Should you start a science blog? Ask yourself these questions.

Recently in the comments, we were wondering about why ecologists who would be good bloggers (meaning both that they’d enjoy it, and they’d consider it a worthwhile use of their time if they were to do it) don’t blog. One reason might be uncertainty about what it takes, and what you can expect to get out of it. So if you’re thinking about starting a blog (and if you’re not, maybe you should be!), I suggest asking yourself the following questions (warning, long-ish post ahead):

  • Why do you want to blog? There are lots of good reasons to blog. My reasons–to have in-depth conversations about my specialized interests, to provide advice and mentoring to students, and to influence the direction of my field–aren’t the only ones. Most science bloggers write for a non-professional audience, as a form of outreach or to correct bad science reporting in the popular media. Or you might want to influence policy. Or your lab might use a group blog as a way for everyone to keep up with what everyone else is working on. Or you might just use it as a way to keep notes to yourself, but put it online on the off chance anyone else happens to find those notes useful. Or you might just enjoy it. Etc. Note that there are bad reasons to blog. “I just want to share links” is a bad reason to blog, at least if that’s most or all of what you plan to do. Twitter is much better for that. “I want to socialize with other scientists, have lots of little conversations, make some connections, etc.” is a bad reason. Again, that’s what Twitter is for (more on this). Most blogs are more like broadcasts than conversations. Only a minority of blogs (including this one) have good active comment threads. “It will force me to get some practice writing” is a bad reason. Yes, blogging is good writing practice. But a blog is not a commitment device. Wanting to write causes you to have a blog, not the other way around. “Blogging will help me publish more papers and/or get more grants” is a bad reason, because it probably won’t (though I have two, count ’em two, papers that grew out of blog posts). Blogging absolutely can have benefits for you besides just personal enjoyment. But those benefits mostly are less concrete than “more papers and grants”, and to the extent that they are concrete they’re fairly serendipitous. And “I want to raise my profile in my field” arguably is a bad reason. Having a blog that’s widely read in your field absolutely will raise your profile, which may have some (modest) benefits to your career; see here and here for more on this. But paradoxically, I think the best way to raise your profile by blogging is to not blog with the goal of raising your profile. In particular, I doubt you’ll be able to raise your profile to any degree worth caring about by blogging summaries of your own research (which is what most scientists I’ve met who want to “raise their profile” by blogging are thinking of doing). The potential audience for posts about your research is almost certainly very small. Anyone in your field who wants a summary of your research can read your abstracts. Blogging about your research adds little value, even if you throw in pretty pictures of your study organism or whatever. And odds are that hardly anybody outside your field (people in other fields, non-academics, whoever) wants to read blog posts about your research. Put it this way: I don’t know of any high profile science blogger whose primary goal was raising their profile in their field, or who became high-profile by blogging about their own research.* The closest I can think of is Hope Jahren, and she wasn’t that close; she was trying to get noticed as a writer. I should emphasize that I don’t have any problem with anyone who blogs about their own research, as many scientists do. I just don’t think blogging about your own research is likely to raise your profile.
  • Do you care if anyone reads it? The internet is not a democracy. The distribution of attention paid to anything (blogs, Twitter accounts, movies, books, peer-reviewed papers, preprints…) is very highly skewed and has been since that thing first came into being. A small fraction of anything gets a large fraction of the attention. So if you want to build an audience comprising more than your family and friends (which, again, is best thought of as a means to an end, not an end in itself), you’re going to have to work for it. In particular, you’re almost certainly going to have to post often–I’d say at least one substantive post/week–and keep it up for months. Just posting once every few months hoping a post goes viral on social media or gets linked to by some widely-read blog probably will not cut it**, though there are exceptions (e.g., you have thousands of Twitter followers, or you’re already very well-known for other reasons). Of course, you may well not care about having an audience. Or you might only care a bit, seeing any audience you get as a nice bonus. Etc. Which is totally fine! The point is that you need to match your approach to blogging to your desire for an audience.
  • Do you really want to do it? Because there’s always something else you could be doing, and so you need to weigh up the opportunity cost of doing something else instead. I like blogging and often feel the urge to do it when I could be doing teaching prep or writing papers or etc. And sometimes I give in to that urge! But yet I remain productive in my day job, and here’s my secret. Everybody procrastinates sometimes, very much including me. But I procrastinate by blogging, which I enjoy. As opposed to, say, watching tv (which I don’t do much), or staring at Facebook (which I’m not on). So I get something out of the time I spend procrastinating. Put another way, I think of my blogging as taking time away from other forms of procrastination or recreation, not as taking time away from work.
