how to start a phd blog

The Ultimate Guide to Starting an Academic Blog Today

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How to Start an Academic Blog Today

Are you a researcher, faculty member, or PhD student considering starting a blog? Good, because the best professor websites are blogs. And this is the post is for you!

There are many reasons why academics should blog. But getting started can be tough. You’ve got a lot on your plate and are probably wondering if blogging is worth the time investment. You may be wondering what to even blog about.

Have no fear! In the below post, I’ve put together my ultimate guide to starting an academic blog, whether you’re a PhD student, a university professor, a post-doc, or other scholar. This guide contains everything you need to start a blog today.

It includes:

  • Reasons why academics should blog.
  • Examples of successful academic blogs – both from PhDs and PhD students.
  • A step-by-step guide for planning a successful academic blog.
  • Resources for finding a web host and setting up your blog.
  • WordPress plugins that make blogging easier.

Why Should Academics Blog? Building Your Personal Brands

I always tell people that it has been the number one, most important thing that I have done for my personal brand is start an academic blog.  But the truth is, I didn’t get into blogging thinking any of these things would happen.

Here are my top 8 of the many ways this blog has helped my academic career since I started blogging in 2013.

ultimate guide to starting an academic blog

Why start an Academic Blog as a Professor and/or Scholar

  1. Take Charge of Your Online Identity – Stop right now and open a new browser tab. Then, Google yourself. What comes up? Is it your page on your department’s website? Your RateMyProfessor rating? Since people tend to click on the first thing that comes up, wouldn’t it be great if you had control over what that was? That way, you can tell the story that is truest to who you are and what you do. You could steer your visitors to your research, your teaching, your service, your books, your consulting.  Having a website helps people find you and a blog the best type of professor website to have. And a blog is a great tool for helping you show up high in Google search rankings.

    Academic Blogs and SEO
    Having an academic blog allows you to control your online identity in Google.
  2. Building Your Personal Brand – A blog serves as your professional academic identity. It tells people what you’re about and helps you share your professional passions. Think of your blog as your hub and your social media channels as your spoke. Yes, you want to be active on social media as a way to build your personal brand. But why not let everyone else (the people you don’t interact with on social media) find you too? Search engines are where we go when we want to find something, right? So you want to show up on search engines. In fact, most of my traffic (somewhere around 80%) comes from search traffic and that traffic is from all over the globe. That means, most of the people who I am reaching and helping with my content are likely not people who I already know. Instead, they are searching about a social media teaching problem that my blog helps them solve. Just think about all the ways you can help more people!
  3. Have an Impact On Your Field – A blog helps you establish yourself as a thought leader on a topic. It provides a way to contribute to the field in a way that is more permanent than a Tweet or story post. Blogs also provides a chance for more long-form writing that you cannot do on social media. Many academics complain that their research doesn’t reach a wide enough audience. I agree – I wish more people read the research I’ve spent thousands of hours working on. That’s what makes a blog great. It can be much more widely read than academic journal publications. Plus, that blog post you wrote last week or last year, can still be accessed by your colleagues around the world today. Talk about being able to have an impact across time and space!
  4. Networking and Friendships – I have met more people as a result of this blog than any Tweet or Facebook post I’ve ever sent. Those connections have opened doors for research, service, and speaking opportunities. But, most importantly, they’ve helped me be part of a community of educators. It feels strange to say this, but I’ve been at conferences and people who I did not previously know have told me, “I read your blog.” That is still mind-blowing to me. What a great way to connect with someone.
  5. Research opportunities – Because people have gotten to know my professional interests and find common interests with theirs, I’ve been invited to participate in several research projects. Here’s one such example.
  6. Speaking opportunities – I’ve been invited to speak locally, regionally, and internationally because people have gotten to know my work through my blogging.
  7. Service opportunities – I’ve been given wonderful opportunities to serve on committees for international organizations because of my blog.
  8. Promotion & Tenure – Universities generally don’t consider a blog on par with teaching, service, and research. But as you can see, the doors that a blog opens can be vital to building a strong portfolio.

