Why you should be academic blogging as a PhD student

Pete Redford

A few weeks ago I gave a presentation at a workshop for doctoral researchers and academics on using academic blogging to create impact and disseminate your research. I had started academic blogging before becoming a PhD student and in my experience had found it a very useful tool. I had been struggling to find funding and was given the opportunity to write for the LSE’s Politics and Policy Blog.  It provided me with a more informal and very easy way to publish new content, helping to build my profile.

With more ways than ever share our thoughts and the emergence of websites such as The Conversation in the UK I would like to briefly share my experiences of blogging and why I believe as PhD students we should be blogging more.

Why blog and what should you write about?

Blogging allows for shorter articles, good for external audiences, making them less time consuming as traditional output methods. Do you ever find yourself angry at a news story? Then share your thoughts, you won’t be the only be only person thinking it. Your post will be easy to share via social media making it easily searchable, if you write it people will find it. It doesn’t just have to be current events you write about, you can share your conference papers and updates on research progress providing a valuable opportunity for feedback from others in our field.

Blogging also gives you a freedom in your writing that I enjoy, allowing for a whole person style where content may be personal as well as academic. Dissemination is immediate, and so too is comment and feedback. This can be a valuable tool when sharing your research and conference papers, giving feedback that can improve your analysis of a particular topic. They can also be a valuable job finding tool as employers can see more than just your CV.

Blogs vs journal articles

Blogs will never be a replacement for journal articles but they certainly have a few advantages over them. Shorter and open access, they have a potential audience far greater than journals – fulfilling an obligation I believe we have to the general public to share our research in a clear and approachable manner. In contrast to journal articles they can be colourful, with hyperlinks to relevant material, as well as contain audio and video. You can also link them to academic papers you have written, therefore increasing the audience of your work. The World Bank has done research into why economists are blogging more and how this has impressively increased the readership of their Journal articles.

Dissemination & visibility

The more you write, your audience will increase and so too will your visibility. Blog posts feature highly on google scholar, especially those from multi-author blogs. It’s always an ego boost to search for a topic and find you work ranked higher than that of your supervisors. The online nature of your posts also make it easier to see who is citing or reading your work, a quick search for my own work found mentions in Germany and Australia. Blogs are also increasingly used by journalists and can result in requests for interviews and articles, giving further visibility to your work. During recent unrest in the Tory party, journalists found some of my posts for the LSE resulting in requests for interviews and a piece in the Evening Standard.

So why blog? In the era of social media the question is, why not? It’s easy, gives you greater freedom, and provides a valuable output that can aid your research, improve your visibility, and help you find a job.

redford

Pete Redford is a former Parliamentary researcher currently undertaking his PhD researching the ‘underclass’ at the University of Birmingham. He holds a BA (Hons) British Politics and Legislative Studies and MA Global Political Economy from the University of Hull. He tweets @PeteRedford.

Re-establishing the relationship between citizens and politicians in Greece

George Despotidis

The word Greece nowadays is connected to the word debt, and it’s true – Greece owes a lot of money to a lot of people, banks and countries.

Until recently, public employees in Greece were not actually evaluated and could not be fired. It was a job for life and their salary would never decrease – only increase – as the years went by. And so this meant that everyone wanted to become a public employee.

Parties governing Greece from 1974 onwards, the year when democracy was restored and the constitution of Greece changed to a parliamentary democracy, knew this. They were the ones that voted for this legislation. So what governments did was to exchange jobs for votes. This type of relationship between citizens and politicians is called ‘clientelism’. Citizens knew that this was a corrupted relationship but they kept voting for the same people since they were also gaining from it.

The problem was that clientelism was creating a huge, inefficient and ineffective public sector consisting of untrained and unskilled personnel. The solution to this was then to outsource jobs to the private sector, but even then outsourcing was based on clientelism. As a result Greece’s budget deficit grew.

How did Greek governments cover these budget deficits? By borrowing money; but because almost every year Greece’s budget was in deficit, it needed more and more loans, not only to cover its deficits but to pay interest for the previous loans. Imagine a procedure like this happening for more than 30 years from many public authorities that managed public money. This is how Greece’s debt was created.

However, Greek governments didn’t seem to care since they were able to borrow money. Especially after Greece joined the EU in 1981 and the Eurozone in 2001, borrowing became easier. Everything was operating smoothly because deficits were covered by loans and interest was covered by more loans.

