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