Why start a PhD Journey blog

Many of the above reasons to start a blog apply to PhD students. And while some of from the above list do not, there are plenty of other reasons that PhD students should start a PhD journey blog. Before we look at them, let’s define a PhD journey blog.

A PhD journey blog documents the first-person experiences of a PhD student through the process of entering graduate school on through defending one’s dissertation. Often, these blogs transition into academic blogs upon the student becoming a faculty member.

Here are a few to start a PhD journey blog while working on your PhD:

  1. A Community of Support – Getting a PhD is really hard. PhD motivation can get low at times. But being part of the PhD blogging community can help you find a community of people facing many of the same challenges that you are. Sharing your thoughts, struggles, and experiences can feel therapeutic. Just keep in mind that what you post is public and the PhD community is a fairly small community.
  2. Pay it Forward for Other PhD Students – Bloggers are sharers. They share tips and ideas to help one another out. PhD bloggers have likely been through what you’re going through. In that same way, by sharing your experiences, you are passing on PhD tips to the students who will come after you. Blogging while working on your PhD is a great way to give back.
  3. Prepare for the Job Market – You can establish yourself as an expert in your field as a PhD student. You are part of the next generation who will bring new ideas, new research, and new innovations to your field. Because academia tends to be focused on areas of specialty, there is a good chance that your readers may be your future colleagues. So this may be an opportunity to show them your knowledge and help them get to know a little about you. The reputation you build can help your future colleagues get to know you when it comes time to apply for faculty jobs.

Academic Blog Examples

Faculty and Researcher Blog Examples

  • Your research. Your life. Your Story – a mix of stories by PhD students and academics on the publishing platform Medium.
  • Linking Learning: The Professional Portfolio of Kay Oddone – The blog of lecturer and researcher, Kay Oddone, at Queensland University of Technology in Australia. The blog sheds light on pedagogy, professional networks, and social technology.
  • Karen Freberg’s Blog – Karen is a leading voice in social media pedagogy. Her blog covers trends, perspectives, experiences, and advice in the social media, sports communication, and public relations domains.
  • Sophie Talks Science – What started as a PhD journey blog, is now the blog of Sophie, a science communication officer from Portsmouth, UK.
  • The Academic Society – This one’s a bit different and I love it. Toyi Alli, a mathematics faculty member at the University of Georgia, focuses on providing tips and resources to help grad students and faculty excel in academia.
  • Matt Might’s Blog – A popular blog from Matt Might, director of the Hugh Kaul Personalized Medicine Institute at the University of Alabama.
  • The Thesis Whisperer – Written by Inger Mewburn, the director of research training at the Australian National University. Mewburn shares knowledge for graduate students on completing a PhD.

PhD Journey Blog Examples

A PhD blog, or PhD Journey blog, is a blog written by a graduate student that explores the process of earning a PhD. Here are a few great reasons to start one as well as some example PhD blogs.

  • How to Write a PhD in a Hundred Steps or More – A former PhD journey blogger, Sherran began documenting her journey as a PhD student, full-time worker, and mom and has continued this journey on into her post-graduate school life.
  • Dr. Of What – A very popular PhD journey blog that tells the journey of a PhD student from Australia. What’s so great about this blog is that it also provides looks at the lives of other PhD students in various stages of their journey. Dr. Of What has a great series of ‘day in the life of a PhD student’ episodes.
  • Sophie Talks Science – While Sophie is no longer a PhD student, you can see her archives of her PhD journey posts here.
  • Waste Free PhD – The journey of Laura, a PhD student in the Civil and Environmental Engineering department at Syracuse University. This blog leverages her expertise in waste reduction to inform the public and drive change in how we use… well, everything. I love this blog because it takes Laura’s expertise and focuses on application to the wider public.

