More advice to scientists on blogging

My advice to graduate students: blog! post garnered some interesting comments here and there. Most of the responses were positive, but then again, most anyone who reads blogs probably doesn't need to be convinced that blogging is useful. In particular, note that some of the comments at the bottom of that post offer personal and insightful perspectives on the value of social media outreach.

So! What next?

ObDigression: I am pro grad school

I do want to make it clear that I am very pro-grad-school. Academia has been an awesome career, despite its manifold negatives; I am very happy to be here, feel privileged to work with people as smart as my colleagues, and do not have any particular interest in leaving. Grad school is one of the few places where you can really learn to do research, and the apprenticeship model that we use in grad school has the potential to work quite well.

I, personally, regret very little about my graduate school career. But I'm one of the "lucky few" who both wanted & got a tenure track faculty position. (You can debate whether or not people should want to go into the professoriate, but you cannot debate that many appear to want to but will simply not have the option. I did, in no small part, because I was lucky in my parents, my mentors, and my research.)

This career path means that I'm not that reliable a source when it comes to evaluating grad school -- as I said in my advice to grad students, when a tenured Harvard professor talks about how moving to Google is so wonderful, you should wonder about its applicability to your own life. Same with me.

This is why I really want to highlight Neem Serra's blog post, I Quit Grad School.

Neem was an undergrad in my lab for a bit, and she decided to pursue research in no small part because of that experience. She went on to other labs (Lenski and Ofria) and racked up virtually every undergrad award you can think of, and then applied to grad school pretty much everywhere on the West Coast. She got into virtually every grad school she applied to (except UCSD - what was up with that, folks?). She then went to grad school, funded by an NSF predoctoral fellowship.

But, somewhere in there, she decided grad school wasn't for her. There are many things that went into that decision, and maybe someday she'll blog about them.

In the meantime, Neem has given what I think is one of the best defenses of grad school I've ever read. So go read it.

Back to some advice: "how do I start blogging??"

One thing I didn't address in my "go blog, you fool!" post is how to actually begin blogging. For me, it's as simple as "have strong opinion; write about it." I took a certain amount of flak for that opinion at home, because while I conveniently have lots of strong opinions and obviously have no problem telling the world about them, there are many people that are more hesitant than me about such things. I also do not require or even strongly request that my own grad students blog, which you can view as hypocritical, as bad advising (failing to prepare my own students!?), or as good advising (it should be optional).

Moreover, there were a few comments on my "go blog" post that raised some pretty interesting questions. To try to summarize,

  1. Should I worry about people stealing my ideas?
  2. If I blog about my research, are there potential conflicts with journal submissions?
  3. Should I worry about posting something stupid?
  4. Related: should I blog pseudonymously?

The overarching question here is, how do I start blogging, and what about?

The short answer is, I don't know the answers. But here are my opinions and advice :).

The most conservative way to start blogging is to pseudonymously write short reviews of papers relevant to your research -- think an annotated bibliography, of sorts. Then post them to twitter, or find a friendly colleague in your research area to post them (I am happy to do this for bioinformatics and evo devo papers). This serves several useful purposes: it gets you used to writing blogs; it gives you feedback; it helps filter the literature a bit, by saying "I found this paper useful (or not) for the following specific reasons"; it may drag the authors of the paper online to rebut or refute or complement your comments; and you may even get useful tips about what papers to read next.

(I wish I did more of this. I hope to have some interesting news on an actual Selected Papers network soon, BTW.)

If you start pseudonymously, you can get a feel for whether or not you're saying something useful, and you can start to generate Web traffic. You can even refer to your blog on your CV and in interviews without "outing" yourself, although at some point you may be exposed to the wider world. I would suggest planning to make a decision about if and when to go public after your first one or two dozen blog posts; by then you should know if it's useful or not, and also whether or not it's sustainable.

As a graduate student, I'm a bit skeptical that full-on blogging about your research is a good idea without the permission of your advisor. Some labs (mine! Jonathan Eisen's!) are likely to be more supportive than others, to put it mildly.

One strategy I'm suggesting to my grad students and postdocs is to blog through me, as that way they get some review and also some exposure right up front.

My views on secret stealing and stupidity are well documented here, and so far I can tell you that I have no serious qualms about posting my own research online. There is definitely a risk/reward tradeoff, but I trend towards openness -- which is working out really well for me. I also practice a somewhat conservative version of open science, in the sense that I am happy posting preprints but tend not to blog about my stuff until it's solid.

So the short, only mildly snarky answers are:

  1. Should I worry about people stealing my ideas? No, ideas are a dime a dozen. Worry about being relevant instead. But if you are concerned about this, I would recommend starting by blogging about other peoples' ideas first.
  2. Are there conflicts with journal submissions? Generally, no, not even with full-on submitted papers.
  3. Should I worry about posting something stupid? It depends on your self confidence, I guess. I regard posting stupid things as the fastest way to progress karmically; the fail often so you can succeed sooner mentality. One good trick is to phrase things you're uncertain about as questions that frame your own stupidity: "I didn't understand why they claimed that this result showed that their assembler was good. What am I missing?" Everyone is happy to help correct your ignorance :)
  4. Should you blog pseudonymously? It's probably a good way to dip your toes in the water, but at some point you'll face exposure. Plus, you won't get all the reputational benefits of having a blog from it. So my rec is to only do it for a short-to-medium period of time, and then decide to either quit or stop worrying about being outed.

I hope this is helpful advice. I'd love to hear more questions or comments.

Something I would really like to offer to do, but cannot commit to doing, is to review blog posts in my area of research (bioinformatics, assembly, metagenomics, etc.) On that note, it might be cool to put together a closed forum (something like the Python core mentorship program) for students and pro-blogging professors to communicate about blog posts. If this is interesting to anyone, let me know!


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