  • Do you have something to say? A blog is the unedited voice of an author or authors. That’s a key attraction of the form, I think–voice. One way to develop your own voice is to focus on topics that you’re passionate about and/or know a lot about (not that you can’t also blog about things you’re unsure about). That’s what we do at Dynamic Ecology. For instance, there are vast areas of ecology we basically never write about–conservation biology, ecosystem ecology, landscape ecology…Writing about stuff you know also makes it easier to write posts quickly. For instance, many of our advice posts are very easy for us to write, because we’re just writing down stuff we’ve already said to our own students many times over the years. Of course, your choice of specialization will affect the size of your potential audience. For instance, many of our most popular posts are those of interest to academics or scientists more broadly, rather than just ecologists. And as I said above, the potential audience for posts summarizing your own research is probably small. But I wouldn’t let that affect your choice of what to write about.
  • How well and how quickly do you write? I write reasonably well***, I write quickly, and I’m comfortable writing in what I hope is a conversational style. Which means that writing as many posts as I do doesn’t take as much time and effort as it would for many other people. If you find writing a struggle, or if you only feel comfortable writing academic papers, you’re going to struggle as a blogger. Then again, you’ll get better and faster with practice.
  • How self-confident are you? This question is most relevant if you’re thinking of posting your own opinions, particularly critical ones and/or opinions on hot button issues. Both too little and too much self-confidence are bad. Too little, and you’ll never work up the courage to post anything worth saying. Too much, and you’ll eventually post something you’ll regret. There aren’t many people who really, truly do not care what anyone else thinks of their writing, or of them. So there’s an optimal level of fear of what others will think of your posts, which for most people is some intermediate level or other. (Aside: the only way to guarantee that nobody will ever get upset with anything you post is never to post. Blogging means accepting some risk, however small, that someone will get upset at something you write.)
  • Can you live offline with whatever you say online? Because you’re going to have to. Even people who don’t read your blog might look at you differently just knowing that you have a blog. Unless you blog under a pseudonym, of course…
  • Do you want or need to blog under a pseudonym? Following on from the previous two bullets…When it’s ok or advisable to use a pseudonym is an issue on which there’s strong disagreement. There are people who will tell you it’s always and obviously a terrible idea to use a pseudonym. Others will tell you that it’s always and obviously a terrible idea not to use a pseudonym, even if you’re a tenured prof who doesn’t plan to say anything the least bit controversial. My own view is in between: I think there are good reasons to blog under a pseudonym, and good reasons not to. You need to decide which ones apply to you (and unfortunately, circumstances beyond your control may dictate whether some reasons for having a pseudonym apply to you). Terry McGlynn has posts here, here, and here that together provide an entry into the extensive online discussion about pseudonymity, and illustrate how heated that discussion can get sometimes. This group post from several biology bloggers on why they don’t use pseudonyms is useful too. I don’t know that you necessarily have to do a deep dive into those discussions before making your own choice. I didn’t; for me, the choice was a no-brainer, given my goals and circumstances. But if you’re unsure, or just want to double-check your own instincts, you might want to click through.
  • Are there others who want to do it with you? It’s easier to keep up a high rate of posting if you’re splitting the work. And a small group blog can have a more diverse range of voices and cover a wider range of topics than any one person can.
  • Do people whose opinions you care about support it? In general, blogging’s not likely to have much of a concrete impact on your career one way or the other. It’s not likely to make much difference to your prospects for a job or tenure, or to your publication output, or your odds of getting a grant, or to your ability to attract graduate students. As I said above, the benefits (and costs) are mostly less concrete than that. But one of the few concrete ways in which it might affect your career in a major way is if one of the few people who has a lot of power over your career–your supervisor, your head of department–has a strongly positive or negative opinion of your blogging.
  • Have you considered trying it out to see if you like it? Maybe write a guest post for a friend’s blog. Or comment at length on someone else’s blog (if you find yourself commenting often on other blogs, that’s a good sign you might want to blog). Or just set up a blog and write a few posts to see how you like it. WordPress makes it trivially easy to get started. You can set up a blog in less than an hour if you resist the urge to browse the bazillion templates looking for just the right one. 🙂

*There’s probably a post to be written about why one might want a “higher profile” in one’s field. Yes, it’s nice to have a high profile. But I have the impression that many people think a high profile in one’s field is an end in itself–it’s not–and that it has larger or different concrete benefits than it actually has. For instance, it seems like a lot of people mistakenly think that high profile scientists get lots of papers and grants just because they’re high profile. I think there might be some truth to that for the very highest profile scientists, but for the most part I think it’s false. Everybody gets rejected (Cassey & Blackburn 2004). A lot. Even high profile people. Even Mercer Award winners. And even me. And insofar as high profile people have lower rejection rates than lower profile people, it’s mostly because high profile people write good papers and good grant applications. That’s why they’re high profile, mostly–they’re good at what they do. The Matthew Effect exists in academic science, but it’s mostly not a big effect.