[Want more examples? Editage has a list of 40 academic blogs to start reading today.]

Now that we’ve talked about why you should blog and covered several different types of academic and PhD journey blogs, let’s get to the fun stuff: Designing & starting your blog!

There are two steps to this.

  1. Figure out what you want to blog about.
  2. Create the blog

How to Start an Academic Blog – Part 1: Find Your Purpose and Plan Your Blog

In Part 1 below, I’ll talk you through the process of deciding what you want to blog about.

Don’t rush through Part 1. It is important that you think about the WHY of blogging before jumping into the academic blogging world!

How do I decide What My Blog Should be About?

What is the purpose of your blog?

Grab a piece of paper and jot down the first thing that comes to mind.  Okay. Now that you got that out.  Let’s focus on key things to consider.

What’s the Connection Between my Blog and my Personal Brand?

If you already have a personal brand, then you likely want to tie your blog into your brand. Remember, your blog is your hub and your social media content works as spokes, driving traffic back to your blog.

If you don’t have a personal brand, or aren’t sure about your personal brand, then you may want to develop a personal brand statement. This statement can help ground your online identity into a common thrust or focus. You may find it helpful to write a personal brand statement.  A personal brand statement helps identify your core benefit to your audience and helps differentiate you from others. So it makes sense that your blog houses an aspect of what you’re offering your audience – your core benefit – and what makes you unique.

Here’s an example personal brand statement for me:

Matt Kushin is a professor, author, and blogger who specializes in helping social media educators Teach Confident in today’s digital landscape. He help them build engaging classes that prepare students for careers as professional communicators today.

Take time to develop your personal brand statement if you don’t already have one. Establishing this can help clarify what to blog about.

How Do I Pick a Core Topic for My Blog?

Now that we’ve considered your personal brand, we need to decide what your blog is going to be about. This is your core blog topic. You can decide this by focusing on one or a combination of several key areas of your life:

  • Research Interests – A blog that shares your research and other research emerging in your field.
  • Teaching Interests – A blog that shares teaching assignments, activities, and advice in your field. Hint: That’s the core focus of this blog.
  • Lifestyle Interests – A blog that shares your interest in a hobby, passion, or other aspects of your lifestyle.
  • Identity or Life Stage Interests – A blog that focuses on a unique feature of your identity or stage of life. Often these blogs intersect with another topic of focus, such as your teaching or research. Identity aspects may include culture, gender, race, ethnicity, relationship status, parenting status, among others. A life stage circumstance may be where you live, such as a big city.

The good news is that your blog’s core topic can grow and change as you do.  You can also stray and write other blog content and see how your audience reacts to it. For example, I am writing this blog post which is outside of my core focus because I’ve had lots of people ask me about academic blogging. So I figured my audience could benefit from this knowledge.

How Do I Establish A Goal for My Blog?

What are your goals for this blog?

Examples: To establish yourself as a thought leader in your field; To offer advice to other PhD students about earning a PhD while living in a small town; To share your passion for your research topic; To build connections and friendships with fellow students who share your passion for budget-friendly cooking and decor; To discuss the pedagogy of your field; To offer an academic’s perspective on key issues facing your field which are often discussed in the news media.

Jot down 1-3 goals. Remember, a goal is a broad statement of what you want to accomplish. Return to the list “why start an academic blog…” at the top of this post if you need some help.

How Do I Identify My Target Audience for My Blog?

Who is your target audience for your blog?

Likely, it falls into one of the below categories. Of course, you may reach multiple audiences from this list. So start with your primary audiences – the one or two groups that you are most interested in reading. Then, list your secondary audiences – those who would also benefit from your blog.

