Nasima Riazat – A doctoral networking forum:
the origins of #phdchat.
When commencing my part time (distance learning) PhD, it very soon became apparent that this could potentially be a very inspiring and satisfying, albeit, long and lonely journey. A weekend residential at the University’s conferencing centre was to the main source of scheduled contact with other doctoral researchers and supervisors along with a requirement that academic seminars would be accessed via the University online forum. It was enthusiastically agreed by all present at the residential that the informal PhD related discussions over dinner, alongside the formal seminars, proved to be extremely valuable to us all as new researchers. At the end of the residential, we left in the knowledge that the next time we would seeour doctoral colleagues for similar discussions would be the following academic year.
Most colleagues on my course also simultaneously hold down demanding full time jobs working mainly within the higher education sector, therefore, most are just simply too busy to network regularly with other PhD researchers outside of their own universities and departments. To this end, my supervisor, Dr Jan Moreland, suggested using Twitter as a social media tool for professional networking to allow me to build up my research contacts. I also viewed Twitter as a potentially advantageous forum for sharing my conceptual framework as my research developed and to test out sections of my writing with a critical, yet forgiving, research audience.
In my very early days of using Twitter it was surprisingly challenging to locate PhD researchers, who mainly tweeted professionally about aspects of their research. I regularly exchanged tweets with two researchers and my supervisor about using grounded theory as a potential methodology for my research. The four of us started to share academic resources and ideas between ourselves, comparing and contrasting the merits of the Straussian vs. the Glaserian school of thought, using the #GT hashtag (as #phdchat was initially known). We decided to continue tweeting, using the #GT hashtag to collate the tweets, and moved on to discuss the possibility of introducing a live ‘chat’ session one evening where all four of us could be online simultaneously to discuss the topic more thoroughly in live time.
As a result of this, I was encouraged by my supervisor to set up a thread named #phdchat and found myself ‘nominated’ to take the lead. We decided to hold regular chats on a Wednesday evening from 7.30pm-8.30pm (BST – British Standard Time) with four people officially taking part in the first #phdchat. A poll soon followed and a thriving #phdchat community rapidly grew as colleagues in the academic world heard about it through their Twitter threads. So far, ideas have been shared such as attending conferences, writing for journals, discussions around aspects of the literature review and effective strategies for reading and writing at doctoral level. Colleagues have also suggested the merits and drawbacks of using tools such as Mendelay, Scrivener and PapersII for research purposes. Occasionally, colleagues provide moral and emotional support to others and have a genuine desire to be involved in a growing, thriving doctoral community. There is also the occasional humorous tweet to keep the momentum going! The main purpose of #phdchat is to allow people to open up to new ideas and continue gaining new insights into the world of academia on a daily basis. The thread also provides free access to information that, perhaps, some of us may not have had access to otherwise or even be aware of without the #phdchat forum.
As a further endorsement of the success and quality of the #phdchat thread, Dr Patrick Dunleavy has indicated an interest in using colleagues in the #phdchat group as a possible forum to evaluate the latest forthcoming edition of his book ‘Authoring a Phd’
Looking back, little did I know at the time just how phenomenally successful this group was going to become within a few short months and the general strength of feeling as to how much colleagues really desired to be part of a professional doctoral community sharing ideas across a truly global community. Regular contributors include people at Masters level who are considering doing a PhD, postgraduate students, doctoral researchers, supervisors, followers who have an interest in higher education (Guardian Higher Education), librarians at the British Library asking for feedback as to how they can best support PhD students, university lecturers, professors and academics who have long finished their PhD’s but want to share their experiences of the PhD journey. At the time of writing, we have regular contributors to the thread from the UK, America, Australia and central Europe. The #phdchat community runs 24 hours a day every day.
In addition to the thread, I moderate a live chat session each Wednesday to keep the discussion focused on the chosen topic. When we have a very popular topic, often, there are so many research colleagues wishing to take part in the live session that it can be challenging to keep up with all the tweets. The chat often continues long after the live chat session has finished as people stay online to catch up with colleagues, save links from the session and network with recent newcomers.
Colleagues have commented that they prefer the structure of the moderated chat as most of us can only really realistically commit to one quality scheduled live chat session a week due to studying and other family commitments. A poll is posted in advance of the live chat session by @NSRiazat on the #phdchat thread and colleagues are encouraged to put forward suggestions for future topics (please tweet to @NSRiazat to have them included in the poll). Occasionally, we have guest moderators for those who wish to lead a discussion and take the hot seat on Wednesday evening. Often, people regularly check the thread long after the Wednesday live chat session and continue posting their thoughts and replies to colleagues.
For those unable to take part in the live chat session, often due to time zone differences, Liz Thackray (@lizith) has set up and runs the #phdchat wiki where people can continue the discussions started on the #phdchat thread, post their research interests and also catch up with some of the highlights from archives of former live chats. Many thanks Liz – we all appreciate your efforts in maintaining and updating this wiki.
The #phdchat model is effective as it is known throughout the #phdchat community for being a thread with quality contributors which clearly fills a needs gap. I agree, this model for #phdchat is not suited to everyone and some people have drifted in and out of the thread whilst others have decided it is simply not for them. However, a large core group of colleagues have stayed and regularly keep in touch with each other. I strongly feel that the success of this thread lies predominantly in the quality of regular contributors it has attracted. There is a real sense of community and relationship between the people who post to each other regularly via the #phdchat thread. I have read comments from contributors who say that they only post on this chat/thread on Twitter and colleagues have written several blogs about their experiences of being a part of the #phdchat community. I have also recently been on a Guardian Higher Education Panel, along with other colleagues, to discuss the potential of using #phdchat as a social media tool for academics.
#Phdchat is intended to be a friendly professional community where research colleagues have the opportunity to post tweets, read or follow up links at their leisure and also take part in a live session should they choose to. We have a lot of people who are choosing to learn by simply being online on the #phdchat thread during the live session, although we would like to encourage them to post and join in J, whilst others wish to be a very active part of the group and visit the #phdchat thread daily to post their thoughts. The #phdchat thread is not intended to be anything more than a meeting place for likeminded colleagues with a hosted live session for those who wish to engage with the PhD community in live time.
I am very pleased and humbled by the global success of #phdchat and hope it continues to be a meaningful professional community for all who wish to be a part of it.
Doctoral Researcher – Centre for Research in Education and Educational Technology (CREET)
The Open University