yesterday they (along with Simon Singh, Mark Henderson, Roger Highfield, Connie St Louis, Sile Lane and Sid Rodrigues) awarded me joint winner of the Blog Prize (along with the excellent David Colquhoun). Before I get too gushing and over the top, I will stop, but I'd love to say thank you to the judges, and congratulations to everyone who was shortlisted. Some of the shortlist are also people who have hugely inspired me as I started blogging, and it was a real honour to be listed alongside them. Many congratulations to the other winner, David Colquhoun, and the runners up Dorothy Bishop, the Cancer Research UK blog, and Ed Yong (all 3 blogs I read regularly). Well done too to the rest of the shortlist, NeuroSkeptic, Dean Burnett, Andre Tomlin, Stuart Clark and Athene Donald, any of whom would have been worthy winners. OK, NOW I will stop.

As part of the award presentation evening, the shortlisted bloggers who were there were each asked to give a five minute talk. I decided to talk about why I believe PhD students should be bloggers. When I sat down to write my talk, I accidentally wrote a blog post. Since, on the night, I forgot half of what I meant to say, I thought I’d post the blog up here – this is what I MEANT to say!

 

I’m Suzi, and I’m a 3rd year epidemiology PhD student (epidemiology being the study of population health patterns, rather than skin complaints). I’ve been blogging since Summer 2011.

So I'm going to spend 5 minutes telling you how blogging has stopped me becoming a social recluse. I started my PhD in 2010, and despite its sexy topic (cannabis and psychosis? Yes please!) it soon became apparent that my move from experimental psychology to epidemiology would mean a whole lot less human contact. While I love working with the Children of the 90s birth cohort, it does mean there's no data collection, so although I work with really interesting data, I don't really get to meet the really interesting people behind it, I just get to spend all my time pulling my hair out looking at 1s and 0s in STATA...

It was partly for this reason I first wanted to set up a blog. A combination of wanting to improve my writing and the need for human contact(!) Also, having submitted my first paper for publication, the delay between research and public output made me crave immediacy. Not to mention the tunnel vision that can set in when you get in to the minutiae of PhD studies... I had NO IDEA how much time a blog would take, and luckily I had a couple of fellow students who had similar thoughts, so we initially set up the blog together. Unfortunately I picked my blog buddies very badly, as they were both in their final years of PhDs, so quite soon they realised that trying to write blogs while also writing theses was not gonna happen! Incidentally, I’d like to congratulate Neil Davies and Dylan Williams who are now post-VIVA doctors of epidemiology, and have their own blogs (Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc and Dynamite Science) about to be launched on Scilogs, the same network where Sifting the Evidence now resides.

I wanted to write about epidemiology, because a) it’s interesting, b) it’s relevant to everyone and c) it can sometimes be misrepresented in the media. If you’re ever organising a round in a pub quiz, can I recommend a list of exposures the Daily Mail has said can cause, cure, or cause and cure cancer!

But why is blogging so great? Well here are my 5 reasons (taken from my original post on scilogs: Beginnings: why blog?):

1. Two way conversation - if I write a post and there are no comments on it, I feel it’s a failure. I would rather people tell me they don't like a post (and why) than say nothing at all. Nothing means boring. I’m at a much earlier point in my blogging ‘career’ than most of the rest of the shortlist though, so I’ve yet to experience too many ‘under the line’ nutters...

2. You’re the boss - write what you want, when you want, how you want. But that doesn’t mean you can’t ask for help. I’ve often sent blog posts to willing peers or my boss when I wanted a fact-checker.

3. Immediacy - if a paper comes out, you can critique it immediately. I wrote a critique of the cannabis and IQ paper that came out earlier this year, which was far and away my most read post, because when people see a news story about a study, they often want more information.

4. Controversy - this is fun (but another reason a fact checker can be a good idea). Writing about plain packaging of cigarettes was fun, but it does mean I’m now monitored by the pro tobacco lobby, who are big fans of name calling (though I’m pretty proud of being a tax sponging nutter I must say).

5. Niche blogs for niche audiences. You can really play to your strengths (but it takes a while to find them, so don’t be too disheartened initially if it takes you a while to find them)

So in conclusion, I would heartily recommend blogging to relative newbies like myself (I’d say younguns, but in my case that’s clearly not true). Since I started blogging about a year ago my writing has improved beyond recognition, and I have had conversations with fascinating people I wouldn’t have had otherwise, keeping perspective on the real world outside the PhD bubble.


11 Responses to “Why PhD Students Should Blog: My talk at UK Science Blog Prize Evening (also, I won)”

  1. Ed @ed_it_is Reply | Permalink

    I really couldn't agree more with your reasons why blogging is great. I would strongly encourage students to blog. Many scientific journals are beyond the reach of most lay-people.

    Through reading blogs i am now back in-touch with subjects i studied 20 or so years ago. It's rekindled my interest in so many things. Not only is it a great way to share ideas but it's also fantastic for people like me, that have been out-of-the-loop for such a long time, to catch up.

    No knowledge is wasted and you never know how important something you share could be to someone who would otherwise never have known what you're up to.

    Blog-away people.

  2. Tom Reply | Permalink

    Hi Suzi, just found your blog through twitter, Congrats on the award.
    I started a blog recently and one of my aims is to give students an avenue to communicate their work where it may not reach the threshold for peer review but is of interest and may spark further thought and debate.
    One other thing I have just taken from this post is controversy - having read that I am thinking of throwing a few ideas out there too.
    Thanks for the tips and look forward to reading more from you.

  3. Richard Zinken Reply | Permalink

    Congratulations again Suzi for this terrific achievement. We're thrilled that you're part of the SciLogs.com network and look forward to build the network so as to foster and host similarly high-quality blogs. And for sure I support your recommendation to blog! Khalil (info@scilogs.com) is always on the alert for bloggers who can add to the SciLogs.com voice of course and I invite everybody who is interested to get in touch with him.

    Richard

    (Publishing Director Spektrum der Wissenschaft)

  4. Khalil A. Cassimally Reply | Permalink

    Big congrats once again Suzi. We're all very happy here at SciLogs.com to have you on board. The feeling is independent of you winning the prize of course ;)

  5. Emma James Reply | Permalink

    Great to hear, thanks for that! And congrats again, it really is a huge achievement.
    Would also be interested to hear why/how you made the move from Experimental Psychology to Epidemiology at some point!

  6. Nick Reply | Permalink

    Hi there,

    Great post! I agree with your logic about starting a blog. I'm hoping to get into medical school and started a blog as a way to understand areas of human health and nutrition that fascinate me in greater detail: after all, the best way to understand something is to try and explain it! Keep up the good work, and congrats on your award!

  7. CanTHeeRava Reply | Permalink

    Got to know about the blog and the award through Bristol Alumni newsletter. Congratulations. Blogging about science is as hard as it can get. Comments by readers can be a good barometer for a blog's success/failure. At the same time, there are many articles that do not generate a response, however do make a subliminal impact. one needn't fret receiving no response.

  8. George Cave Reply | Permalink

    You said you like people to reply....congratulations! Dylan and Liv both told me about your win separately. Good job :)!

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