  • Other PhD students (for PhD journey bloggers)
  • Other academics
  • Educators – both in and outside of higher education. For example, many of the readers of this blog teach outside of the university setting.
  • The Public – this may be the general public or a part of the public interested in your area of expertise (e.g., if you’re a biologist and you want to reach those in the public who are passionate about sustainability).
  • The Media – Your area of expertise may be a hot topic in the news. Here’s your chance to establish yourself as a thought leader and potentially earn your way into media coverage.
  • Potential Clients and Customers – Are you an academic who also does consulting? Are you an academic with something to sell, such as a book? A blog can help you attract clients / customers.

Let’s think a little more about your audience.

What do you want your audience to think, feel, do?

If you are writing an advice-based blog, then you want your audience to take some sort of action. If it’s a cooking blog for academics, for example, you want your fans to try the recipes and share in your love of cooking. You may also want them to have a warm, welcomed feeling when they’re on your blog, giving them a sense of the comfort and warmth that resonates through your personality.

How Do I Succeed at Blogging?

What does success look like for your blog? First, make your blog a success by defining what success means to you. Your blog doesn’t have to compete with any other blog. This is your corner of the Internet. So sit back and think about what you want out of this investment.

Examples: Do you want a lot of web traffic – e.g., readers  – and thus possible influence? Do you want to feel part of a community? Do you want to build intimate connections with a small group of readers that can generate conversations and build relationships? Do you feel that success is the opportunity to express your identity?

For me, success is measured a few ways:

  • People Helped in Their Teaching – This blog is about sharing my journey as a social media professor and helping others. So, my core goal is to help others teach social media. You might say this is a measure of my influence in the social media education space. People helped is tracked through:
    1. Comments, emails, social media and offline conversations that I have with people who have read my blog and have told me anecdotally that I have assisted them in some way. Also, I get requests for materials and questions that offer me opportunities to help.
    2. Traffic – I monitor my Google Analytics and look at various traffic metrics that indicate the number of people I am reaching and thus potentially helping.
    3. Book sales – See below.
  • Relationships – The relationships and connections I build with others. These are vital to me. They make me happy.
  • Opportunities – These are opportunities I get to speak or be a part of cool projects because of this blog.

More recently, I’ve thought about book sales. Since my blog is the primary way in which I sell my book, I’ve tracked how the blog generates leads to the Amazon buy page (I cannot track completed sales because Amazon does not offer tracking codes all the way through to sales).

  • Book Sales – The number of books I sell in a month. These sales help me measure my People Helped because my book helps people teach social media.

Return to your goals. What does achieving those blog goals look like for you? How might your blog advance your personal brand and what would be a measurement of your personal brand being advanced? Jot some things down.

What Should I Write About?

You’ve figured out what you want to blog about and what success looks like for you. You’ve tied your blog into your personal brand. Now, comes the big question: What will you write about?

Be realistic with your answer. Most bloggers suffer burnout. They crank out dozens of posts in the first few months and then struggle to write anything. The reason is that they thought they were passionate about something only to find out, they didn’t have as much to say as they thought they did.

Don’t fall into this trap. Before committing to a blog topic, spend 20 minutes jotting down as many blog topic ideas as you can. Your topic ideas don’t have to be fully formed. Just get the broad idea on paper.

Some great places to start are by reviewing the list of blog topic ideas below, browsing some of the academic blogs listed above in this post, or looking over your own research, teaching, or other areas of interest a bit before sitting down to come up with your list.

If you can’t come up with 20 topic ideas that you are passionate about writing, then maybe it is time to consider a different topic.

I keep a running list of blog topic ideas on my to-do-list app. I jot them down as the idea comes to me. Then, when it is time to write, I always have a few good ideas to work from.

Blog Topic Ideas

In my experience, the two big reasons academics don’t blog are 1) A perceived lack of time, and 2) The “I don’t know what to write about” reason.

