Social media for PhD researchers

Screen Shot 2015-07-20 at 11.28.55Last week I gave a presentation to a group of PhD students about how and why I use social media and what benefit it has to me as a phd researcher. I’m certainly no expert but I was able to talk through some of the reasons I use various mainstream social media and what benefit I think I get in relation to my research. I have uploaded the slides to slideshare so anyone can view them – Social media for PhD researchers – but I will go through some of the key points below as the slides on their own don’t really tell the whole story. I wasn’t the most enthusiastic student of social media when I first started out, it was a necessity of my job at the time, and I reluctantly engaged! But I soon became a convert when I realised the potential and the opportunities social media provides for engaging with a much wider audience than is possible face to face in one locality. In the last couple of years I have set up my own blog, developed my twitter account and signed up to ResearchGate, all of which I find really useful for keeping up to date with what is going on, engaging with others and for sharing information.

But where do you start? There is a world of social media out there that is ever changing and highly confusing if entering it for the first time. So first of all you need to think about why you want to use it and what social media can do for you. I engage with aspects of social media for four main reasons, all potentially important for new academics:

  • visibility – to get noticed, build reputation, and to network;
  • share information – it can be a great broadcasting platform, for research and ideas;
  • engagement – to join in and start conversations, participate in debate with others;
  • information gathering – it’s a personal newsfeed, a great way of focusing news information on what I need to know.

On Twitter you can connect with people with similar interests and with organisations and institutions who produce information relevant to your research. For me that’s think tanks, housing groups and organisations, research institutions, academics from across the globe, government departments and politicians. It’s a great way of collecting information and engaging with others who talk about the same stuff I do! It’s also a great way to raise your own profile in particular areas of interest and expertise, and to get yourself noticed.

Alongside Twitter I set up my own blog site, using WordPress. It was easier than I ever imagined it could be and whilst my site isn’t perfect I have gradually improved it as I have become more confident making changes and adding ‘widgets’. My blog is a space to talk about issues that I’m interested in, to  raise issues and ideas, to share my own reflections on reports and events and it’s a place to talk about my research. It is a great way of engaging with others and getting feedback on ideas or issues and it’s pretty effective sometimes at raising profile and making me (my thoughts, research and ideas) more visible. As a result of writing blogs and promoting them through Twitter I have had the opportunity to appear on TV and radio shows/debates, to write articles for local news sites/magazines and written comment pieces for the professional press.

It does of course take time and commitment. There seems to be little point in signing up to different elements of social media if you’re not going to use them, and if you’re not going to commit to spending some time engaging. This is a common concern amongst those who consider using social media and then don’t, because it will take up too much time! Well yes it can, but you have to think about what you are getting back from that time. For me it is definitely worth it, to have engaged with other PhD students, academics, think tanks and politicians, received feedback and comments, to share thoughts with others I might not meet, is all worth the time spent doing it. It also a very effective way for me to collect information and keep up to date. But I can see why people might be concerned. The simple answer is it takes up as much time as you let it, you’re in control of how much or how little time you spend engaging with social media, no one else!!

There are some things I wish I had thought about a little more before I started out using social media, that might have helped to focus me and to identify what would work best. For instance, thinking more about why I wanted to use social media and the audience I was trying to engage with, would have helped me to better identify the best tools. Instead my approach was a bit ad hoc, I carried on using the same ones I had used at work, only to find they might not be the best for what I am now doing. I joined new platforms, like ResearchGate, to engage with an academic audience and I changed the content I used and the platforms I used it on. I am still learning through trial and error what content works best on what platforms. I have spent some time thinking about what I want my public profile to look like and I change it occasionally, keeping some consistency across different platforms. I’ve also thought a bit about what success looks like and how I might ‘evaluate’ if social media is working for me.

I’d encourage PhD students to give it a go, but think about what, why and how first, then just get started and see how it works for you!

The art of writing

The blog post that follows is a slight departure from my usual commentary on housing, policy and politics issues. It’s related to my phd work and comes from a blog I first wrote for the Bristol Doctoral College. I hope you enjoy it!

