Thoughts and insight from Dr Benjamin Halligan
Dr Ben Halligan
Not so many years ago the experience of researching for a PhD could be an isolating one. The hours required in the library or laboratory, or in archives or engaged in fieldwork, were typically a solitary matter – especially for that sizeable flock of night owl PhD researchers, working towards impending deadlines. All this isolation, of course, is part of taking responsibility for one’s own research and progression: ultimately, it is the individual who submits their work for the Viva Voce, and who is awarded the degree of PhD. And that individual’s work, even as arising from research embedded within particular research groupings, becomes an individual matter in the final analysis – and so something for individual study, research and writing. Most PhD theses in the UK need to begin with a declaration of originality on the part of the individual submitting it for examination, and a confirmation of that individual’s authorship.
I’ve noticed, in addition, a kind of panic-reflex to slow or unsatisfactory work progression too that can result in ramping up the isolation. Like the monastic scholar, the PGR will tend to lock him or herself away for long hours at this point, hoping to make up lost ground by a heightened devotion to their subject. This can mean that at the point when a bit of external advice (and sociality) is most needed – with a PGR becoming uncertain of progress, and maybe beginning to doubt the viability of the project or their own intellectual abilities – the external world is fully banished, and the PGR embraces an even greater sense of isolation. Frankly – not a healthy situation. And, to be blunt, one that can detract from the quality of the PhD thesis that is to be submitted.
These “not so many years ago” I’m addressing here – I’m really talking about the period before the mid-2000s – were prior to the rise of social media, which gained its first crucial foothold, and indeed foundations, in universities. Before this, access to academic conferences and possibly a limited pool of fellow PGRs and academics at your own institution could represent the limits of connecting with likeminded researchers. And the monthly or quarterly journals that arrived in the library could be the sole messengers of academic developments in your field – often after a substantial time lag.
Students have taught universities that social media can alleviate these concerns, and indeed open up whole new networks of communication. The first step in this – and this is part of the training we offer in the Doctoral College, as particularly aimed at new PhD researchers – is to establish a Twitter account. This can be done in a couple of minutes and, of course, is entirely free. And here’s a bit of a checklist – off the top of my head – of connections that can be made:
And there’s of course a useful secondary tier of connections too: restaurants, concert venues, bookshops, hotels in your favourite parts of the world (etc) – often discounts and promotions come via Twitter for those connected to them.
This way, even before you’ve Tweeted anything yourself, you’ll have a substantial newsfeed of events, training opportunities, bidding opportunities, academic developments (and conversations around these), useful connections to further groupings, new writing, calls for papers, handy discounts, social arrangements and much more. You, and your work, is now connected to the day-to-day developments in your field.
One of the considerations that’s raised at Viva Voces is the contemporary nature of your research: does the theses indicate an awareness of new developments and current debates? It’s important to many examiners that the thesis reads as if it was written in the year it was submitted, and reflects the years across which the research was carried out – and the writing is not locked solely into the mindset of academic research of years gone by. It’s difficult to extract that kind of relevancy from periodic journals. And academic conferences, where current debates are aired and explored, can be sporadic and infrequent. However, your Twitter connections will lend you that contemporary understanding.
And what of Tweeting yourself? What’s useful or relevant? Here’s another off-the-cuff checklist:
And, for these, hashtag your comments, so that they’ll connect to the evolving stories on Twitter, and become findable to those reading about these stories. Every academic discipline, from #archaeology to #zoology, will have a lively hashtag presence.
Universities in the UK are increasingly aware of the importance and benefit of ensuring access to their research for the outside world. This importance is beginning to change the entire academic field: publishing has been grappling with it, open online archives of research have been established, research projects need to include strategies around “impact” and public engagement, and research groupings have developed outreach activities. Social networking via Twitter allows you to place yourself, and your work, as part of these developments, and to contribute to the ways in which university research must no longer be just an individual matter.