Matt Might provides a great list of 6 different blog posts that academics can write. They are:

  1. The lecture post
  2. The “reply to public” post
  3. The advice post
  4. The vented steam post
  5. Blog as code repository (for those who teach coding. But, this could be expanded to other disciplines. The idea is sharing your work).
  6. The post as long-term memory

To Matt’s great list, I would like to add a few additional types of academic blog posts:

  1. The Pedagogy Post – The pedagogy post talks about the teaching of your field of expertise. It be philosophical or reflective in nature. It may discuss issues or trends your field is facing in terms of pedagogy. It may discuss challenges in preparing your students for success in the field.
  2. The Assignment Post – This is a form of pedagogy post. It focuses specifically on an activity or assignment that you use to teach your subject expertise. By writing this type of post (which is the type of post I mostly write), you can help others dedicated to teaching your subject area. Here’s an example assignment post I wrote. 
  3. The Announcement Post – This post shares your upcoming activities with your readers. It may let them know about an upcoming presentation you are giving at a conference. It may announce a recent publication that may be of interest to your readers. Here’s an example announcement post I wrote.
  4. The Takeaway Post – This post shares with your readers key takeaways from a conference or other attended event. Here’s an example of a takeaway post I wrote.
  5. The Book, Article, Software (or other Tool) Review Post – A great way to contribute to the field is to write reviews of article, books, or tools that are pertinent to your field.

How Often Should I Publish?

There is no right answer here. But keep in mind blogger burnout. Rather than publishing a ton and running out of gas, space your posts out.

Be realistic with your expectations of yourself. Publishing more than twice a month may not be realistic with all the demands you have on your plate.

When I started, I published every 2 weeks during the academic year. Over time, I have slowed that down to my squishy self-requirement: At least once a month during the academic year. I try to publish more often if possible. But I do not expect myself to, and that’s an important distinction.  I rarely publish during the summer because I’ve noticed my readership falls off during those months, as academics have their time and attention focused elsewhere.

A related question is: When should I publish?

I’ve experimented with this for my audience. I’ve found that Monday mornings work best for me. Academics are eager to get back into the fold as the week starts. But experiment and try what works for you. I believe that being consistent about the day of the week you publish helps set expectations for yourself and your readers.

How to Start an Academic Blog: Part 2 – Building the Blog

Now that you have a core blog topic, blog goals, a defined target audience(s), a list of topics to write about, and a posting plan and schedule, it is for the fun part! It is time to build your blog!

What Do I Need to Get Started?

The great news is that it’s easy and inexpensive to start a blog.

You will need:

  • A blogging content management platform – e.g., WordPress, Blogger.
  • A domain name
  • A web host

When it comes to content management platforms, I am personally a fan of WordPress and have run sites on both WordPress.com and WordPress.org – more below. So that’s what I will focus on. But keep in mind that there there are other platforms out there, such as Blogger and Typepad.

If you go with WordPress, there are two options. Below are some pros and cons to each.

Option 1: WordPress.org

The open-source self-hosted version of WordPress.

Pros:

  • The software is open-source and free
  • Customizable URL. Example: https://myawesomeacademicblog.com
  • Fully customizable website with plugins and custom themes
  • The data and the website belong to you
  • Build storefronts for selling products
  • Run ads and earn a percentage of revenue
  • Free of ads run by WordPress
  • Google Analytics can be added via plugins

Cons:

  • Need to buy a domain and pay for hosting. As a starting point, this generally costs somewhere between $3 – $10 a month. Discussed further below.
  • Responsibility for backing up website is on you.
  • Responsible for updates to WordPress (which often is done by your host) and your plugins and themes (which is generally done by a push of the button when logged into WordPress)

Option 2: WordPress.com

The hosted version of WordPress by the WordPress team.

Pros:

  • Free (up to 3GB of space)
  • Easy to set up and use
  • Website is hosted for you
  • No domain or URL purchases needed
  • Paid upgrade options

Cons:

  • Domain is not fully customizable with the free version. That is, you’re stuck with something like https://myawesomeacademicblog.wordpress.com
  • No plugins, which allow you to customize your blog
  • No custom themes
  • Ads placed all over your site that you have no control over
  • Limited access to web traffic metrics

With that said, there are paid plans to have WordPress.com host your site for you with different pricing options. This makes things easy, and the plans offer custom domains.

