It has been two years since I started my PhD and one thing that fascinated me has been how other people came up with their research topic. I had even started thinking that it would be a great subject to look into once I submitted my thesis – hopefully a year from now. Of course, that meant it was pretty much on hold, which was frustrating. Indeed, I even had a rough idea as to how I was going to collect research – probably starting off with interviews of PhD students at whatever university I would be based at. Of course, I would have to somehow convince others that knowing how PhD students come up with research topics was worthwhile or, in the current parlance, had impact.
The first time I raised PhD origins as a topic of research was in a tweet with The Thesis Whisperer, aka Dr Inger Mewburn. I can’t remember if I came across her blog because, like mine, it was hosted on WordPress or through Twitter. Either way, I noticed that her profile said she did “research on research” so I asked her if she had ever done anything on the origin of PhD topics. Her response was very positive. At this point, I was still thinking that the idea would be something to do post-PhD.
Some time later, lying in bed in the middle of the night, I had an idea for a graduate conference that, amongst other things, focused on the journey of a PhD from a tweet in the imagination to a full-blown thesis. I immediately tweeted the idea using the hashtag #phdchat, which I guess is like a discussion group for PhD students and academics on Twitter. I even called it ‘From Tweet to Thesis’ and started my own hashtag #fromtweettothesis. Again, the response was one of positivity and curiousity. Indeed, a couple of more experienced tweeters and bloggers, Salma Patel and Dr Sarah Quinnell have been very good sounding boards.
The conference idea is still on the drawing board, in the earliest stages, but after some time, I realised that the title ‘From Tweet to Thesis’ represented precisely what I envisaged with my interest in the origin of PhD topics. From tiny, 140-character tweets (of the imagination) mighty theses grow, only to become like tweets again in abstracts and conversations.
Now, by that point, I had been blogging for some time. It was a dialectically academic and non-academic blog, where I pretty much wrote about whatever came to mind – PhD stuff, current affairs with a bit of theory, religion and so on. I had subscribed to a few other blogs and I was following quite a few interesting people on Twitter. Through interacting with others, by commenting on blog posts or replying to tweets and even initiating conversations, I slowly started learning about the possibilities of social media. Then, I wanted to emulate others and get them to contribute to my blog, with some success.
Eventually, through this experience, I found a way that I could investigate how PhD students come up with their research topics. I could start a new blog called ‘From Tweet to Thesis‘. It meant that I didn’t have to wait until I finished my PhD. How did I get round the problem of actually collecting data, without spending time on doing interviews? Well, I just get people to contribute their own stories as blog posts.
It is easy and free to promote the blog, thereby attracting viewers and contributors (participants). Firstly, I use appropriate tags for each post. I tweet about the posts, using PhD and academic hashtags, such as #phdchat and #lovehe. I can also invite specific people to contribute directly. Both methods work and so far four people have contributed posts, with more who have indicated an interest in contributing (whatever that means). Of course, as with offline research, finding participants does look like being the biggest challenge.
Maybe using a blog for a personal research project doesn’t work for all topics or methods. I was specifically interested in personal narratives, so the individual nature of blogging is perfect for that. I am aware of quantitative research that has used an online tool like surveymonkey, promoted via Twitter.
Now, for me personally, the purpose of ‘From Tweet to Thesis’ was very much theoretical. But, the feedback and comments received from contributors and readers has indicated that the research may have some wider impact. (Obviously this a question for debate and not why I started the blog, but it certainly is an ego boost.) Firstly, it may help to engage the public in academic research, by showing that PhD students and academics are ordinary members of society and research is driven is what happens in society. Secondly, it could act as a source of inspiration for PhD students and people interested in doing PhDs. Thirdly, as a blog, it means that the ‘data’ is publicly available.