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


Really Simple Syndication (or why RSS feeds are useful)

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With our aggregated blog feed “Researcher Blogs” growing fast, we now have 7 contributers.  But what if you want to subscribe to the Researcher Blogs feed and read the posts from somewhere other than the Doctoral School blog?  Today’s guest blogger, Liz Thackray (lizit) explains…

RSS iconIf asked what Internet facility I would most miss, RSS feeds would come pretty high on my list. It is a facility I use daily for keeping up with news and information. At it’s simplest (and it does call itself ‘really simple’), I am able to click on the orange and white icon on any page where it is available and choose to add the page to my Google Reader account. Each time I open Google Reader, I am shown instantly how many updates there have been and I can choose to view them – and because it just shows me the headlines, I can decide which to read in full and which to ignore.

If you haven’t discovered the Commoncraft videos, they are brilliant for describing various technologies, and there is an excellent one explaining just how RSS feeds work. It also describes how to set up Google Reader for accessing RSS feeds.

Locating Google Reader
Locating Google Reader

Although there are other RSS readers, I find Google Reader is most convenient: my browser home page is set to Google, so it is quick and easy to click on “more” and on “Reader” and check what unread changes there are. As I have to actually go to the Reader page, I don’t get annoying pop-ups every time there is an update, but I choose when to check the feed and whether to read the updates. It can still act as a displacement activity, but it is my choice if I choose to be distracted!

I find RSS particularly useful for keeping up to date with blogs. I subscribe to around 60 at the moment plus the new Researcher Blog feed available from the Doctoral School blog. It keeps me in touch with what other people are doing, and I can get involved in discussions with other researchers on aspects of their work – or my work – which are of interest. I’ve found quite a number of senior academics and others working in my field are prolific bloggers, and it is handy to know what they are thinking about and working on – or to see their holiday photos and remember they are human too!

I also subscribe to some of the BBC feeds to keep me in touch with what is going on in the rest of the world.

If you haven’t set it up yet, I do recommend setting up an RSS feed and subscribing to both the Doctoral School blog:

and the Researcher Blogs feed:

– it’s another way of building up the community and of breaking down that sense of isolation too commonly experienced by DPhil students!

… and if you have a blog – do remember to fill in the form and get it added to the Researcher blog list…

‘Quick search’ and ‘Subject search’ sets in the Electronic Library – a blunt tool for researchers?

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Search options in Electronic LibraryA doctoral researcher asked me about the QuickSearch and SubjectSearch options in the  Electronic Library:

Why is it that I cannot select either a) all sets; or b) no sets?

Good question.  So I asked Helen in the Library’s Research Liaison section, and she very helpfully gave the following explanation…

Quick search and Subject search…. I must admit I’m not the biggest fan of these as search tools for doctoral students and in any 1-2-1s I tend to suggest that people use the databases individually. My reasons are that not all databases can be searched using Quick/Subject search, that the results often come back in a strange order so the 50th ranked article may be more relevant than the 1st, and that people may really need to tailor their search terms for particular databases (eg needing to be more specific with search terms within a database that searches the fulltext like JSTOR, not needing to use terms like ‘psychology’ in PsychInfo but needing to use them in the big, general databases). If they’re all being searched at once you lose the ability to do this.

Phew, I don’t mean to be negative about it, it’s a great resource for undergrads who just need *some* articles, not a comprehensive search. Dphils may want to use it to get a sense of which databases might have useful results but may struggle when it comes to more systematic searching.

To actually answer your question, the sets in Quick Search cannot be altered and each set searches databases for a particular subject area that have been selected by the staff here. It’s designed so people can just start searching. It is, however, possible to customise the sets in Subject Search so that you basically create your own set of useful databases that can then be searched. There’s a guide to doing this in the yellow box on the front page of the Electronic Library that would probably be more use than my efforts to explain – there’s a webcast option or a standard PDF guide. I think there is a limit to the number of databases that can be searched at once or it would just take far too long to get any results.

Hope this helps, feel free to send anybody my way if they have any more questions!