Building Your Academic Blog on a WordPress.org Site

build an academic wordpress blog

If you go with WordPress.org, you will need a host to  host the WordPress software and a domain where users can find your site (like how you are on MattKushin.com right now). It may be easiest to buy the domain and the hosting from the same company.  But I’ve put options for both below.

Picking a Domain

When you get started, you will want to decide on a website domain (that is, what your URL is for your site).

A lot of academics use their names as their domains – like me! –  and others use titles related to their blog topic. Think about what people might be searching on the Internet that will lead them to your blog. NameMesh offers a free tool that will generate domain name ideas for you.

Website Hosting

Web hosts generally allow you to bring your own domain (purchased elsewhere) or easily and efficiently purchase a domain as part of your hosting package. They sometimes offer a free domain as a part of your purchase. Here are a few popular options (note: Both are affiliate links):

  • SiteGround – Host your WordPress site on Siteground. They have different pricing options and often run deals.
  • BlueHost – Host your website on BlueHost. Like Siteground, tehy offer different pricing options and promotions depending on when you sign up.

Each web host has its own way of installing WordPress. They generally make them as simple as possible to help you get started. You’ll just want to follow their instructions and they offer support if needed.

WordPress Plugins

Plugins are one major reason to host your own WordPress site. Plugins are not required but they are desired because they allow you to customize your site and really boost what your site can do. A quick look at the WordPress plugin page shows that there are plugins for seemingly anything you would want to do with a website from email marketing to page builders to form builders to data backups to SEO and beyond. You can add a Facebook pixel to track traffic to your website for remarketing purposes. Many plugins are free, and some are paid, while others are freemium. I’ve linked to a few popular plugins below for you to research. Most of them are free, but some are freemium:

  • Google Analytics  – There are a few ways to add Google Analytics to a WordPress site. Plugins are one of them. There are several popular plugins for connecting your Google Analytics to your WordPress site.
  • SEOYoast SEO Plugin is certainly a popular SEO plugin with a free option that provides a lot of functionality.  Table of Contents plugins such as the Easy Table of Contents Plugin can also offer some SEO boosts because, the argument goes, they help readers see what’s on your site while offering some signals to Google. Adding Google Search Console to your website is a great way to help with SEO efforts. One way to add search console is through Yoast.
  • GDPR Cookie Consent – Given GDPR laws, you probably see GDPR cookie consent popups on many of the websites you visit. GDPR Cookie plugins or Complianz, among others, can help you inform your readers about information you are collecting through Google Analytics, Facebook Pixel, etc.
  • Website Speed – Slow load times hurt search results ranking and thus traffic and SEO. There are a number of plugins out there that attempt to speed up your site load time. A few include WP Super Cache, SG Optimizer (for those using SiteGround as a host), Hummingbird, and others.
  • Website Security – Security is definitely an issue when it comes to any website. Plugins. These sorts of plugins also have premium (paid) versions that may very well be worth the investment. A few popular security plugins include  JetPack, All In One, Wordfence Security.
  • Site Backups – Backing up your website provides peace of mind. As before, you’ve got options – both free and paid – including JetPack, UpDraft, BackWPup, among many others.
  • Academics – If you will be discussing research on your blog, a handy plugin is the Academic Blogger’s Toolkit.

Next Steps

Alright, time to get started on building your blog!

If you do start an academic blog, please  post the URL to your blog in the comments below with a brief description of your blog. That way, other readers will be able to see them.

I first had the idea to write this post in fall 2019 when I realized I was getting a lot of questions about academic blogging and how to start an academic blog.  The post took on a life of its own, growing and growing as I worked on it.  I hope it offered some help and motivation.  I hope to update this post in time with more resources and information. So bookmark it so you can come back to it.

– Cheers!

Matt

 

 

 

 

 

 

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