I’ve always enjoyed writing, even if I don’t always do it well. I find it a creative process, that brings to life all those thoughts and ideas, commentary and debate that whirl around in my head, but frequently have no real outlet. Writing has been a part of every job I’ve had, in different ways and for very different audiences. I’ve had to adapt and develop my own style to respond to the demands of others, and to work to other people’s deadlines that often serve to stifle my own creative process. But, nonetheless, I enjoy writing. I write for fun here on this blog and write contributions to local news websites and magazines, such as Bristol 24-7 and The Bristol Cable, and for the professional press like the Planner Magazine. All of these provide an opportunity to write about things of interest to me, sometimes related to my research but often not, where I can freely express my opinion. That’s part of the fun of writing.

Over the last couple of years I have had to get used to a different kind of writing, one that is more controlled and evidenced, that fits with particular conventions. Last year, when doing an MSc, back in the academic world for the first time in over 20 years, I had to complete formal assignments and a dissertation. This involved a form of writing that was entirely different to anything I have done in a long time. Then this year, embarking on my PhD, I have once more had to develop my style further into academia, a style change I find both challenging and rewarding. Challenging because my inclination is to keep things simple, use simple language and keep away from jargon. Rewarding because when it works and I can combine simplicity with complexity there is a real feeling of achievement.

My approach to writing is to see it as a creative output, something that occurs naturally for me in response to learning. After all, what’s the point of all that learning if you can’t share it with other people? A blank page, for me, is an opportunity to articulate and share, rather than something to be scared of. Writing is like creating a painting, there are different layers that are needed to build the picture, which on their own make little sense, but together they can evolve into something worthwhile, a masterpiece that others will enjoy. I view writing my PhD in a similar way. There are layers that I will write at different times, continuously throughout the process, that need to come together into a coherent story at the end. There’s a complexity to this writing process, in terms of debate and argument, analysis and detail. But there’s also a simplicity about it, where carefully crafted pure and simple arguments can be brought together into quite a simple story. A story that will grab the readers attention, and will slowly but surely take them through the complexity in a way that makes sense. In a way that brings them to your conclusions with a sense of understanding and agreement.

There’s lots of advice to students about how to write, much of which suggests you set yourself a daily writing target, which you then stick to no matter what. I can see why the discipline of this is important and why it must work for many people, but I’ve tried this approach and for me the writing that comes from it is stifled, boring and constrained. If I’m not in the mood to write, then forcing myself to write just doesn’t work. I’ve written assignments like that and when I go back to read them I can tell that it was forced rather than creative thoughts that made up the report or essay. The work is dull and it’s lacking in energy, even if the points made are the right ones, the style is very different. I prefer an approach that feels more creative, one that has routine, but is based on my preferences, rather than someone else’s (there’s a good discussion here on creating routine when writing, drawing on the work of Ronald Kellog).

When I first begin the process of writing something new I try to avoid the clutter and distraction of notes generated from my reading. I start with a blank page. I then try to form my thoughts on what I have read into a short discussion of key arguments, issues and themes. I do this without the clutter of referencing and acknowledging who said what and how. I do it from memory, from thoughts that occur to me from reading my notes and I do it when I am feeling creative and able to write fluidly. For me this works, most of the time! Of course, sometimes the creativity is just not there, it’s beyond my grasp, I can’t think where to start or how to structure my thoughts. I’ve come to recognise those times and instead I do something else with my time, like more reading, organising files, and literature searching. All the time continually mulling over the story I want to tell and trying to work out how I can construct it. I may also use this thinking and reflecting time to write something else, something less constrained, where I can write freely without the confines of academic convention – something like a blog maybe! Eventually, often after much reflection, I am ready to write and can go back to the writing that needs to be done.

The challenge of writing is an integral part of any PhD. The only advice I have on writing is to do what works for you, try different approaches and look back on what’s worked when you’ve written things before. But above all, enjoy it, it’s a precious opportunity to express yourself, articulate your thoughts and tell the story of your PhD for others to enjoy.

