Research Intelligence - The doctor will advise you now

PhDs and postdocs turn to social media to answer their pressing questions. Elizabeth Gibney reports

May 24, 2012

Credit: Rex Features
What's the gist, physicist? Online forums provide early-career researchers with insights they do not feel comfortable seeking from official sources

Earlier this month, Nadine Muller, an honorary research associate at the University of Hull's English department who recently passed her PhD, sent an innocuous post on microblogging site Twitter for ideas on what to include in a talk she was about to give on advice for doctoral students.

"What #phdadvice do you wish someone had given you earlier, before you had to find out for yourself?" she asked fellow postdoctorates, established academics and students across the web.

The response was overwhelming. After just three days, almost 500 responses had been posted using the hashtag (which allows Twitter users to follow a specific discussion). The phenomenon spread across mailing lists, reaching tens of thousands of followers.

Other PhD students started to ask questions and receive answers. Issues ranged from how to respond to grumpy interrogators when presenting research (answer: ask them what they think, it's probably what they want to hear anyway) to what to wear to a conference (suits in the US and, bizarrely, cagoules for sociology) (see box below).

Dr Muller, who passed her PhD in February, said the overnight success of her tweet shows that PhD students are not always told the full extent of what is involved before they begin their studies, and do not feel comfortable asking for advice from official sources.

"I was initially surprised by the level of response because I was only asking [ahead of] the talk. Then again, I was not surprised," she said. "Within minutes there weren't just answers, there were people desperately asking for advice, like what to do if you don't get along with your supervisor. But the first thing you should be told as a PhD student is [that] if something goes wrong, here's the person you can go to."

She said her experience showed that the problem was a "prominent issue": "You can see that people know this advice is needed and...want it because they don't know where to turn."

Janet Metcalfe, chair of Vitae, the researcher career development body, said her organisation had reams of information on studying for a PhD, covering everything from managing supervisor relationships to achieving a healthy work-life balance. She said that every institution also had its own sources, but the challenge was making them visible to students.

"If you look on our website, there's all sorts of advice on avoiding procrastination, preparing for your viva and thinking about your career," she said. "But one of the advantages of social media is that [they are] more immediate. The challenge [with giving any advice] is telling researchers where it is and making it accessible."

Clare Jones, senior careers adviser at the University of Nottingham, said her university provided PhD students and postdoc researchers with career development workshops and a dedicated research training programme, as well as confidential advice.

"I might be a bit of a sounding board before they go on to talk to colleagues," she said. But not every university has such a specialist post, she acknowledged.

Dr Muller said that even though institutions offered students training courses in research skills, many did not seem to address other areas of concern.

"You don't need to know about referencing - you need to know how to get yourself out there, how the process of peer review works, what teaching actually involves, how to give a conference paper, how to receive your first review.

"These are practical issues that aren't always being addressed."

Status: like-minded

A number of online sources have already grown to fill this gap.

Dr Muller pointed to #phdchat, a weekly live chat on Twitter, the online newspaper The Thesis Whisperer and organisations such as Vitae that have their own forums.

These have enabled students to raise issues they might never have discussed with official sources.

Students writing on these sites and streams also seem to be concerned that the PhD has grown and changed. It is no longer just about doing research for three years, but also preparing for life afterwards.

"I'm very aware that I feel like a PhD is a vocational qualification now, not just an academic trial," said Alex Pryce, a doctoral student in English at the University of Oxford, who blogs on the trials of writing a thesis.

"You have to go to conferences, network with people, think about publication and the teaching experience. It's not just about the thesis any more."

Without these extra skills, you can end up jobless, said Dr Muller.

"Most people I know do not have the financial backing to sit there for years after their PhD trying to get a job. They have to make themselves employable while also producing a piece of passable results."

The informality of the internet can make it feel like a more open and safe arena to ask delicate questions and get instant responses, but you need to judge the value of the answers, added Dr Metcalfe.

"Some of the conversations going on are clearly where students feel they can't ask those sorts of questions in the environment they are in," she said. "But you do have to use some judgement on what to do with that advice."

Ms Pryce said that users are aware of the potential pitfalls of social media, including being distracted from the thesis. But their use across academia is growing precisely because they are more personal, whether for virtual staffroom chat or direct advice, she added.

As well as providing an engaging community, online networks can also strengthen working relationships, she said.

"For me it was something I think I stumbled upon," she said. "I was already using Twitter with my friends and gradually felt like I could find more and more academics [on the site], too."

Dr Muller now plans to "curate" all the questions and tips that her hashtag has generated into one website, The New Academic, providing prospective students with insights into the "pleasure and problems of life in academia" and giving early-career researchers and postdocs a place to exchange strategies and share experiences.

"Needless to say, of course, what we are collectively producing here is not a steadfast rule book," she writes to visitors to the site.

"Rather, it's a wealth of perspectives - some diverse, many strikingly unanimous - from people who want you to succeed whatever your field or career stage."

#Phdadvice et al: Top Tweets Q&A

• 'What if your supervisor detests you?'

• 'How do I deal with the panic attack that accompanies the realisation of how big 100,000 words really is?'

• 'What to wear to a conference? Does it vary by discipline?'

• 'Anyone have any ideas on how I could motivate myself into reading more? *stares at giant pile of papers*'

• 'Be strategic in choosing your thesis topic if you want an academic job. You want one that will be valuable on [the] job market'

• 'Realise that accepting peer reviews, however painful, results in a better, stronger paper'

• 'Non-academic friends [are] so important for getting away from academic woes and maintaining perspective'.

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