So there you go 🙂  If you’d like to ask further questions of Helen, you can email her at

Creativity in Academic Writing: after the workshop…

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I thought it might be useful for researchers to see what other researchers have got out of various DocSchool professional development activities this year.  To that end, I asked the attendees on the workshops “Creativity in academic writing” this academic year, to share their thoughts about the training they received, and how they feel about it some time after the workshops.

These posts are presented whole, unedited and unaltered – all I have done is copy and paste the text from the emails they sent me.  Because this isn’t a promotion exercise –  the usefulness of these comments is that they are frank and straightforward, and therefore more meaningful to researchers contemplating attending one of these courses in the future.  It’s also interesting to see how different researchers found different aspects of the same workshop to be most helpful.

Our first contributor is Philippa St George, part-time DPhil researcher, School of English.

I am a part-time DPhil student in the English Department. I attended the Creativity in Academic Writing workshop in April and thoroughly enjoyed it. More to the point, perhaps, I got a great deal out of it.

We were shown a wide range of different techniques for writing creatively and given plenty of time to practise them. One or two of the techniques were not for me but other I have been using consistently since April and found they have made a huge difference to my written output.

In particular the very simple notion of forgetting your audience and just getting your preliminary thoughts down on paper in any way, shape or form. I have found this to be a very productive technique and so liberating! Writing becomes a productive, creative and enjoyable 2 or 3 stage process rather than a grinding chore! I think it has been one of the most useful courses I have attended. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Next up, we have Liz Thackray,  DPhil researcher, School of Informatics.

I did  the workshop in April.

I went to the workshop hoping to have some fun, to meet DPhils from other disciplines and to learn more about academic writing. All 3 objectives were achieved to a greater or lesser extent.

I particularly enjoyed some of the exercises deigned to get the creative juices flowing and the amount of energy and expertise Celia brought to enabling the group to function. It gave me confidence to get on and write, rather than worrying about whether I am expressing myself properly – time to sort that out when reviewing and editing.

However, for me a big disappointment was being split into two separate groups with little interaction between the two groups. Although it was possible to chat to people from the other group over lunch, this was not as easy as if we had been mingling more during the workshop activities.

When the workshop is advertised again, it should be made clear that it is not about learning to write good, grammatical English, but about developing and exploring the writing skills we already have.

And finally, me: Sarah Robins-Hobden, DPhil researcher, School of Psychology

I’m writing this from the perspective of doctoral researcher, not DocSchool employee.  Feel free to disregard if you doubt my efforts at separating these two facets of my identity 🙂  For context, I submitted my thesis in April and did the workshop in June (thanks to people dropping out at the last minute, and folks on the waiting list not being able make it with such short notice).

The first thing that I tussled with was this: Celia asks you to write with pen, on paper.  I had taken my laptop, and so had a couple of others in our group, as that is my usual writing mode.  I had also taken a couple of fountain pens, as I use these when I have to write by hand.  I’m glad I did – ink flows from nibs, so no pressure is required to mark the paper, and therefore, thankfully, I wasn’t bothered by hand-cramp.  I don’t write much more than note-taking usually, so to sit and write whole paragraphs, and to write by hand for longer than a couple of minutes at a time, was new to me.  By the end of the two days I once again loved the process of writing by hand.  I felt more in touch with my writing, as if I had created the words myself, in the factory of my mind, rather than selected them from a cognitive lexicon.

But I was resistant at first.  At the keyboard, I’m a touch-typist of around 80 words per minute.  Which is just about as fast as I think in sentences.  When typing, I always backspace over words and retype changes as I go along.  This disrupts my flow.  Sometimes I even pause mid-sentence whilst I hunt through my head searching for the “just so” word – I’m stalled and unable to move on without it.  With pen and paper, I find the jumble of words is bottle-necked in my head just enough so as to give me time to line them up correctly, to come out as a complete sentence as I write, and I have no need to backtrack and change words – proper editing can come later.  And it’s a physical thing, in a way that typing isn’t – the feel of the paper, the flow of the nib across it, the formation of the words, my own, personal handwriting shaping each letter.

