THE Scholarly Web - Telescopic theses

July 18, 2013
Twitter tweet button on Apple Mac keyboard

“Where are all the dead people? The Black Death killed millions, so where are they all buried? I’ll find them! With maths!”

This tweet, sent by University of Sheffield PhD candidate Alison Atkin (@alisonatkin), was one of hundreds that we received when we used our Twitter account (@timeshighered) to challenge our followers to cram their PhD theses into 140 characters. The ensuing #TweetMyThesis hashtag caught the imagination of doctoral researchers across the globe.

The range of topics was vast, from “how hunter-gatherers adapted to climate change after the last ice age by changing their diet and mobility” from Suzanne Pilaar Birch (@suzie_birch), postdoctoral fellow in archaeology at the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World at Brown University in the US, to “Why doesn’t your dog bite you?” from Alex Cagan (@ATJCagan), evolutionary genetics PhD student at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig.

Some were contemporary: “Researching 21st Century TV Horror - exploring rise in graphic TV horror” by Cardiff University PhD student James Rendell (@jamesrendell87); others less so: “how victorian/edwardian attitudes to sexuality and social control played out in the spaces of the music halls”, from Fern Riddell (@FernRiddell), reading for a PhD at King’s College, University of London.

Chief executive of GuildHE, and former ministerial special adviser, Andy Westwood (@guildheceo) left room for self-reflection in his PhD. “New Labour Skills Policy 1995-2010: What Went Wrong? And how much of it was my fault?” his thesis asked.

Craig Clunas, professor of the history of art at the University of Oxford (@CraigClunas), pointed out that although the exercise was great fun, there was also a “serious point” to #TweetMyThesis. “Can’t explain core concept in 140 characters? Problems,” he said.

Many participants used the hashtag to make contact with scholars working in similar areas, prompting Craig Diver (@Diver_CS), lecturer in the School of Social Work at the University of Central Lancashire, to describe it as “a bit like speed dating”.

That said, some of the topics might be deemed a little inappropriate for a first meeting. “Pigs (are not) good substitutes for human cadavers if you want to wallop it in a particular way to see if it causes a similar injury,” submitted by Heather Bonney (@HeebieB), human remains data collection project manager at the Natural History Museum, is one such example.

Some postdocs tweeted to let future doctoral students know what they had learned or, in some cases, not learned.

“There are nerves in your lung that constrict your airways and make it hard to breathe. Why?” asked James Moffatt (@Dr_JD_Moffatt), senior lecturer in physiology at St George’s, University of London, before giving the regretful answer, “Still don’t really know”.

It seems apt to leave the final tweet to Imogen Bond (@Imbobbond), a part- time PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London. Her thesis? “Theatre curtain calls - why do we do them, where do they come from? What are the social & political implications of them?”

That really is the last one.

Send links to topical, insightful and quirky online comment by and about academics to chris.parr@tsleducation.com

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