So Graduate Students Shouldn’t Blog?

Apparently, blogging is not in the interests of graduate students. Hannibal @ arstechnica agrees:

Ultimately, I think the answer to this dilemma is pretty clear: graduate students simply should not blog, and if they do blog they should never do so under their real names. As a grad student, your writing time is much better spent producing papers that will get you feedback from the folks who you’re paying to study under. Furthermore, anything that you have to say that’s even remotely interesting to anyone other than your parents and your best friend from childhood is not worth publishing online when it could easily come back to haunt you years later.

This issue is a bit confused because it mixes personal blogging with research-related blogging.

Personal blogging is a separate issue. Personal blogs are different enough to warrant a completely separate blog from the research blog, info about your new goldfish is completely orthogonal to your superconducting material investigation.

The second, more important, issue: should research students blog about their research? Absolutely! I have a bias here because I kept my research on my homepage throughout my thesis (here nowadays, how much better would a proper content management system have been 🙂 ). And if I were doing a PhD today, I’d certainly be blogging about it. Here’s why:

  • Timestamping your ideas: A big issue is proving your work is original, and the history of research is full of stories about people arriving at the same idea simultaneously (Who invented calculus? Who invented podcas … never mind.) Traditionally, publishing a paper was a good way to timestamp your ideas. In this wired era, you can do a lot better than that. And – precisely because there’s no formal review – you don’t have to worry about the paper being rejected and delaying that timestamp.
  • Promoting your research: Academia is a battle for hearts and minds. Paradigm shifts occur, ideas swing in and out of favour. The best academics are very smart people to be sure, but they are also tireless promoters of their ideas.
  • The conversation thing: I know a bit cliched and cringeful, but undeniable nonetheless. Keep a blog, open up comments, watch inbound links, and you’ll get a lot of feedback on your writing. For an academic, that’s almost an unfair advantage. Especially important for research-industry links.
  • Saying little things: A blog is a great way to capture all the little things. Again, here’s where the so-called problem of no peer review works to your favour. Witness Chris Andersen’s Long Tail blog. He recently explained this blogging style very well: > In the meantime, a slight explanation for why I’ve been indulging in so much theory here. I originally trained to be a physicist, in part because my hero growing up was Richard Feynman. One of the virtues of physics is that it’s based on the concept of understanding the world via first principles, the underlying rules that explain all the complexity around us. … What I’m trying to do here is to establish the first-principle rules of the Long Tail. I realize that the search for a grand unified theory is usually a recipe for ending your days muttering at a blackboard covered in scribbles. But I do think that the economics of abundance are poorly understood, and the Long Tail is as good an opportunity as any to lay out some pointers to how they might work. With your help, we’ll work through some of that here and I’ll find a way to make it easier to digest in the book.

All these web 2.0isms – blogs, podcasts, wikis – can make a big impact on academia. It’s not up to “academia” to embrace them, because there’s no such single entity as “academia”. Instead, the individual entities that do embrace them will win. Some out-of-touch institutions may ignore – or even deplore – candidates who have blogs. But those institutions will only be reducing their overall quality and doing the candidates a favour anyway. The clueful institutions will take a leaf out of industry’s book and actively encourage and host research blogs, subject to sensible guidelines. It’s difficult to imagine any other way they could get so much publicity about their research, which will in turn attract candidates at all levels, not to mention external funding.

As an aside, most people don’t “get” blogging yet because they have not yet discovered the power of RSS aggregation. I was the same – I thought “why do all these people want to write little snippets of nothing when they could organise their website logically”. Until I started using Bloglines. Google and Yahoo and MS and ITunes are likely to make aggregation a mainstream thing in the next 6-12 months.

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