Many of the exercises made me think differently about my writing, in that I felt I was having to think about how I feel about the subject I was writing about.  I hadn’t considered this before.  At all.  I never thought it mattered.  Initially I felt blank.  Meh.  Whatever.  But in a strange way, it was the very act of writing about my topic that led me to discover how I felt about it, rather than the other way round.  Isn’t that bizarre?  So within two days, I discovered that although I couldn’t give a flying monkey about my topic anymore (you win, DPhil, you win), I did actually care about the work I had done for my thesis, and I was rather looking forward to the discourse that would come as part of my viva.

On the first day, Celia takes us through an exercise where we analyse some texts from different disciplines, looking for evidence of various things, including voice, expertise, position in relation to the topic, etc.  Then we apply the same method to a piece of our own writing.  I found this process just awful.  I hated my piece of writing.  Sadly, the text I analysed was part of a discussion in my already-submitted thesis.  I was horrified that I could find no “voice” in there, no hint of me.  I could highlight maybe only two or three short tracts in the whole 800-word sample where I thought I could glimpse a human being behind the words.  Crestfallen.  I had a hard job putting aside the my silent lament, but once I did, I felt activated.  This writing, I thought, wasn’t good enough.  I hadn’t done the work justice, and  I could do much better.

So I re-worked the piece overnight, ready for the second day.  Because on the second day, you read it out loud in very small groups, for feedback.  And there was no way I was going to read out that bland rubbish.  Lo and behold, I was proud of the reworked piece.  I still consider it to be the very best piece of academic writing I’ve done.  And I don’t mind that this came after I submitted my thesis – I’m expecting corrections, probably major corrections, but – I now feel I will be able to do  much better job of them when the time comes.

I feel the workshop has given me tools I never thought I’d use (draw a picture to represent your topic? Write an imaginary dialogue between yourself and leading thinker in your field?), and therefore bent my mind round my writing in peculiar and unfamiliar ways, but most of all, it’s given me confidence to write again (even “in public”, hence this post), and to return to my thesis when I need to, to finish it properly.

Creativity in Academic Writing

… is a two-day workshop, presented to doctoral researchers by Celia Hunt and Abi Curtis of the Centre for Continuing Education.  For more information, see the Creativity in Academic Writing webpage.

Giving an academic conference paper

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Giving  a conference paper can be one of the most intimidating aspects of doctoral research.  On the bright side, successfully presenting your research to an engaged audience can be incredibly rewarding.  Although becoming a skilled orator takes time, there are a number of relatively simple steps you can follow to make your debut performance less stressful.

Preparation is key – if you’ve addressed all of the areas outlined below, you’ll feel more confident and in control.

NB This post doesn’t  cover use of audio visual material, which is a whole other matter!  Also, the guidance is based on delivering an oral academic conference paper (ie reading from a script), rather than a presentation, where you might be required to speak just from notes.  In some disciplines delivering a paper verbatim is mandatory, in others it is strongly discouraged, so establish what is appropriate for your event.

About me

I’m a first year PhD student at Birkbeck College, University of London, and also work part-time for the Science Postgraduate Support group (SciPS) at Sussex.  My thesis is in the area of nineteenth-century women’s writing and I maintain a blog on the subject.  Having worked in a previous existence as a web developer and an IT manager, I’m interested in using web 2.0 technologies in my research and helping the less geekily-minded to do the same.


  • Find out exactly what is expected of you. Most conference papers are 20 minutes long, but this does sometimes vary.
  • Establish who your audience will be. Are they experts in your subject, do they know virtually nothing, or will there be a mixture?  You will need to pitch your paper accordingly.
  • Check the details of the venue. Is it a small room where you’ll be seated during your paper, or will you be addressing a large hall from a lectern, with or without amplification?  If possible, visit the venue to familiarise yourself with the environment.
  • Think back to conferences you have attended and recall good and bad papers.  Reflect on what worked and what didn’t.

