Ten Reasons Why Grad Students Should Blog

Tomorrow is the two year anniversary of ZIA. In keeping with the tradition started last year there are some changes afoot for the website itself, but I will keep those under wraps until the actual birthday (wouldn't want to open your gift early, yes?). Rather, today I would like to be more reflective. A few days ago, as the two year anniversary approached, I began thinking back on not just what I accomplished this year at ZIA but also how much the blog has provided me. Upon this reflection it occurred to me that this endeavor has been incredibly beneficial. As such, it seemed logical to me that this would also be the case for many other grad students; which was immediately triggered the question: then why do so few do it?

There are a few notable exceptions, but for the most part it is the faculty that partake in blogging. Perhaps this is simply a function of my particular discipline, in which I—admittedly—do most of my blog reading. I have, however, been to many corners of the blogosphere, and at least within my N=1 sample this appears to be a common phenomenon. I welcome others to show me that this is not the case in other disciplines, but even so, more grad students should be publishing online.

As I thought longer about the vacant state of grad student blogging I wondered if it could be explained as a "they don't know what they don't know" situation. Perhaps by standing from the outside looking in, my fellow grad students simply do not know all of the benefits that can come from participating in an online discourse. To remedy this informational problem, and in an attempt to encourage more grad students to begin blogging, I present (in no particular order) my ten reasons why grad students should blog:

  1. You actually have something to say - This is perhaps the best reason why you should be blogging. One of the most frustrating characteristics of the blogosphere is its inherent infinitesimal signal-to-noise ratio. As a grad student, especially those in PhD programs, you have already been deemed qualified to participate in the discussion at a very high level by a panel of distinguished scholars, i.e., the admission committee. Why keep all that smart analysis to yourself?
  2. Honing your craft - At its core, graduate school is preparing you to be an active member of the academy. While we may struggle through our preliminary methods classes as we build our technical expertise, it is the application of these tools to interesting research questions that builds successful careers. A blog provides a wonderful lab for experimentation, both in terms of the technical application of methods and toying with research questions in sub-fields of your discipline you may not have otherwise tested.
  3. Establishing an identity - If you are in graduate school to be the "best kept secret in academia," you are making a fatal mistake. As with any other job market, getting the preverbal foot in the door for a job talk at a university is a critical first step. As a graduate student it can be incredibly difficult to navigate the sea of senior faculty, their research agendas, and how that fits into your career goals. Having a blog provides you an independent beacon upon which you can broadcast your own ideas. Consider this, ZIA is but a tiny blip within the academic blogosphere, but in the last year my CV has been downloaded by over 875 unique visitors, or more than twice a day.
  4. Extending your network outside of academia - Though it is often hard to imagine this from within the cozy confines of the ivory tower, there are a lot of brilliant people outside of academia interested in exactly the same things you are. The difficulty, however, is connecting with them. The Internet is a powerful networking device, and if you are willing to put yourself out there these people will seek you out (Kevin Costner knows what I am talking about). Your bonafides are already largely taken care of (see point reason #1), now you have to impress the Internet with your brilliant musings.
  5. The faculty in your department will not think less of you - I have been asked several times by fellow grad students some form of the following question: "Weren't you worried what your advisors would think about your blog?" Of course, I never even thought about this question, as I started blogging before actually matriculating to NYU (note that ZIA's anniversary is early-June and most universities begin the Fall semester in late August). This, however, is besides the point. No, I was never worried about what my advisors would think. The things I write about on ZIA are exactly the same kinds of things I say in seminar and write for term papers (in fact, these ideas often flow both ways). Furthermore, most of those faculty who might actually view blogging in a negative light are also those most unlikely to ever read your blog.
  6. Instant and broad criticism of your work - Part of the maturation process for any grad student is developing the ability to receive, absorb, and convert criticism. Much of this will come from rote academic traditions contained within the classroom and conferences, but a blog offers an alternative channel for this criticism. Not only will you get criticism from fellow academics, but criticism from non-academics can illuminate aspects of your research that can be improved to allow for broader understanding.
  7. Sharpening your own critical eye - What is the primary thrust of most graduate seminars? Read a series of papers, and spend the next 120 or so minutes tearing them apart. This is meant to help students recognize the difference between good and great work, but also begin to discover where the more fertile patches exist within the landscape of possible research agenda. There are, however, many more papers published in a semester than any one seminar could possibly hope to cover. Also, many seminars are focused on seminal works, not cutting edge research—the same cutting edge research you are most likely already reading in your free time. A blog provides you a platform upon which to criticize this new work, and if you are very lucky (as I have been on a few occasions) an opportunity to interact with the authors in a public forum.
  8. Oh, the places you'll go - A combined effect of reasons #1-5 is you will be given the opportunity to travel all over the world and participate in many conferences, seminars, panels, etc. Without a public voice on the Internet I would have never had the opportunity to present to the Bay Area R User's Group or the University of Michigan's Center for the Study of Complex Systems. As you extend your network outside of academia it will take you to places you could never have thought possible without the blog.
  9. Building technical expertise - Not all of the work you put into your blog will go toward writing noteworthy posts. Some of the effort, particularly at the outset, will be focused on building the actual site. This will require you to learn technical skills you would have otherwise never had the need or desire to. This is incredibly useful in and of itself, but these skills can be applied beyond blogging. Considering how charts from a paper will look in the online version of your paper (the version most readers will see) is something you may only have thought of after several iterations of trial and error posting it to your blog.
  10. It is just plain fun - You are a nerd. You enjoy writing. In many ways, a blog sells itself. But, the additional joy you will feel as you watch your daily hits go up, and the frequency of (non-SPAM) comments increases, will become a powerful motivating force in your day-to-day. A wonderful side effect of which is that the overall quality of your work will also increase, as you become a better writer, researcher and conveyer of complex ideas.

I realize that this will not motivate everyone to navigate over to WordPress and being their own blogs, but I hope it has helped you understand some of the benefits of having your own presence on the Web. I welcome your own thoughts, either as a grad student blogger, or as someone unmoved by the above reasons.