Does politics matter?

ed3The question, does politics matter, is perhaps particularly pertinent at the moment. After attending various hustings meetings, watching the leaders debates and question time on the TV and listening to some local radio debates on the general election, there’s no better time to ask whether or not all this ‘politics’ really matters or makes a difference? It’s a question that academics have been trying to answer for decades, with a wealth of literature in the political sciences and policy studies arenas addressing questions about why some issues receive attention, whilst others fade into obscurity? Who influences the agenda and how? Who controls what issues are dealt with? This debate becomes all the more focused during election periods, where issue competition is perhaps at its greatest.

I’ve spent the last few weeks delving into the agenda setting literature, looking at agendas and issues during elections, in party manifestos and policy programmes, to see what others have written about these issues. It’s clearly a good time to be doing this, as the process is playing out before our very eyes in the run up to the general election. So, what does influence what parties and politicians talk about in the run up to the election? What influences the content of their manifestos? To a point, you’d expect the main political parties to favour their own ideological agenda and hold true to their traditional policies and priorities. But you’d also expect them to respond to a range of other influences. According to the academic literature, party manifestos and policy programmes at election time are a function of at least four main influences:

  • party ideology and tradition
  • the immediate concerns of the public/voters and the media
  • the long term priorities of government, and
  • the current government programme

Because there are so many issues competing for attention at the same time, politicians and parties need to decide what to take notice of and what to disregard. They are influenced by different things at different times, and to a greater or lesser extent. The concerns of the public are, to an extent, reflected in the media, and attention is drawn to specific issues. But interestingly, there is also evidence to suggest that the current government programme and the last electoral platform of the successful party have a degree of influence over which issues receive attention in the new election period. As do the long term priorities of government, providing an element of stability around the core issues that feature each election period.

Competition for issues ownership may also occur, where different parties compete to illustrate they have the best solutions to the key issues that matter to the public. Take the example of housing policy at the moment. The housing crisis has clearly made it onto the political agenda and all the main political parties are talking about it and providing what they deem to be the most ‘appropriate’ solutions. You could perhaps argue that some of these ‘solutions’ are not workable, will make little difference and don’t address the root cause of the problem. Indeed, they could be seen as policies aimed at appealing to certain groups of voters, or symbolic policies maybe, that make it look like a party is taking the issue seriously. Or maybe they are just marginal changes that play around the edges of the issue, because actually the problem is just too difficult to cope with (or maybe the real solutions would just be too unpopular). Either way, politicians are taking notice of the issue, even if we are less than convinced by the policies proposed.

Other issues might get onto the political agenda because parties seek to emphasise the issues where their opponents are weak and they are stronger. This selective approach will draw on public concerns but will in addition focus on specific issues that reflect party strengths. This in turn often sees a shift in policy focus from the other parties who seek to respond to the platforms of their rivals. A good example from this election campaign can be seen in relation to the debate about austerity and the need to balance the budget – with Labour and the Conservatives both attempting to convince voters that their plan is best, with perhaps too little to choose between the two!

It’s also well known that public attention (and political attention for that matter) rarely stays focused on one issue for long. Issues, whether they are solved or not, tend to drop off from the public agenda when something more fashionable or interesting comes along. Politicians and parties need to respond to this ever changing cycle and be ready to react and refocus where needed. It’s also true that election campaigns typically focus on a small set of issues. This time, most of the debates I have watched and listened too, have been focused on immigration, welfare cuts and austerity measures, with housing, the NHS and taxation in there somewhere as well. There has been little debate about business or crime, as there was five years ago. The agenda has shifted, slightly.

Within this debate, there is also a discussion about who controls and influences the agenda. Is it the media? Is it the voters? Is it policy elites and powerful individuals/groups? What role do think tanks and experts play? And perhaps more importantly, what notice do the politicians take anyway? Once elected, do they actually deliver on all those promises and policy announcements they made in order to get elected? You won’t be surprised to hear that it’s never quite that simple. All sorts of other things influence what can and can’t be done. The process becomes one of balance between delivery on the party mandate and responding to short-term changes in public concerns, as well as dealing with the emergence of new problems. Alongside that, of course, is the need to be more realistic about what is possible, within time and budget constraints. So the question remains, does politics matter? I’ll leave you to decide!