Writing your paper:

  • Start drafting your paper as soon as possible. Successful conference papers have usually involved months of work.  Seasoned performers can write them much more quickly, but that has come with years of experience (and they’re probably also recycling their own material).
  • Bear in mind that a 20 minute conference paper probably means around 3,200 words. Aim for this number and then time yourself.  Nerves might cause you to speak more quickly on the day.
  • Use a clear font so that you’re not peering at the script. Double or 1.5 line spacing can make it easier to read and can slow you down naturally.
  • Read aloud as you are writing. Some words look great on the page, but might be difficult to articulate in a stressful environment (“remunerative” was almost my nemesis).  Make it easy on yourself.
  • Make your sentences short. Endless sub clauses might cause you to run out of puff and turn blue.  Complex sentences are also more difficult for the audience to follow.  Scribble notes to yourself in the margin, if it helps, eg “slow down”, “you’re doing well”, “pause for a moment”.
  • Avoid jargon and acronyms. Your audience might not be familiar with them and it’ll be distracting for you if they start Googling on their iPhones.
  • Keep it simple. If you’ve been to an academic conference, you’ll know how hard it is to follow a paper on a subject with which you’re unfamiliar.  This is not a journal article – the objective is to communicate your idea or argument clearly.
  • Focus on one argument or idea. 20 minutes isn’t much time to explain your work in any great depth, so don’t try to tell the audience absolutely everything you know on that subject.  Also, state your argument at the beginning of the paper, don’t suddenly reveal it at the end.
  • Be careful with humour. If you say something hysterically funny, prolonged laughter could disrupt your momentum; if it falls flat, you might be dispirited by a sea of stony faces.
  • Don’t make enemies. Unless you know they’re dead or otherwise indisposed, don’t attack the work of other academics in your paper – they might just be in the audience.
  • Practice. It’s easier to perform on the day if you are familiar with the sound of your own voice.  Also, reading it through aloud 4-5 times will identify any problematic areas, eg difficult words, awkward  phrasing.  It’s also important to ensure that you’re within the time limits.  Overrunning might cause annoyance, and even hatred, in your audience and fellow panellists (especially if you’re speaking just before lunch).
  • Try to anticipate any questions. Formulate brief responses, and possibly prepare a list of references to which you can direct particularly keen enquirers.

The Big Day

  • Get there early. You’ll be less stressed and will be able to familiarise yourself with the environment (if you haven’t already done so).  Chatting with other delegates can make them seem less intimidating.
  • Wear comfortable clothes. Also make sure you’re smart and haven’t got spinach in your teeth.  If you’re speaking after lunch, be careful of spillages.  Tucking your napkin in your collar might look silly, but then so does having curry all down your front.
  • Breathe. That might sound obvious, but it’s easy to forget.  Slow breaths will help you feel calmer, and you’ll be less likely to faint.
  • Watch your nerves. A certain amount of adrenalin with help with the ‘performance’ element, but don’t let your nerves take over.  Remember: essentially you’re just reading some words from a piece of paper.  How hard can that be?  Your audience want you to do well, and will be more relaxed and receptive if you at least give the impression of being confident.
  • Enjoy yourself! Yes, you read that correctly.  It’s not often you’ll get to communicate your ideas for 20 minutes without being interrupted.  Show your enthusiasm through vocal inflection.
  • Don’t overrun. Even it has gone really well, stop when you reach the end and don’t be tempted to digress.  Don’t conclude your paper with “that’s it, really”.  Unless your concluding sentence is obvious, then simply finish with “thank you” and a smile.
  • Manage questions. It’s perfectly acceptable to say “I don’t know” in response to a stinker of a question.  A diplomatic response is “Oooh, that’s a really good point, I hadn’t thought of it in that way”, then scribble something on your pad as though you’re going to follow it up.
  • Give yourself a pat on the back. It’s a considerable achievement, and giving your next paper will be much easier.

For a more entertaining approach, the Royal Society of Chemistry blog includes a post on bad presentation bingo.

If you have any tips or experiences to contribute, please add a comment below.  And good luck with your paper.