The true scale of Greek debt came to surface in the 2008 financial crises. Greece was not able to borrow money because its creditability was characterized as excessively low since possible lenders, given the world financial situation, wouldn’t risk their money in Greece as they had done before.

At this point an economist would discuss whether Greece should have gotten out of the Eurozone; about the IMF and the EU coming to Greece and applying memorandums so that lenders could start getting their money back; and by analysing which measures could help Greece to reduce its debt. But I am not an economist and think that focusing only on what needs to be done in order for Greece’s lenders to get their money back might lead to more debt creation all over again.

Rather, what I am interested in is the relationship between citizens and politicians that seems to be the starting point of Greece’s problem.

Why is this relationship important? Clientelism, as previously described, requires money which the public sector doesn’t have. As such, this clientelism has started to break down. Neither politicians nor citizens can gain from this relationship anymore, and it might be time for a new relationship to be established. Of course, effort and measures need to be taken to address financial concerns, but research on the relationship between politicians and citizens – the starting point of the problem – is also necessary.

My proposed possible solution for re-establishing this relationship is citizen participation. Participation can bring citizens and politicians closer than they currently are and can create a space for them to meet and interact. This may lead citizens to rebuild their trust in politicians, if they realise that politicians care about what they have to say.

Yet this needs to be a two-way procedure. Politicians also must realise that citizens can help and contribute to policy formation and that they should be allowed to participate in these processed. This might also lead to a rethinking of the identities of ‘citizen’ and ‘politician’. Not only do citizens need to change their beliefs about politicians, but politicians too need to change their beliefs about citizens – and participation might be a way to achieve this.

Citizens and politicians in Greece need to connect and this is the time to establish a positive relationship. The relationship established 30-40 years ago was neither healthy nor democratic. My research considers whether citizen participation can help establish a new relationship and which forms of participation are perceived to be more significant. However, at this stage it is already clear that effort is needed from both sides – otherwise citizenship participation will be used as a very undemocratic tool despite its democratic principles, and will lead to the manipulation of citizens by politicians.

despotidis

George Despotidis is a first year Doctoral Researcher in INLOGOV. He completed an MSc in Public Management, also at INLOGOV, in 2012. His research interests include citizen involvement in policy-making, and decision-making processes with a specific focus on citizen participation. Follow him on Twitter here.

The impact factor

Katherine Tonkiss

I completed my PhD thesis in early 2012, under the joint supervision of INLOGOV and the Department of Political Science and International Studies (POLSIS). I sat my viva in April of that year and shortly afterwards was interviewed for and gained a three year research fellowship at INLOGOV, working with Professor Chris Skelcher on the Shrinking the State project. A year into the post, this is a good opportunity to reflect on that transition from PhD to post-doc research.

In many ways, working as a Research Fellow on a three year project is similar to PhD study. I am completing a research project in a specified amount of time, with parameters and methods specified in a detailed research proposal. The goal of delivering the thesis in a timely fashion is replaced by the requirement to produce a set of research outcomes with which to wow the funders on completion of the project, and of course the need to publish, publish, publish never really changes.

Yet the transition from PhD to post-doc has also presented some new opportunities and challenges. One aspect is going from sole-authored thesis-writing to team working with colleagues both on the research project and beyond. While in reality I do have quite a lot of autonomy in my current role and the majority of my time is spent working alone on specific areas of the project, this project involves working with a team of five researchers split across three Universities. This kind of collaboration is now very common in academic research – and while it is step change from PhD research, I was quite pleased to enter a more collaborative environment.

Another challenge of the transition is balancing research priorities. I was told on numerous occasions during my PhD studies that researching and writing a thesis is something to really enjoy, because I would never again have the opportunity to immerse myself in my own research to such an extent. In reality, I have been really fortunate to be provided the time to turn my PhD thesis into a book, as well as having some time to pursue my other research interests separate to the project. However, pre-planning was key in achieving this – I had thought about a book contract before my viva was completed, and the three articles I have had published were all accepted before I started working as a Research Fellow. I also don’t think I would be so fortunate if I had the hefty teaching responsibilities which come with many junior academic roles.

The biggest difference between PhD and post-doc research is, though, the emphasis that is placed on ‘impact’ in the latter – that is, producing research that both advances academic knowledge and has a positive economic and societal impact. This impact agenda, while offering rewarding opportunities to engage in debates beyond academia, was challenging in terms of the transition from PhD to post-doc research – and particularly because my PhD was strongly theoretical.

