Category Archives: writing

Auditing my ‘academic literacies’

This post has been prompted by Cally Guerin’s recent observations on doctoral writing and different academic ‘writing literacies’ on the Doctoral Writing SIG blog.

For Cally, academic writing literacy spans a whole range of genres from application forms and funding proposals, to composing survey and interview questions, writing conference presentations, journal articles and book chapters. She also counts blogging and social media, such as Twitter and LinkedIn updates. Not to mention of course the all-important THESIS! In her post Cally states that:

Through these different writing experiences, doctoral writers learn how to express their ideas clearly, how to structure material so that all sorts of readers can engage with it, and consider the appropriate layout of the document to indicate how it fits together. They learn about the nuances of genre and audience—what’s appropriate, expected, and useful in a range of different writing situations.

With this year’s APR (Annual Progress Review) just a week ago and still being in a somewhat reflective mood, reading Cally’s post prompted me to log a few thoughts on my own progress with these different academic literacies.

Conference papers – Yes I’ve now done a few of those and I’m working on a new one for our annual ICCHS Postgraduate Research Conference at the moment. At this stage of my research these are very much ‘work in progress’ papers. Coming from a visual arts practice background my instinct has always been to start with the visual presentation first and then work up my text (or script) to go with these. But in an effort towards a more focused academic delivery, I’ve now switched to working the other way round. At the conferences I’ve attended I’ve encountered a whole range of approaches to academic presentation but found the papers that are formally read without any visuals much the hardest to digest. I’m still very much exploring the academic culture here and need to continue experimenting to find a presentation mode that best suits me and my current ‘work in progress’ material.

Funding applications – This is an area of ‘academic literacy’ that I’ve now worked quite a lot on, and with some success! Not so much in terms of my own research (although I did manage to get AHRC funding for my PhD – thank you AHRC!) but rather in support of other academic’s bids. Through contacts in Fine Art here at Newcastle University I seem to be developing a bit of a specialism in creative practice-based research proposals. This is great for me, as it gives me an opportunity to work directly with artists again, something I used to do all the time in my previous professional work with Grit & Pearl and Commissions North/Arts Council England. These AHRC funding applications are a very specific and condensed form of research writing where you are following an externally imposed structure. Like other academic writing it’s both sometimes a solitary endeavour and also extremely collaborative, with much redrafting and discussion and responding to feedback along the way.

Survey and interview questions – Well surveys are not really my thing but I’ve certainly written interview questions for use in my own research project. From recent interviews I’ve conducted, the questions I’ve drafted for these seem to be effective in drawing out a good quality of responses. Although in the interviews themselves there are always additional questions raised that we don’t have time to explore. Working with one of my supervisors on a recent external research project I’ve also had an opportunity to explore and write for more unusual elicitation methods. In this case developing introductory texts and prompts for a online diary based qualitative investigation tool that invited user responses to an artist designed app project called ‘Second Moon’.

Social media – Hmmm…. As you may have noticed this blog has been pretty quiet over the last few months, as my writing attention has moved towards literature reviews and thesis chapter drafting. But I’ve been building up my Twitter activity (you can now follow my latest tweets on this blog) – a form of ‘academic literacy’ that’s easy to fit into tiny writing/thinking pockets in the day, especially when I’m out and about. (Although in honesty retweeting is reading rather than ‘writing’.) I’ve found that being in a more relaxed space away from my desk/laptop seems to put me in a better Twitter writing mode. But for longer form blogging (like this current post) I feel I need a more formal space/time that’s a bit closer to my chapter-drafting environment.