**For instance, most of the links in our linkfests only draw 10-20 clicks. And most of the people who click through to your blog once are not thereby going to become regular readers.

***Not as well as Brian and Meg

29 thoughts on “Should you start a science blog? Ask yourself these questions.

  1. Thanks Jeremy. I have been reading quite a few blogs about blogging the past couple of weeks. As a wildlife ecologist and high school science teacher (biology, environmental science, AP-environmental science, and chemistry), I have been contemplating building a blog to provide students and others from our community a “go to” place for information that, in terms of complexity and readability, fits between the superficial information from media & state/federal agency press releases and the detailed specialized information of professional journals. My intent is to write primarily about environmental science issues as they relate to the curriculum and the blog’s audience. It will most definitely not be “place to get homework” or a list of links. Your post has given me some additional insight for how I can better focus my efforts as I work toward this goal.

  2. I think you did a good job capturing all the major considerations, especially being a fast writer, which I think is a key to keeping at it (or at least be okay with the time commitment). I also feel like, at least for anyone pre-tenure, blogging can’t be a top priority because the benefits are never going to match getting papers out. That means that sometimes your blogging output will go up and down.

    But blogging is a really nice way to have conversations about ideas that you might not, in your working life, get the opportunity to express too often.

    • “I also feel like, at least for anyone pre-tenure, blogging can’t be a top priority because the benefits are never going to match getting papers out. ”

      That comes down to what blogging is taking time away from, and how much time it’s taking. I spend a lot of time blogging*, but I don’t think I’d have any more papers than I have had I not been blogging. In part because I’ve always aimed for quality over quantity when it comes to publications, but that gets into a different discussion.

      A while back Jeremy Yoder commented that this is why there’s not really much of an ecology blogosphere. Because a cohort of young ecologists who’d been active or semi-active bloggers had now moved into (or were trying very hard to move into) faculty positions. So didn’t feel they had time to blog any more.

      “That means that sometimes your blogging output will go up and down.”

      This gets back to why it helps to blog with a couple of other people. I post more often than Brian and Meg overall. But there have been times when each of us has covered for the others by putting up some quickie posts while the others were too busy to post. The problem with your blogging output going up and down is twofold. #1, if your output too often drops to zero for extended periods, you never build an audience. #2, if your output too often drops to zero for extended periods, it’s probably going to drop to zero permanently. You get out of the habit of blogging, or never get into the habit in the first place. Thinking about opportunity costs is important, but at some level it’s also impossible, because you can’t really say for sure what you would’ve done instead with any unit of time spent on blogging (or on anything else). But if you’re in the habit of doing something, it doesn’t *feel* like it’s taking time away from anything else, even though in some sense it is. Sometimes I think that the secret to successful, enjoyable time allocation is not to think *too* much about the impossible-to-solve unconstrained global optimization problem “How should I allocate my time?” Rather, you need to strike the right balance between consciously thinking about how to allocate your time, and having habits–a routine–that works reasonably well for you.

      *No, I don’t know how much. I don’t track my time, and if you don’t do that you’re likely to badly over- or underestimate how much time you spend doing anything. How much time I spend also varies a lot from week to week. Some weeks I spend hardly any time at all. Some weeks I’ll spend a day or more.

  3. Forgot to note this in the post, but another common form of science blogging that isn’t likely to attract much of an audience is summaries of papers by others. Professionals who want a summary of paper X will just read the abstract. And nobody except your friends is going to use your blog as a way to filter the literature–use the fact that you chose to write about a paper as a reason to read that paper. Every professional scientist already has their own ways of filtering the literature; they’re not likely to add “read the papers you blog about” to their list of filtering methods. Especially since anyone who wants to filter the literature via the recommendations of others will probably use Faculty of 1000, journal blogs*, and/or Twitter. And if you’re summarizing the work of others for non-professionals, then you’re writing popular science, and there’s already a *lot* of popular science writing out there.