For example, working on this research project has meant developing and maintaining relationships with partners in government and elsewhere, producing research outputs that are useful to them in their work in addition to being relevant to the overall objectives of the project. My colleagues at INLOGOV are very used to this way of working, but it really was a new experience for me after the PhD. Within a couple of months of starting my job, I found myself presenting to senior civil servants in Whitehall. Experiences such as this have allowed me to engage in discussion and debate far beyond the ivory tower, but they are a far cry from the late-night loneliness of thesis writing that I had become accustomed to.

Impact isn’t just about engaging with policy-makers, though. Throughout my PhD, I felt that I was researching and writing about something that I was really passionate about – which, I hope, is a common experience. This isn’t something that’s gone away now that research has become my day job – and indeed exploring intersections between normative ideas and lived experiences has become one of my core research interests. As much as there is a case for producing policy-relevant research in order to work with partners in government, it should also be recognised that research – in whatever discipline – is a tool with which to challenge dominant ideas and assumptions, and the ability to engage in the policy process and to communicate with different audiences in order to enact change is just as – if not more – important.

With the impact agenda now spanning all areas of academic research, it may be argued that it is more important than ever for PhD students to equip themselves with the skills to develop this kind of dual-facing work. I’m not decided on that – I think there can be excellent research without wider impact and these contributions are to be equally valued. However, the opportunity to see your research have an impact beyond academia can be very rewarding, and to that end developing those skills is really worthwhile.

tonkiss

Katherine Tonkiss completed her PhD in 2012, and is now a Research Fellow at INLOGOV. Her first book, Migration and Identity in a Post-national World, will be published later this year with Palgrave Macmillan. Her research interests are focused on the changing nature of migration, citizenship and democracy in a globalising world, the local experience of such transformations, and the intersection between normative and empirical research. Follow her Twitter feed here.

Wherever I lay my highlighter, that’s my home

Tatum Matharu

Having received a few puzzled looks in response to my recent move from Primary Care to the Business School, I feel the need to explain myself.  Firstly, before Primary Care, I was based at the Institute of Local Government Studies for my PhD.  But I researched the English regional assemblies (RAs).  I say ‘but’ to reflect that I didn’t readily see myself as a student of local government.  Or perhaps my normative position underlying my research, which looked at how social, environmental and economic partners in the RAs  effectively ‘held their own’ as these bodies took shape, meant that I wanted to neutralise the perception that I, the ‘objective researcher’, or my research subject had necessarily sprouted from local government.  I could, bar the brilliance of my supervisor, just have easily fitted into what was then a neighbouring department in the School of Public Policy: the Centre for Urban and Regional Studies.  Both, in their then form and function, have since discontinued or have been otherwise re-organised.  As have the RAs.

The rug was pulled from under the RAs during my fieldwork and the moving policy agenda seemed to be shaky ground upon which to build a foundation.  Simultaneously, I opened the floodgates of postpositivism and was swimming around in a hermeneutic circle, in search of some anchorage.  I was (and continue to be) thoroughly entertained by theoretical and methodological questions, but wanted a policy area with more vitality to take centre stage. Enter health.  I spent the next 18 months developing and piloting indicators for a pay-related quality measurement tool used in the primary arm of the NHS.  It was fascinating to be at the interface between clinically determined, rationally designed indicators and the people measured by the performance (GPs) and reception (patients) of these indicators; between, it felt, science and social science.

I learnt a great deal about the workings of the NHS as well as the complexity of health policy, but the role effectively required the eradication of complexity for the system to work.  Within my new role, which is to review and synthesise theoretical literature and empirical evidence on procurement and supply chain management, I have scope to highlight the limitations of strictly rational understandings and applications of such processes in the domain of health.  Using a methodology that specifically aims to draw out complexities from a range of perspectives, along with continual expert-practitioner collaboration, the research aims to support the newly charged clinicians-cum-commissioners in carving and constructing their role.

From this winding path I have travelled, this much I know:

On transferability: This is much more than a buzzword that should be shoe-horned into job applications.   Transferable skills (e.g. time management, creative thinking, skilful communication) are equipment for the journey to find the niche that will provide decades of fruitful research.  Often, the PhD is but a baby-step.  Good transferable skills enable the simultaneous pursuit of the research matter at hand and space for future development.  Further career options, such as one’s level or style of external collaboration (which is practically a pre-requisite in cutting-edge research), are founded on these skills.

