The online scholar: A guide for PhD students

Scholars use the Internet to develop ideas, build contacts and networks, and promote their work and their publications. They also use online professional and social media. Digital scholars have an online presence to which they can refer potential publishers, and they exploit the Internet to investigate funding opportunities and publishing outlets, including journals, conferences, and networks.

We take it for granted now, but the game is changing daily as new practices, rules, and systems come online. What’s the best outlet for each stage in the development of a PhD student’s research. How can you get the most out of the Internet in your online writing? Here’s a 16 point countdown towards a career in scholarship that acknowledges the part played by scholarly life online.


 16. I’m thinking of applying to enrol in a PhD

Utilise any outlet that demonstrates your researching and writing abilities, and that you can cite or reference. Consider putting any essays and project work from previous degrees online. You may want to edit them first. Almost everything academic has an online presence these days. Link to any magazine articles you’ve published, competition wins, your online resume and portfolio.

15. I’m applying for a research degree and/or scholarship

Think about how competitive this is. Provide any resources that will assist the people who have to write references and make decisions about your suitability. It’s evidence that people are after, not how good you think you are, and the Internet is a great tool for finding and displaying evidence. Keep the information simple, clear and easy to scan.

14. I’m preparing a research proposal

Most universities provide guidance online about what to include. It’s crucial to allow time for this, get feedback and get it right, especially if you are applying for funding.

13. When I’m on programme and have firmed up my research topic

Consider putting your research proposal (or parts of it) online. Use your university’s content management system if you have access. Create a presence in academic and professional networks (LinkedIn etc). Why do this? It may help you build a support network. Consider your overarching career objectives.

12. During my research

You’ll probably scour online libraries for academic articles, use online data as evidence, perhaps conduct online surveys, look at word usage on n-grams, search online dictionaries, encyclopaedias, image libraries, and specialised collections. You’ll probably communicate with your institution and supervisory team via online media, video conferencing, email, and a virtual learning environment. You’ll probably use your networked smartphone and digital tablet for keeping records at home and during fieldwork. You can also use the Internet to develop your ideas and contacts.

11. When I’m developing articles for peer review and publication

Journals and conferences have online protocols for submitting and reviewing articles. Note that you can sometimes pay journals to publish your article so that even people without access to a university subscription can read it. This is “gold” open access. Also note the “green” access option, where you put a pre-copy-edited version of your article in a university repository for anyone to read.

10. After I’ve published an article or I’ve presented at a conference

Consider publishing an easy-to-read “lay summary” or commentary online and link to the online version of the article. If you do this on a blog site then you can invite comment.

9. While developing my network

Initiate or join a team involved in running an academic event, conference, workshop, or seminar series. Note that this can be a student event (though you don’t have to call it that). Use all the resources of the Internet to publicise, promote, solicit contributions, and publish. It’s best if the event pertains to your own research, but it will probably extend beyond it. Note that academic (and other) careers require the ability to cross between disciplines, and to evaluate work in which you are not confident or cognate. So this is good practice for an academic career.

8. When I am teaching, demonstrating, or tutoring

Think about putting your notes online (like this blog page), and using social media to facilitate group work (e.g. a FaceBook group).

7. When I’m writing drafts and submitting to my supervisory team (throughout my research)

This is where you and your supervisor/s need to decide whether you should go public with any of your material: such as notes, drafts, or summaries. You don’t have to publish online for the world to see. You can password protect access to your blog. You’ll need to consider issues of ownership if using an externally hosted site, and keep your own backups. (Note that FaceBook asserts its right to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook.) Note the importance of documentation in practice-led research or research by creative practice. Blogging provides an excellent way of keeping a record of your activity.

6. When I’m mentoring other students

Share with them your own experience of the changing and challenging world of online scholarship.

5. As I’m finalising my thesis

There may be supplementary material that you have on CD/DVD and/or online. Note that examiners don’t necessarily have to look at this. Check out your examiners online — but don’t communicate with them until after the examination. You may even find they have something to say about your topic and will expect to be cited in your thesis.

4. After I’ve passed my PhD and submitted my thesis to the library

You need to decide whether the thesis is to be available publicly online. Sometimes students want to delay this and consider other publishing options.

3. When I’m looking for a job

Update all your online “personas,” your CV, edit your online material if needed, and catch up with putting your publications online.

2. When I’m requesting references

Make it as easy as possible for your supervisors/referees to know what you’ve achieved. Much of this should be online by now.

1. During my career after the PhD

Keep up with the changes and challenges of online scholarship. Consider developing a fully-fledged academic blog. See supplementary page: Developing an online publication strategy in the Internet age.

Are you ready to go public?


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  1. Anastasia says:

    really helpful! Especially number 10 – i hadn’t thought of it – really good way to invite discussion about an academic piece of work, in a different and user-friendly platform.

    Another relevant issue your article made me think is the online ‘noise’ – or else, the not-so-interesting electronic footprint we leave. One might feel exposed; what if s/he said something that would later consider silly/ wrong/ …? On the other hand, we probably wouldn’t like to be really preserved and over-cautious because the value of the online platforms lies within this very immediacy. Else their spontaneity and immediacy would be lost.

    1. Helpful comment Anastasia. I guess the advantage of a managed blog environment is that you can always go back and delete or edit things you’ve written. But I think you’re right. I wouldn’t pressure anyone into developing an online academic presence. You need to be reasonably confident, though it is a fairly forgiving medium at the moment. I try to address some of these issues (or at least list them) at Further thoughts are most welcome of course.

  2. Zack says:

    Very nice, Richard. I think this is a guide that will be useful for a wider group – not just PhD students! I particularly like number 10 and did this once before although I never followed-up on it – must try harder!

    1. Thanks for comment Zack. Maybe one method for implementing 10 is to do this as a scholarly cooperative. I think this is done in some cases. If it’s a blog site then individuals contribute posts whenever they have something to say, including a summary or commentary on their own publications. You could then link to your particular post via LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, etc. Takes away the burden of having to deliver something new every week, and gets indexed by Google etc.

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