    *Back when I was at Oikos Blog, I sometimes wrote posts highlighting and briefly commenting on recent Oikos papers. They were by far the least-read sort of post I did.

  4. ​I have been blogging about my PhD for a fairly long time now, with the widest range of topics possible related to the life of a PhD-student (including but not limited to travel stories, research ideas, details on practical work, personal research promotion, discussion of research within the field, applied ecology, basic principles within ecology…), all aimed towards a broad non-professional audience.
    It turns out very hard to predict which post will perform better than another. It seems that nice pictures always do the trick to reach a wide audience (although this doesn’t mean I get any message across). Discussions of research from other people (i.e. the ‘popular science writing’) seems to work fairly good as well. I think this is not due to scientists really deciding on reading the discussed paper based on my information, but to an educated audience wanting a light and digestible read of what’s going on in my study field, without the need to tire their brain on scientific language.
    Another part of my blog that attracts a large percentage of visitors is the more ‘permanent’ part, the pages where I summarize my research and PhD-trajectory. These ‘self-promotion’-pages might not make (or brake) my career in science, but I’m still glad I can give interested people a summary of what I am doing.
    ​It is interesting to see the different approaches in science blogging and how all of them have a different audience. But I think the main conclusion for all of them will be: you’ll have to love doing it, or it is never gonna be worth your time.

    • “It turns out very hard to predict which post will perform better than another.”

      We can predict this roughly for our own posts, but with a fair bit of error.

      “It seems that nice pictures always do the trick to reach a wide audience”

      I’m sure pretty pictures help for many blogs. They’re not essential of course. I know you weren’t saying they were essential, but I’ve read others say that you *have* to have pictures if you want people to read your blog. Which is false, as illustrated by many widely-read blogs in many fields: Dynamic Ecology, Small Pond Science, Andrew Gelman’s blog, Paul Krugman’s blog, Crooked Timber, Marginal Revolution, Why Evolution Is True…Whether pictures are more important if you’re aiming for a popular audience rather than a professional audience, I’m not sure.

      “you’ll have to love doing it, or it is never gonna be worth your time.”

      Absolutely. The questions I pose in the post are meant to help prospective bloggers figure out if they’d love doing it.

      • I agree a hundred percent with you :-). About the pictures, I am not sure either. It helps catching the eye, but I think the extra viewers are in most cases not gonna read the text behind it, so only very informative pictures would help bringing the message across. Especially on the internet pictures seem to live a separate life from the story they are attached to. Nevertheless, they could serve a role as illustrations and visualisations for a better understanding, of course

  5. One point somewhat related to self-confidence and anonymity is thinking about what negative reactions you might encounter based on what you write. Myself and other female scientists online have had to deal with a lot more trolling and personal attacks compared to male colleagues. All of the female bloggers that I’ve interacted with have been targeted in this way which is disturbing and may prevent many people from blogging.

    • Yes, absolutely. This is part of what I meant when I said that circumstances beyond your control might strongly affect your decision on whether to use a pseudonym. In retrospect I probably should’ve spelled that out.

      Choice of topic probably comes into play here too. Some topics are more likely to attract trolls and personal attacks than others.

      What advice would you offer to women who are thinking of blogging, in terms of deciding whether to do it, whether to use a pseud, etc.? I ask because it seems like there’s quite varying and contradictory advice out there, which I’d imagine would make it difficult to make decisions. Looking back to when I started blogging, I’m lucky that I never had to worry about this.

      At Dynamic Ecology, we’re blessed with great commenters. We average something like 10-20 comments per post, and those aren’t all coming from the same few people (no one commenter provides more than a few percent of our comments). And we do sometimes write about topics that I’d think would run a high risk of attracting trolls, such as Meg’s posts on stereotype threat and the recent run of male Waterman Award winners. But yet we literally only have to block one in a thousand comments (I tracked the data for a while), and if memory serves most of those blocked comments weren’t personal attacks on Meg because she’s a woman. And we’ve only ever had to ban a very small number of commenters (maybe 5-10?), again for various reasons. I don’t know why we haven’t had more problems, and I certainly hope that more problems don’t develop in future. N=1 obviously. I wouldn’t claim that our experience with commenters is representative or necessarily holds any lessons for anyone else. And I certainly don’t mean to downplay what problems we have had.