On translation: Of critical importance to the art of collaboration is the act of communication.  Each of the three projects detailed above (my PhD included) had built within it a direct link to the world of practice, and not simply as subjects and/or ‘consumers’ of the research but as, effectively, co-producers.  Rather than simply reporting conclusions to the outside world, there is a need to involve other voices in our research, even as echoes from sounding boards.  Translation is about clarifying and creating consensus around meanings, understanding the relative significance of research avenues and prioritising relevance with interested parties.

On transcending boundaries: As academics we’re naturally inclined to categorise, to create schemas and tables and to construct labels as we seek to understand the world around us and to share those understandings.  As part of that process, we demarcate and, perhaps inadvertently, we create boundaries.  The division drawn between academia and non-academia is one such boundary and, although the drive towards working across this is certainly taking hold (as demonstrated above), it is often pursued under the banner of ‘impact’, which is a notion predicated on the separation of academia and non-academia, or of science and society.  The spirit of collaboration will surely win out over impact for impact’s sake, but we could do more to transcend boundaries within the academic environment, too.  Too often there are separate puddles of research activity that could be pooled, which have led to calls for greater inter-disciplinarity, for reflecting the inter-connectedness of the ‘real world’ rather than departmental silos.

Beyond the indisputable knowledge creation born of cross-fertilisation in topics that straddle subjects, there is also intellectual gain in having some check-and-balance to the fundamentalism that can develop in isolation.  Further along the same middle path, we could check the religion of (natural) science and build bridges with society through social science.  Focussing greater attention here will require returning to the philosophical underpinnings of research whilst taking care not to return to the top of the ivory tower, all in the widest possible pursuit of learning and teaching.

matharu

Tatum Matharu completed her PhD at INLOGOV in 2012. She is a Research Fellow at Birmingham Business School, working on a project (described above) funded by the National Institute for Health Research, partnered with the University’s Health Services Management Centre. Her research interests include institutional design and development, critical methodologies and quality in health service development.

It’s not easy (but not too hard) to be a PhD student

Pobsook Chamchong

With the movie ‘Man of Steel’ now showing in cinemas I’ve heard the song ‘Superman (it’s not easy)’ again, and it made me think about my life as a PhD student. Before I became a PhD student, I thought that it wouldn’t be that hard compared with being Superman – but it turns out that it’s not so easy either.

Being a second year PhD student, I have responded to many questions about PhD life from my friends – prospective students and those just thinking about studying for a PhD. So, I think this is a good opportunity to share my experience about the life of a PhD student.

Accessing data

My thesis concerns investigating collaboration between local governments in England and Thailand, selecting cases in Thailand is not difficult as I worked with key people in this policy area before I came to study in the UK.

However, selecting the UK cases was more difficult. Although I could use the criteria related to my research objective and questions that I developed to select the cases, the issue of the gatekeeper, i.e. the key person who makes the final decision to allow the researcher access to the case study data (such as the chief executive of a local authority) gave rise to difficulties in collecting data. But with the support of INLOGOV I was able to make use of contacts, connections and knowledge of local authority collaboration in England – combined with a purposive sampling technique – to enable me to avoid problems associated with gatekeeping.

Supervision

The supervisor is the most important person in your PhD studies, and I’ve had quite a few questions about the most appropriate ways to communicate with supervisors. I have supervision meetings twice a month, which is the standard procedure at INLOGOV.

From my experience, I found it useful to tell supervisors both what you do know and what you don’t know. Don’t hesitate to ask them questions because you will get useful advice. Moreover, I learnt from my supervisors that doing a PhD is not a linear process and it’s more like doing a jigsaw puzzle. So, it’s useful to be flexible and revise your work after receiving recommendations from your supervisors and the progress review committee – and to be strong enough to make academic arguments to support the choices that you have made.

A supportive environment

I found that it’s very important to have friends who are in the same boat as me. Unlike many universities in the UK, PhD students in the social sciences at the University of Birmingham study core modules in social research in the first year in order to gain skills and knowledge to be applied in their PhD studies. Besides this knowledge and skills, however, studying these modules allowed me to meet and work with other PhD students – we’ve become friends and help each other, travel together and discuss issues.

Being an international student and living outside my home country, it’s so good to have friends with whom I can share my thoughts and feelings, discuss both academic and personal issues, and give me a big hug when needed! Moreover, as the university provides offices and facilities for PhD students to work together, this hub has provided a chance for me to meet senior students. I don’t hesitate to ask them for advice, and these students are more than happy to help with any challenges that they’ve met before.