The THESIS – Of course, for me (and my PhD supervisors!) this is the biggest and most important academic writing literacy I need to master. In my revised project plan I’ve given myself a writing target of 10,000 words a month – the majority of this will go into the thesis, but not all of it will count to those magic (and still very far off) 80-100,000 words. For me this thesis writing time (as a part-time student I’m scheduling three x three hour slots for this per week) isn’t just about chapters, it’s all the draft texts, research notes, mind maps and outlines that go into their making. These are the inside working processes of the PhD writing project that you never really get to see in other people’s thesis writing, although these processes are certainly written about. I’ve found the standard academic writing handbooks by Dunleavy (2003) and Murray (2006) and blogs such as the excellent Patter and the Doctoral Writing SIG extremely helpful on all this, but I’d still really like to see inside the engine of someone’s thesis, to get a feel for the progress of the various drafts that’s gone into its making. Although I certainly value my supervisors’ feedback on my own writing it’s hard to judge one’s progress (and to feel positive about it) when you are always comparing your own writing with fully completed theses.

But, going back to Cally’s blog post and the positive learning that she suggests can be gained from these various writing experiences. The question perhaps for me at the moment is, are all these writing literacies just competing demands on valuable academic writing time, where one writing genre and project battles with another that has a more pressing deadline? Or can these different academic literacies be developed and managed in a complementary and mutually supportive manner?


Dunleavy, P., 2003. Authoring a PhD, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Murray, R., 2006. How to Write a Thesis 2nd ed., Maidenhead: Open University Press.


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‘Productive-procrastination’ or ‘What’s the point of writing a PhD blog?’

As my start to the New Year, and as a reviver post for this blog, I thought I’d take a look at what some other PhD people have been doing with their blogging. I’m hoping this will help me to rethink how I can integrate my own blog with my wider PhD workload. As I’m now scarily nearly half way through my own (funded) PhD time, 2014 is going to be the year for me to really get down to the business of organised data collection and some serious putting words on paper (or screen) work. If I’m going to continue building this blog it really needs to be part and parcel of my PhD strategy rather than something that continuously (as over the last few months) ends up sitting sadly at the bottom of my ‘to-do’ list.

So what are other PhD-ers using their blogs for?

I’ve spent a couple of hours this week browsing around the world of academic blogging to see how other PhD students are using blogs. I’m focusing here on independent blogs rather than those more formal collective ones sometimes put together by research faculties. Strangely the five that I’ve actually been drawn to read here have all been written by women. (Is PhD blogging a particularly female activity perhaps?) Anyway, here are the five that I looked at:

‘Blogging the PhD’

Although I was trying to find specifically arts and humanities related blogs, this one is actually written by a science PhD-er (Vicky Young), a researcher in reproductive biology at Edinburgh University. This is a million miles from my own research area, but actually I found this blog really quite engaging. Although including some more formal and technical sections (as separate pages), Vicky mainly uses her blog to add updates on her general PhD progress. Often she writes about this a very frank way – she’s not afraid to talk about her ‘fears’ and ‘moods’ and things going wrong with her lab work. Like many other academic bloggers she also uses the blog to promote her publication successes and to share her latest conference presentations.  She also uses it to talk about her creative public engagement work around science, including her comedy debut with the Bright Club (how brave is that!).

‘The Everyday Trials and Tribulations of a PhD Student…The ramblings of a madwoman who managed somehow to stumble onto a rather good PhD course…’

This one is by a researcher called Jayney who celebrated the completion of her PhD last year. I haven’t read enough of her blog to find out exactly what this research was about yet, but it was ESRC funded. Jayney used her blog to talk about her own PhD experience and the issues and problems of balancing this with family and social life (including having two children) since staring her PhD in 2008. She’s a really prolific blogger – 381 posts in 2012! Her posts are rather in a stream of consciousness model but full of generous experience sharing and constructive advice for other PhD students. She writes in detail about all the stages and aspects of her research, including the practicalities and experience of fieldwork abroad, her personal writing, reading and note taking methods, and the emotional journey of the PhD. This blog is one I may go back to, particularly for the advice Jayney offers on ways to work through writing problems and general motivation.

