Digital networking – a doctoral researcher’s perspective

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Guest blogger Liz Thackray, doctoral researcher at Sussex whose research spans the disciplines of Sociology and Informatics, discusses how digital networking can reduce the doctoral-lonliness in different ways.  Check out Liz’s own blog and researcher profile.

Doing a doctorate is a lonely journey – but does it have to be, in a networked world?

Open any handbook on getting a PhD or becoming a research student, and it doesn’t take long to learn that one of the characteristics of the experience is loneliness. Instead of being in a large undergraduate group or smaller taught postgraduate group of like-minded students, it is all too easy to be in a situation where you have nobody around who you can easily talk to about either life or study. As a new research student in an unfamiliar university, it can be difficult to even get basic information, like where are the toilets and is there anywhere to boil a kettle. Even when familiar with the environment, it can still be difficult to find somebody to go to lunch with, or somebody interested to hear that the cat has just had kittens – everybody around can seem so busy and so focused on their own research that it can feel that they can only be interrupted if the rapture really has arrived – and even that may not merit disturbance.

However, talk to most research students and what they want is to be in a community of like-minded individuals with opportunities to share the joys and despairs of the doctoral journey – as well as an occasional pint or a chat about the aforementioned kittens. Supervisors also will speak of how important it is for research students to have colleagues to share their learning with.

This blog isn’t about finding a solution to the conundrum of why it is so difficult to attain the collegiality everybody seems to acknowledge is so desirable. Rather, I want to point up some of the ways that the loneliness of the research student can be remedied through judicious use of the Internet.

Social networking

It is probable that most people reading this blog will have heard of websites like Facebook and LinkedIn, but may not have considered these as antidotes to doctoral isolation. True Facebook is a good place for keeping in touch with friends and family, and LinkedIn for developing a professional profile, but both offer the opportunity for sharing the pain of the journey, keeping in touch with other research students and joining groups of people with similar interests. OK, a bit of discipline might be required to avoid Farmville, but the advantages probably outweigh the disadvantages.

Sharing resources

As doctoral researchers, we acquire vast bibliographies – things we have read, things we mean to read and things we don’t know if they are worth reading. Resources like Mendeley, a free, online, referencing site, and Diigo, social bookmarking, are useful, not only as online repositories – and therefore accessible anywhere there is an internet connection – but because they offer the opportunity to set up and join groups and share resources. Both sites provide facilities for writing personal notes on resources that can be shared with others. If I am looking for a resource in such a group, I can read colleague’s reviews and use them to help me decide whether or not to read the article or webpage or whether to move on to something more helpful to me.

Site designed to provide resources to researchers including PhD students

There are a plethora of sites aimed at doc and postdoc researchers. Some are university based like this, but others have been developed as personal blogs by knowledgeable individuals like The Thesis Whisperer. Some have a specific purpose, like how to get published (e.g. PhD2Published), while others are more general in content (e.g. Vitae) but often have specific content aimed at postgraduates. You may have noticed that most of these sites are blogs and be wondering how to know when additional content is added. One of the simplest ways is using a RSS feed aggregator, such as Google Reader – check out the post Really Simple Syndication (or why RSS feeds are useful).

Support community in 140 characters

While the above sites all offer resources, they do not really solve the problem of finding somebody to share a coffee with or how to get a quick answer to a perplexing problem. This is where micro-blogging may assist. Most people have heard of Twitter, if only because of recent press reports of broken injunctions. Fewer people are likely to know of Plurk. Both sites offer the opportunity to register and create a network of followers and people to follow. Initially, it can be confusing, but the use of hashtags (a word preceded by #) can make it much easier to find like minded people. Over the last few months a large number of doctoral students have started using the hashtag #phdchat and organising a thematic tweet-up on Wednesday evenings. Personally, this is my current favourite for meeting knowledgeable colleagues and talking about all things doctorate-related. What is more, a question posted using the hashtag any time of day or night seems to elicit a response.

That is just a small taste of some of the online resources that can help to break down the loneliness and build networks and communities. Like anything worthwhile, becoming a part of a network or using a social web resources demands some effort, but the rewards are well worth it. Incidentally, if you want to find me online, look for lizith on Twitter and lizit in most other places, or follow my blog at http://lizit.me.uk.

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3 thoughts on “Digital networking – a doctoral researcher’s perspective

    […] Digital networking: a doctoral researcher’s perspective […]

    Janie Johnson said:
    June 1, 2011 at 14:53

    Thank you, this also is a new direction in the profession of librarianship, using social technologies in various professional ways and to promote it with our library users. One librarian said: from a Web librarian to a Social librarian to a Mobile librarian…. as the latest is using mobile technologies.

    sarahlouq said:
    June 1, 2011 at 11:04

    Thank you for giving phd2published a shout out and the thesiswhisperer as well. When i did my PhD these resources did not really exist until the end so i am looking to engage with and contribute to and promote as many as possible so more researchers can integrate into our ever expanding community.

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