      • The thing that has been weird is that the harassment hasn’t been through comments on the blog. Those you can manage a bit by blocking comments or posters. This works in a similar way on Twitter. I was harassed by an individual who used my institutional email, so they had taken the time to do some research on me and to find out how to contact me directly. It was creepy, disturbing, and threatening, and completely tanked my productivity for that entire day and made me feel very unsafe. I think that the topics that I write about are important and that helped me to stay strong and positive during that particular incident and to continue blogging.

  6. I’ll just add that in addition to AEMcDonald’s specifics on risks to women, there are other risks as well. As a grad student or postdoc, if you’re a *successful* blogger, you’ll get a (hopefully good) reputation that isn’t centered around your research. That may make you seem more like an “outreach person” than a “serious scientist” in the eyes of some. There are other risks in talking about academic culture when you’re in a more vulnerable spot than having a tenure-track job. But I don’t think it’s very clear how big these risks are or if they’re more perceived than actual.

    • “But I don’t think it’s very clear how big these risks are or if they’re more perceived than actual.”

      Yes, it is hard to judge. I feel pretty comfortable with my view in the post: I don’t think even quite a widely-read blog is likely to have much impact on your career one way or the other. A blog, even a successful one, is one thing among many, and no one thing is likely to have much effect on your career on its own. I also think that the people who take up blogging in a serious way are disproportionately likely to be good at it and so experience career benefits on balance. FWIW, I’ve noted in the past that there are grad students and postdocs in EEB who’ve been quite into blogging and other social media (Jarrett Byrnes, Jacquelyn Gill, Jeremy Yoder) who’ve gotten faculty positions and interviews. So if you forced me to guess, I’d say that the risks to your career are more perceived than actual in most cases.

      But all this is a judgment call on my part, based on instincts and anecdotes. If your own instincts tell you you shouldn’t blog, I’d say follow your instincts, not mine.

      • I think that all makes a lot of sense. (And I AM going to blog. Soon.)

        But I would also caution not to judge a blog’s impact based solely on readership. I was surprised several months ago when I had a call with Dave Tilman about some of my (ongoing) PhD research, and he casually mentioned that he’d heard I was “writing some stuff on the internet” about parental leave. Now, Dave does not read blogs. So someone who does read the blogs must have mentioned it to him.

        I myself have referred to Dynamic Ecology blog posts when talking to others. Specifically, I can think of a time I referenced (and linked to) statistical machismo when talking to a coauthor about how to address a reviewer’s comments. And some of Meg’s parenting-in-ecology posts have spurred me to talk to non-DE-readers about the contents.

        My point being that you can develop a reputation *beyond* non-blog readers.

      • “My point being that you can develop a reputation *beyond* non-blog readers.”

        Yes, absolutely. Whatever reputation you develop by blogging is not just a reputation with people who read your blog, or any blog. That’s certainly true for Meg, Brian, and I.

        Re: referring to blog posts, increasingly in conversations I find myself referring to stuff I’ve written on the blog. Which feels a little weird sometimes.

    • “Re: referring to blog posts, increasingly in conversations I find myself referring to stuff I’ve written on the blog” I think my grad students are beginning to get tired of me beginning a sentence with “I wrote a blog post about this….” 🙂

  7. Hi Jeremy,

    Thank you for this long post that covers most of the points that have been struggling with to figure out if I should be blogging more actively or not.

    As a PhD researcher, there is one question that is important for me (it is probably implicitly answered in your post). Say that you have a relevant idea that you want to discuss with the “world”. Would you wait until you have enough data to write a proper academic paper and then blog its results or would you say it is better to keep opinion papers for the blog and papers with actual results for academic journals?

    There is this conundrum between getting some papers out (for academia), especially at this stage of PhD, and getting a greater number of blogs out to target a more professional and public audience. Any suggestion?

    • “Would you wait until you have enough data to write a proper academic paper and then blog its results or would you say it is better to keep opinion papers for the blog and papers with actual results for academic journals?”

      I think it depends in part on the audience you’re trying to reach (or more broadly, what you’re trying to accomplish by publishing your work), and how important speed of publication is to you. Blogging about your work in progress certainly is one possible way to try to get feedback on it from experts in your field. There are a few people (Carl Boettiger is one) who publish all their work in progress in the form of open lab notebooks, I think in part in the hopes of getting feedback. But I doubt you’ll get much. Experts who are looking for stuff to read mostly don’t want to read about preliminary results or work in progress.

