Graduate education and social media

Most everyone would agree that social media has changed the ways in which we interact – not just in our social settings but in our professional lives as well.  Although somewhat slower initially to embrace social media, higher education institutions are now coming to realize the significance and the impact that social media has had upon learning.  The students are bringing social media with them and if we are to engage with them as faculty and administrators we must also engage with social media.

I believe that social media is fundamentally changing how we communicate within, about and outside of higher education.  The impact extends across the multiple missions of a university – teaching/learning, discovery/research, and engagement.  For this blog, I will reflect briefly on its influence upon one aspect of the graduate education, the completion and sharing of graduate student research.

Two of the time-honored traditions of earning a graduate degree especially a Ph.D. are the oral defense of one’s research and scholarly endeavors and the archiving of this work in a thesis and dissertation.  It is true that publications, presentations, performances and the like can be shared publicly prior to degree completion, graduate schools and faculty still honor the tradition of the thesis or dissertation as the embodiment of the body of work needed for earning a graduate degree. The archiving of the research is achieved commonly today through Electronic Thesis and Dissertation (ETD) processes, some hard bound copies placed on library shelves and in faculty offices, and frequently through journal publications or books.  The second tradition is the final oral defense.  Even though the oral defense is a public event in most cases, these defenses are usually designed for an internal and academic discipline specific audience especially the committee members. These traditions will likely continue into the near future although the venues, formats, and media will evolve.

With the advances in technology, the sharing (and archiving) of graduate student research is gradually changing.  Increasingly, graduate schools have adopted ETD processes and are exploring ways to increase interactivity, innovation and creativity. The open access movement has created multiple ways for graduate students to share their work and publish through open access journals.

Perhaps the more significant change is the ways in which graduate student scholars communicate their research, with whom they share and the timing of such sharing.  Historically this sharing occurred at the end of the degree and primarily with the thesis/dissertation committee but the times have changed.  A few examples follow.

Communicating, communicating well and communicating with the public about graduate student research have become increasingly important. Toward this end, several examples come to mind: Communicating Science, Three Minute Thesis, and Dance Your Dissertation.  Previously I’ve written about communicating scholarly endeavors including the initiative offered through the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at SUNY Stony Brook.  Similar type workshops to enhance communication about research have been and are continuing to be developed including the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and similar workshops through National Science Foundation (NSF) and articles from National Institutes of Health (NIH).  In addition, graduate schools and colleges are offering workshops or courses on communicating science such as the one we offer at Virginia Tech through the Transformative Graduate Education initiative (TGE).

Three Minute Thesis (3MT®) was developed in 2008 by the University of Queensland. In brief, the 3MT is a research communication intended for public audiences in which the graduate students can use one “slide” and talk for three minutes only.  The 3MT competition has proven to be a very effective way for graduate students (master’s and doctoral students) to enhance one’s ability to communicate one’s research.  These competitions can now be found at the university, regional and national levels.

Dance your PHD logo blue

Sponsored by AAAS and Science magazine, the unique program entitled Dance Your Dissertation is another way in which graduate student research is made more accessible to the public.

Some additional musings about the use of social media in graduate student research.  The future likely includes: use of twitter hashtags (#) during defense for discussion beyond those in attendance, use of social media platforms for seeking funding for graduate student research (crowdsourcing), use of social media to connect with other conducting similar research, use of platforms (e.g., figshare) in the development of research and feedback about results, and more.  It should come as no surprise that these are already happening and more.  We must continue to embrace the principles underlying the earning of a graduate degree but understand and acknowledge that graduate student research process will continue to evolve.

And then there’s the discussion about originality in Kirby Ferguson’s “Everything is a Remix”.  But I’ll leave that for another time.

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