A twit to who?

Paul Whybrow, PhD researcher at IHURER and full-time researcher at the University of Newcastle, shares his thoughts on the rise of social media and the importance of collaborative research.  

Paul WhybrowThis represents my first ever blog post (welcome). And not a moment too soon, it would seem, as the ‘social web’ is now considered to be an important part of an academic career. At least, that is what I discovered at a recent job interview, when I was asked whether or not I had a Twitter account. At first I didn’t take the question seriously and actually laughed a little! To be honest I still thought of Twitter along the lines of Facebook; somewhere people wrote about what they had for breakfast or their plans for the weekend. Of course, I was woefully behind the times. Seeing that the interview panel were not laughing and still awaiting my reply, I dropped the smirk and sombrely replied ‘yes’. (I did in fact have an account – what I didn’t tell them was that this was only because a friend had registered me as a joke, and that I’d not once used my “EyebrowWhybrow” profile). Sensing that ‘yes’ might not be enough, I quickly added that Twitter was now an invaluable portal for developing a research profile. Phew.

Perhaps part of the reason I’ve resisted networking sites until now, is that I dislike the word ‘networking’. It sounds all business deals and handshakes: it sounds far too schmoozy. It grates on me when people say they’re going to a conference to ‘network’. I think the word overlooks the fact that many researchers share findings not just to progress their careers, but because they are interested, curious and – believe it or not – passionate about their subject. Of course it is easier to be passionate about your research when you can see how it is relevant and affects people. I completely agree with what Glen Bramley said in an earlier blog: IHURER benefits from having researchers who really care about informing public policy. This is partly due to being involved in some genuinely important research projects. A great example is the Poverty and Social Exclusion project (PSE), which is the largest ever study of UK poverty. This project not only measures the true extent of poverty in the UK, but looks at the experience and needs of those most affected.

I feel quite strongly that good social research should be applied and policy-relevant and, in this sense, I have been very fortunate to have undertaken my doctoral research within IHURER.  The institute benefits not only from working across academic boundaries, but also from partnerships with non-academic organisations. My time as a student at Heriot-Watt University was by no means limited to writing my thesis! Whilst there I held an internship at the Scottish Government and worked as an honorary researcher with the NHS. I also received methods training from the best institutes in the country, and presented my research to international audiences. I realise now how such experiences are invaluable, and I feel quite indebted to IHURER; as well as to my supervisors, Glen Bramley and Caroline Brown. My PhD was funded by an ESRC ‘CASE’ studentship, this is a fantastic asset for anyone looking to start an academic career and I would sincerely recommend applying.

A week after the job interview, I was very excited to receive a call from Newcastle University offering me a Research Associate position. I doubt my success had much to do with my skills of blogging and twittery. Still, I have decided to renew my efforts to engage with social networking. Perhaps ‘networking’ isn’t such an evil word after all. In many ways the rising significance of social media among academics is a natural adaption to the increased pace of science, industry and politics. It’s just a tool for managing a diverse range of contacts; not just academic peers, but the public sector, practitioners and really anyone that might be affected by your research. Higher education in the UK is on the brink of some pretty fundamental changes – personally I think that maintaining innovative and useful partnerships is only going to become more important.

So, this is my first ever blog (thanks for sticking it out). And what a wonderfully self-indulgent exercise blogging is: a dedicated space just for writing your thoughts! Such an egotistic out-pouring would never be tolerated during face-to-face conversations. Yes, I’m really starting to see the appeal. However, there are some expectations from a blogger. My instinct tells me that a blog should be candid, interesting and witty. Perhaps I’ll get to these next time around. For now I can at least observe another unwritten rule of blogging: that there be some sort of thoughtful incite; some kind of ‘take-home message’. My fellow PhD students, Kathryn Gilchrist and Judith Montford, shared their thoughts on choosing to do PhD, Colin Jones frightened us with the reality of UK mortgages after the financial crisis, and Glen Bramley expressed his optimism in the face of bad news. So I’ve been thinking about what my take-home message might be. And I think that it goes something like this: if you are a student or early career researcher, look for opportunities to collaborate outside of academic departments and always think about how your research is going to be relevant. Not just for like-minded academics but also for urban planners, policy-makers, or health practitioners. Maybe even real people. I think you could do a lot worse than checking out the opportunities available at IHURER.

Oh, and if someone asks you whether you have a twitter account: say ‘yes’.


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