Published: 21 November 2016

Starting a Conversation


History PhD student, Joe Kelly, reflects on his experience of writing for The Conversation – a collaboration between editors and academics to provide informed news analysis and commentary that’s free to read and republish.

I never quite expected to see my research trumpeted by the Russian media. It’s an odd experience to find one’s rather innocuous blog about the American Civil War retro-fitted into an attack on ‘Britain and its thriving arms’. This bizarre situation came about after I was lucky enough to write for The Conversation  – an experience that, despite some potential pitfalls, I would recommend to any PhD researcher.

The Conversation is an online news and comment site built around the research and contribution of academics. The site hosts blogs on a wide range of topics across the sciences, arts, and humanities. Most importantly it provides a way to display, and even improve, your research. The website allows you to sign up as a contributor and pitch blog ideas relating to your own work.

The Conversation’s front page boasts of providing ‘Academic rigour, journalistic flair’. Whilst I bristle at the suggestions that all academics trade in dull prose, the blog certainly helped hone my own.

Writing for a blog forced me to think about key questions of presentation. What does the reader need to know to understand my argument? Can I be both precise and concise? Am I over reliant on rhetorical questions?

I also had to consider one reader in particular. My editor. Every researcher would benefit from someone overseeing your work, catching your mistakes, and nudging you to make subtle changes. You can also nudge back when you’re confident you know best. Editing is a back and forth, and great preparation for peer review.

Working with an editor is also teaches patience. The Conversation is squarely focused on current affairs. This meant that whilst I hit send on my final draft in January the US primaries kept my blog off the site until March. On the flipside if your research speaks to the headlines, then you’ll be good to go.

Getting work out into the world is a big part of being a researcher. Yet it can be difficult for those of us who, like myself, lack the wherewithal to run a personal blog. Almost 65 thousand people follow @Conversation . A number that dwarfs the unlucky few subjected to my banal 140 character musings.

The Conversation gives you a hotline to the inboxes and timelines of people who might take an interest in your work. Of course not all these people may interest you.

My blog attracted some rather misguided online commentators and the misinterpretations of Russia Today. It also brought compliments from colleagues and requests for work from elsewhere.

Reaching this wider audience was a reminder that research, and writing, is never a solo endeavour. Throughout the PhD you are in constant dialogue with supervisors, colleagues, and finally examiners. Online publications allow you to talk to new audiences and understand the different ways your voice might be heard. In fact, you might say it’s just another way of expanding the conversation.

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One thought on “Starting a Conversation

  1. David Hearn

    Hi Joe – fascinating stuff. I am on the MA Slavery Studies course and it was suggested to me only yesterday that I contact you because I am going to write my dissertation on how Liverpool continued to make money from slavery (by importing slave grown products) long after 1807. Dr Jack Webb said that you are a nice guy and I should contact you because you may be able to shed some light on research. I would very much welcome a chat if you can spare an hour sometime? I am a mature (very mature) student who spent years working in banks in Liverpool mainly concerned with foreign trade finance.

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