‘The bumpy joyride of being a PhD student’

This one’s written by Eljee Javier, a student on a Graduate Teaching / Research Assistant Scholarship at The University of Manchester. Her research explores the relationships between ‘language, race and identity’ in English language teaching. For me one of the most interesting features of Eljee’s blog is her series on her self-imposed ‘30 day challenges’. These include: ‘reading a different chapter or article every day for 30 days, where she gives a brief summary of what she’s read each day plus a reflection on what she’s thought / felt / achieved over each week; and ‘spend 15 minutes a day transcribing’ where in order to force herself to do this job she tracks her daily word and minute count, and days missed out, over the period of a month. Eljee seems really into the ‘challenge’ model, being an enthusiastic advocate for the Pomodoro technique and #ACRIMO, both of which I have also experimented with as motivational/productivity challenges.

‘Leisurely Seeking Doctorate

This blog is by an American mature student called Elizabeth who is currently doing a PhD in design research (?) at Northumbria University, here in Newcastle. Like me she is also a mature student – 60 when she started her PhD in 2012 – coming to academia from a former career as an information technology professional. She describes the focus of her current PhD research as: ‘the design of technology to support spiritual and numinous experiences, experiences of awe and wonder.’ (!) but the blog itself is more about her experiences of doing a PhD in the UK and of living/studying in Newcastle. Like Jayney she is a prolific blogger, writing multiple posts each month from starting her investigations into PhD study in 2011. There is a wide range of material here, from observations on academic language, to updates on supervisory meetings, comments about the North East weather, and practical advice for other Americans coming to live/study in the UK.

‘Digital nerdosaurus – adventures in and about museums, technology and awesome user experiences’

I came to this one last but actually this blog is the one that has most interest for me in terms of my own research interests. It’s written by Clairey Ross who is a Research assistant and PhD student at UCL’s Centre for Digital Humanities, investigating ‘visitor experience in digital cultural contexts.’ Her work has a special focus on public engagement with museum collections, including as her PhD case studies, UCL’s ‘QRater’ platform and the Imperial War Museum’s ‘Social Interpretation Project’. Clairey describes her blog as: ‘ponderings about my digital nerdosaurus adventures in and about museums, social media, digital humanities, tea and cake.’ It includes a regular and interesting stream of reports from museum visits, and conferences and workshops that Clairey’s attended / presented at. There is a great sense here of a being part of a creative community around this area of practice. For me, these posts (which go back to 2010) provide a really useful overview of recent museum digital engagement projects and research, that I may well return to as a reference.

Okay, so based on the blogs I’ve looked at, what have I learned from this brief review?

1) PhD bloggers are generally very ‘self-reflective’ and open about their PhD experiences, with a particular focus on the vagaries of the ‘PhD journey’.

2) Everyone writes in a very different style, sometimes changing this between post formats – some blogs/posts are obviously pretty carefully crafted while others are looser, much more casually written, some posts are self-consciously academic and others are more confessional, practical or deliberately humorous.

3) Some bloggers are full of enthusiasm for their PhD research topic, while others dwell more on the problems of work/study/life balance.

4) Some PhD-ers use their blogs as motivational tools or to log progress and successes, while others use them more as a repository for documenting research or engagement activity.

5) Some PhD-ers write to their blogs continuously and regularly, others much more sporadically.

Not earth shattering conclusions at all, you might say, but having done this bit of research/writing (and a new blog post achieved!) I now feel at least a bit more a member of some kind of wider blogging world.

Note: The title for this post comes from one of the ‘Blogging the PhD’ posts, entitled ‘Procrastination!’, where Vicky Young describes blogging as a form of ‘productive-procrastination or pseudo-progress’: a warning for all PhD bloggers and something I need to be mindful about myself over the coming year.

Questions: Does writing a blog about your PhD experience help or hinder the thesis writing process? Does it help academic development in other ways perhaps? What do you think? Is there anyone out there who has done some real work researching the ‘PhD blog’ as a genre of academic blogging and who may offer some answers?


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