Balancing personal and academic life

Finally, one of the most important things is to find a way to balance your personal life and your academic life. Studying cannot be the only thing – I can say I study quite hard but I also play hard! Even though I’m a full time student that doesn’t mean I have to work office hours Monday-Friday, and one of the really nice things about doing a PhD is having the flexibility to work at different times of the week as suits my circumstances.

So, for all the reasons above, I think that being a PhD student at INLOGOV isn’t easy – but it’s not too hard to be either. Why not come and see for yourself?

pobsook

Pobsook Chamchong is a Thai Government Scholarship PhD student at INLOGOV. Before coming to Birmingham, she previously worked as a researcher for the Thailand Political Development Councils and for the Thailand Reform Committee.

Homo subjectivo: Do western public management ideas work for people in the Middle East?

Abena Dadze-Arthur

It is that time of the year again: Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, has descended upon the estimated 1.6 billion Muslims around the world.  Despite being a Christian, I always thought I knew what Ramadan was about.  I could readily recount that Ramadan constituted Sawm, the fourth pillar of Islam, where Muslims refrain from eating, drinking and smoking between dawn and dusk for a whole lunar month. I even fancied myself culturally astute enough to appreciate Ramadan as a time for spiritual cleansing, in which Muslims reflect on their behaviour towards others more closely in order to promote compassion, harmony and peace in society.

But as I was to realize, understanding the concept of Ramadan is not the same as understanding the meaning it has for those whose lives are shaped by it, and who shape their lives around it.  The subjective significance of Ramadan only became clear to me when I spent three years living in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and worked for the government on implementing western public management practices to improve public services.

I learnt that Ramadan comes with a wonderfully festive spirit, which captured even us non-Muslims in inexplicable ways.  I also found out that the pace of life changes dramatically, and, especially in the first weeks of Ramadan, my bosses and colleagues were too hungry, tired and short-tempered to work productively or make important decisions.

Most surprisingly, I realized that Ramadan rescued from its imminent demise our very first public consultation project.  For months, we had been unable to get local people to share their personal experiences of public services.  Ramadan, however, made it culturally appropriate to have these conversations with service users because traditionally, it is a time when the Sheikhs have always sat down and listened to the woes of their people.

Harnessing the power of the public for service improvement became only one example in a series of western public management concepts that hinged on mobilizing the opportunities and constraints offered by the local culture.  But what exactly is culture, other than an umbrella term to describe everything in general, yet denote nothing in particular?

If we accept, as the sociologist Max Weber put it so eloquently, that human beings are creatures suspended in a web of meaning that they themselves have spun, then culture is this subjective web of meaning.  We speak of a ‘culture’ when people assign similar meaning to an object or event as a result of their shared, similar life experiences.  A group of people can have shared life experiences across time and place: they might belong to the same nationality, or work in the same project team, have similar social standing, believe in the same religion, be alumni of the same college, or have migrated along the same routes…the list goes on.  This makes any one person share webs of meaning with different groups of people, and therefore belong to a variety of cultures ranging from a particular local culture to a global generational culture.

Of course, people’s interpretation of an event, such as a western public management reform initiative, and their motivation to respond to it, are arguably momentary states.  However, these momentary states are the result of the interaction of two types of relatively stable structures: the mental structures, or understandings, people hold internally, and the world structures that are external to people.  The relative stability of the world and personal understanding means that in a group of people who share similar life experiences, the same meanings arise time and time again.

Scholars and practitioners of public management agree increasingly that we are all homo subjectivo (I discuss this in more detail in my conference paper).

Accordingly, cultural construction matters in transferring policy concepts and adapting public management reform successfully and durably.  The neglect of existing organizational, professional, social, economic, political and traditional cultures have already ended in disappointing results for reform-eager governments despite following best practice.  Evaluations have pointed to cultural barriers to explain ineffective government reform initiatives in Switzerland, South-Africa, Korea or Brazil, to name just a few.

Therefore, western public management ideas will only work for Middle Eastern governments, and for any other government for that matter, if policy-makers can access, and manipulate, the subjective world of public administrators and service users.  Doubtlessly, this is no easy feat for two reasons:  Firstly, cultures come in plurals and potpourris, which means that looking at only the organizational culture or only the social culture will not suffice.  Secondly, operationalizing the analysis and effective manipulation of cultures to implement reform is an area that is, as of now, still developing.

abena

Abena Dadze-Arthur is a researcher and public policy adviser with ten years experience of developing user-centric public policy for Western and non-Western governments across a wide range of public service areas.  Abena is currently pursuing her doctoral research on social practices and cultural schemas that shape public management reform in Abu Dhabi Government.