Policy theory – too “hard to handle”?

2015-04-07 11.03.32I read an article recently, by Kenneth Meier, that went by the title “Policy theory, policy theory everywhere: ravings of a deranged policy scholar” and that’s exactly how I’m feeling at the moment. After spending the last few weeks trying to get to grips with the beginnings of a literature review I feel totally swamped by the number, range and complexity of some of these theories. My initial trawl through the literature came up with about 20 theories of the policy process, and further exploration surfaced a good few more. Which left me feeling not just confused and overwhelmed but also having to ask the question – why do we need so many? Are they all really that different and what do they add to our understanding of how policy is made? Which of course meant I had to understand them or at least have a good go at reading up on the main ones and getting to grips with what they have to offer my research.

At about the same time I began to recall all the research methods training I’d done and the assignment I’d written on systematic reviews. This served as a useful reminder about the need to be a little more systematic about my approach to collecting literature for the review than I normally tend to be. So, my focus drifted for a while from reading theories to thinking about how to collect more literature to confuse me. I now have a comprehensive set of key search terms. I’ve established where I’ll search for information, which databases, journals and citation indices to use. I’ve pretty much decided on my exclusion and inclusion criteria and in an attempt to be extremely organised I’ve even set up a comprehensive system for logging all the information I collect throughout the months of searching and reading. And believe me when I say that this is far more organised than I’ve ever been in the past when it comes to seeking out literature. Now all I have to do is read some of it and understand it! I wrote a blog for the Bristol Doctoral College recently on “getting to grips with your subject” which explores some of these issues.

I’ve now begun the process of getting to grips with my subject and this in turn led me to the question about why we need all this theory? How much does it really add to our understanding of a process and how can it be used to inform those involved in actually taking decisions on policy? At this point I’m merely offering questions not answers!! What I’ve tried to do as part of my review is extract the main theories (selected on the basis of longstanding theories, that seem still to be often quoted; or new up and coming theories that are making something of a mark) and see what they have to offer the types of questions I am interested in. So, I’ve focused on the following theories:

  • Multiple Streams Framework
  • Punctuated Equilibrium
  • Advocacy Coalition Framework
  • Social Construction & Design Framework
  • Diffusion of Innovations Model
  • Narrative Policy Framework
  • Policy Feedback Theory
  • Institutional Analysis & Development Theory
  • Policy Regimes Theory
  • Ecology of Games Framework
  • Robustness Framework
  • Institutional Collective Action Framework

For my research I’m interested in the agenda setting aspect of the policy process. I’m interested in understanding the tactics used by different actors to move issues up (and down) the political agenda and why some issues never quite get there. I’m interested in how actors at the centre of the action perceive and respond to influence and lobbying and how politicians decide on policy priorities. My study will focus on housing policy before, during and after the Bristol mayoral election in 2016. I’m hoping it will be of interest to scholars of the policy process, to those with an interest in political change and will also help practitioners to understand how power and influence works at a local level (bold hopes for an individual research project!).

For all those policy academics out there – have I missed anything crucial? For me the obvious ones to help with my research questions are the Multiple Streams Framework, Narrative Policy Framework, Advocacy Coalition Framework, Social Construction Framework and Policy Regimes Theory – see table below (click to enlarge). The health warning attached to this is that it’s a very initial attempt to make sense of some of these theories and not the finished product by any means, I’ve a long way to go!  theories3 What it provides me with is a starting point. A core set of theories to delve into more deeply and to assess for relevance to my research interest, to spot the gaps, the areas less well developed and/or just to get a better understanding of the questions I need to be asking. Add to that a whole range of other literature that needs exploring, on levels of governance, power and influence, new models of local governance etc. and you’ll begin to see the challenge, complexity and confusion I’m currently experiencing. How will I ever get to grips with all this, in the timescale I need to, and to the level I need to? That’s one of the challenges of doing a phd.