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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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This is the first part of a collaborative writing effort initiated by @jennifermjones, @AndyCoverdale, @FlyGirlTwo and myself (@martin_eve) which aims to discuss, interrogate and critically reflect, from an immanent position, on various aspects of the postgraduate community falling under the Twitter hashtag, #PhDchat. Collaboration is open to anybody who feels like responding to, advancing upon or addressing any aspect of #PhDChat; simply write something in your own space and use material from other posts as you see fit. In this sense, it is also an experiment in collaborative methodology. Initial suggestions for themes, mostly from @jennifermjones, have ranged from introductions to #PhDchat, exploration of the social media/researcher context, methodological approaches/ethics, twitter research in general through to PhD student support. Please respect licensing terms of contributions in their use, and pay particular attention to share-alike clauses for derivative works.

For this initial piece, I intend to write a brief introduction to the #PhDchat stream, its participation base and a few general remarks. In its early stage, it reads a bit like a history crossed with a data dump. This is because, in part, it is. However, as the idea is to spark collaboration, this is a piece put out in draft, indeed in "open notebook", format, not a complete, final product. I would appreciate acknowledgement of this fact if citing.

Overview and History

In a small Twitter conversation on the 31st of October 2010, a group of #uked participants ascertained the need for a discussion channel on the meta-issues faced in the completion of a doctorate. Initially posed as a question by @NSRiazat (Nasima Riazat), it was from this discussion that the twitter hashtag, #PhDchat was born.

Would anyone else find a PhD forum (say once every 4 weeks) of use? E.g. methodology, data and writing up? Thoughts? #PhD #Thesis (@NSRiazat, Tweet #29267363319, 31st October 2010)

Initial discussions over the degree of "leadership" for the channel came about semi-democratically through Twitter, although there was a key group of individuals who had expressed an initial interest:

@ianrobsons @DrAshCasey @janshs @janedavis13 @oberghans @colport @VGoodyear ~ very much a team effort by the founding group #phdchat(@NSRiazat, Tweet #29313727323, 31st October 2010)

Although @NSRiazat was clearly the individual with the greatest investment in the stream, and the initial proposer, her self-effacing manner and perceived technical reluctance meant that it was only on the suggestion of @Janshs that she decided to take "charge":

@JaneDavis13 @janshs not sure I like the title of founder member. :-/ (Gulp!) Can we all be 'founder members'? :-)...less scary. #phdchat (@NSRiazat, Tweet #29273591142, 31st October 2010)

@Janshs Thanks for putting me in charge. :-) Better not let you all down with myterrible running of the chat forum lol #phdchat (@NSRiazat, Tweet #29313918411, 31st October 2010)

Interestingly, although the medium for the planning discussions was, itself, Twitter, there was no preformed conception of the eventual outlet for the discussion with proposals ranging from a Twitter hashtag, through to Skype and Zorap. Eventually, after much to-ing and fro-ing, a time of 7.30pm GMT was decided, as this gave the greatest scope for international participation and the publicity for the hashtag was launched.

(@JaneDavis13 @janshs could set up a regular chat session using hash tags or even try some f2f via zorap or skype) AGREE! Sounds good. (@NSRiazat, Tweet #29267954321, 31st October 2010)

@JaneDavis13 @ianrobsons @janshs 7.30pm gives colleagues abroad a chance to partake if they wish. #phdchat (@NSRiazat, Tweet #1367606300770304, 7th November 2010)

In terms of what the stream actually achieves, the #PhDchat hashtag fulfills, in its current incarnation, two functions. In the first form, the tag acts purely as a filter for asynchronous talk on any topic relating to PhDs, ranging from the hugely "meta-" to the downright specific. The second is the synchronous chat function which was established, and is still to a large extent facilitated, by @NSRiazat with the first session taking place on the 24th of November, 2010.

@ianrobsons @janedavis13 @debprescott First #phdchat scheduled for 7.30pm on Wednesday 24th November. :-) Topic is #research #paradigms. (@NSRiazat, Tweet #5354992303087616, 18th November 2010)

Themes and Level of Response

Since that initial conversation, the synchronous discussion has taken off with often as many as 15 participants in the weekly chat and others taking the initiative in establishing wikis and associated archives.

#phdchat we now have a wiki http://is.gd/pKBNlt - do register and retweet (@lizith, Tweet #25274207147401216, 18th November 2010)

Blog responses to the channel have also been enthusiastic, with personal narratives from @lizith (@lizith, <http://lizit.me.uk/2010/12/16/networking/> [accessed 2011-02-02]) and @JeffreyKeefer (@JeffreyKeefer, <http://silenceandvoice.com/archives/2010/12/07/phd-chat-as-phdchat/> [accessed 2011-02-02]) emerging.

Indeed, the response to the tag has outstripped initial expectations, with Summarizr reporting, based on the TwapperKapper archive, a total of 3750 tweets, 261 tag participants and 342 URLs shared over a two month period. Despite this, however, there is still a long way to go in encouraging participation. 50% of participants only tweeted once (which seems likely to be mostly re-tweeters) while 56% of tweets came from the top 10 users, which is a meagre 3% of the aforementioned userbase. There is also, as an obvious consequence of this, a domination of the channel by certain conversants. This is not necessarily a negative facet, but it is notable that the top ten conversations by volume feature only seven users. (Summarizr, <http://summarizr.labs.eduserv.org.uk/?hashtag=phdchat> [accessed 2011-02-02]).

That said, far from being the monthly discussion at first envisaged, #PhDchat has run on a weekly basis covering, since its inception, the following topics:

Overcoming Writing Paralysis (26th January, 2011)
Beyond the PhD (19th January, 2011)
Organising and Planning Research (12th January, 2011)
Motivations for Doing a PhD (5th January, 2011, hosted by @Janshs)
Effectively Managing PhD Reading Workload (29th December, 2010)
Life as a PhD Student (22nd December, 2010)
The Writing Process (15th December, 2010)
Analysing Data (8th December, 2010)
Literature Review (1st December, 2010)
Research Paradigms (24th November, 2010)

As would be expected for an internet-based discussion of PhD issues -- and it is worth bearing in mind that, in spite of the low barriers to entry for Twitter use, it remains a tool used by the few in academia -- EdTech themes have also dominated the stream, in particular many questions from few users on the use of Mendeley and Zotero. It would be interesting, in further work, to examine the general level of interest in this topic and whether concerted discussion on this theme has had any impact upon participants.

Over to you, for now

Here ends the first section (or, at least, my time available for writing more on it today). Please feel free to build upon this work, correct it where deficient and generally participate in creating a full featured exploration of all the surrounding issues involved in the creation of a social media support environment. The more perspectives (so don't worry, discipline-wise), the better.