Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Writers' Lab: 5 Lessons from 3 years of blogging

On Tuesday, September 14th in 2010, I started PhD Talk. At that time I didn't have much of a defined goal for the blog. The original purpose of the blog, was the following:
"However, there are always better ways to do things, and most of the time you discover this while doing. "
I simply started a blog because I had had blogs (and websites) before, and I thought it was time to pick it up again. My previous blog never got more than 200 pageviews. I just wrote for my family and friends - and that meant my mom and two of my friends would read the blog.

I didn't start with a plan for PhD Talk. I didn't have a posting schedule, a mission statement, a decent following on Twitter - I just started.

For the first months, I was simply writing every now and then, without getting much traffic or comments. But gradually things started changing. Posts got retweeted. Marketing and Communications of TU Delft caught sight of my work, and gave me a pat on the back. And after a while, I started to identify as a blogger. I landed guest posts for a number of big blogs, live-blogged twice for TEDxDelft and became a permanent author at Grave Concerns E-zine, Lifehack and Gradhacker (which ended when I finished graduate school). I received some freebies here, a store voucher there and some Amazon credit elsewhere. And I'm extremely grateful for all the support of my readers. Thank you!

1. There's value to academic blogging

After some time of writing at PhD Talk, I boldly stated that blogging is for every single academic, which triggered the discussion of the added value of blogging to academia. That doesn't translate into: "every academic should start a blog". I think there lies a lot of value in guest-posting, or in universities paging their staff every now and then to write something, showing their work and/or view on a hot topic.

By sharing my presentations online, and making my research topic visibly linked to my name, I've received e-mail messages from colleagues worldwide to discuss my experiments, and share some of my papers. Without an online presence, I would have never had the opportunity to make these contacts. Conferences, yes, also - but conferences are a different dimension, with a different audience. The internet adds an additional layer to this experience of knowledge exchange.

2. Writing about new topics triggers learning

Researching topics for TEDxDelft and Lifehack has been an incredibly rewarding experience. I've learned to make a quick search for a topic that is completely new to me (say: sulfur concrete), analyze the available information, spot the caveats, and then try to explain it in plain English to a broader public. By developing this skill, I've expanded my writing skills beyond what I could have possibly learned in academia, yet my academic writing has significantly benefited from this.

3. Practice produces speed

I used to need an hour to write a CD review, it now takes me 20 minutes - because I have fine-tuned my approach. As for blogging, it depends on the post - but certainly my ability to form sentences has seen an increase in speed. And likewise, writing sentences for research papers now goes much faster.

4. Building connections helps growing a blog

It's the guest-blogging, the Twitter connections and the community of fellow academic bloggers that have helped me grow PhD Talk. If I'd have stayed in my own corner, fiercely typing away the hours, and not interacting with anyone, I don't think PhD Talk would have received the exposure it has today.

5. Building a community is difficult

But exposure is one thing - building a community with an engaged audience is another thing. I haven't discovered yet how to engage my audience as much as I would have liked. Posts don't get much comments. Things seem to be static, rather than dynamic. All discussion happens on Twitter, not on the platform of PhD Talk itself.

For sure, I'd love to keep on building this blog, and my own domain would be the first step. But I have to confess I prefer writing over tinkering with the layout and workings of the website itself. That change can still come, over time. Most likely, that e-book will come sooner, though.

By all means, stay tuned for more posts here at PhD Talk. If all goes well, I'll keep it up for yet another 3 years (and onwards).

What have you learned from blogging? What would you like to see featured at PhD Talk?


  1. I've had similar positive experiences with academic blogging, and documented some of them in a talk at the Ecsite conference in Göteborg ('Better science through listening to lay people') and more recently at the Vakconferentie Wetenschapscommunicatie in NL (you may have seen some of the tweets).

  2. Thanks - I saw the tweets of the Vakconferentie Wetenschapscommunicatie, and your slides earlier: very interesting indeed. Thanks for sharing your slides from the Ecsite conference as well - great to see how comments and ideas ripple into research findings