      Some of your comment hints that you see a potential conflict between blogging about your work for a popular audience, and later being able to publish it. Not sure I understand your concern. Are you worried that a journal would consider a blog post to be “prior publication”? As far as I know, no journal would consider a blog post to be prior publication. Many don’t even consider preprints posted on arXiv or other preprint servers to be prior publication, though some do.

      I do think blogs are better suited than journals as an outlet for opinion pieces. But it depends what audience you’re trying to reach. I have a series of opinion posts here on the intermediate disturbance hypothesis that eventually grew into a peer-reviewed opinion piece (Fox 2013 Trends Ecol Evol).

      Whatever your goals, I wouldn’t worry about getting scooped because you published a blog post or preprint. A blog post is too far removed from a peer reviewed paper for anyone who wants to steal your ideas to easily turn it into a paper (well, unless it’s a pure opinion piece someone could copy and paste). And plagiarists are lazy. Preprints are closer to a final paper, but even then only a *very* small fraction ever get plagiarized, and the plagiarism is easy to detect with text matching software. Heck, a couple of times I’ve given away good ideas of mine that I have no time to pursue as “free ideas” in the form of blog posts. Nobody’s ever picked them up and run with them as far as I know.

  8. This post feels serendipitous to me! I’ve been working on the beginnings of an ecology/evolution-oriented blog, but as someone who is early-career — between undergrad and graduate school — I keep finding myself getting caught up in a kind of non-expert complex. The endgame is primarily for myself as an exercise in writing regularly, in keeping track of interests, as a way to chew on ideas in the literature (as opposed to scarfing down as many papers as possible, which is what I sometimes think I’m supposed to be doing), and — if I’m lucky enough to have any responsive, participatory readers — to have a conversation. I suppose my concern could mostly be nullified by writing well and generally being conscientious, but I’m frankly worried about creating an exposition of my intellectual naivete in at least some posts! In general I want to tend to sway more toward the ‘get your hands dirty to learn’, and to remember that practice makes better, and so forth. But is blogging too public for a very-early-career ecologist?

    I know this is somewhat related to some concerns addressed above involving time allocation. A potential difference in a case such as mine could be analogous to why Adam Ruben claims not to put jokes in his presentations ( My time allocation may not necessarily be a concern to me (maybe blogging would be replacing some other, even-less-productive activity), but maybe it’s a concern to an admissions committee, or a boss, or an adviser. Anecdotally, my current boss/adviser ensemble strongly encourages this kind of engagement!

    Finally, I love Dynamic Ecology and I think I’ve gained a lot of insight more quickly than I would have had I not discovered it. I share your wish for more great ecology/evolution/process-of-science blogs. Thanks for the great work!

    • “I’m frankly worried about creating an exposition of my intellectual naivete in at least some posts!…is blogging too public for a very-early-career ecologist?”

      No, I don’t think so. BioDiverse Perspectives unfortunately seems to have gone under, or at least gone on indefinite hiatus, but when it was active it was all ecology grad students. Caroline Tucker of The EEB and Flow is a postdoc now, but she started blogging there as a grad student. And perhaps closer to the sort of thing you have in mind, PEGE Journal Club is a blog by two ecology grad students. As the name suggests, they blog about papers they’re reading, and their posts often talk about points that they didn’t quite get.

      Using a blog as a way to think out loud, to make notes to oneself about one’s ongoing thoughts and interests, and put possibly-scattered thoughts in writing (which can be very clarifying), all sound to me like perfectly good uses for a blog. I doubt you’ll get many readers, and even fewer comments, especially early on. But you’ll probably get a few, and it sounds like you’d consider that a bonus, which sounds to me like a healthy attitude. I suspect the payoffs to you will be mostly practice writing, reinforcement of good mental habits like thinking about what you read, etc.

      If your adviser thinks it’s a good idea, then I wouldn’t let any hypothetical worries about what future advisers will think hold you back. I certainly wouldn’t worry about what a graduate admissions committee would think. They almost certainly won’t care one way or the other. Plus, you don’t even have to mention the blog in your application (any more than you’re obliged to mention every hobby, every side project, or every detail about how you do your day-to-day work), much less make a big deal of it if you do decide to mention it or put it on your cv. And as part of getting to know prospective graduate advisers (which is something I’m sure you were planning to do), you should try to find out what they’d think of you having a blog. Or maybe better, their attitudes about grad student time allocation and “outside” activities in general. You can just ask them their views on this, and you should cross check by asking their current students. It might also help to have an answer prepared in case a prospective adviser or anyone else asks why you blog. I’d think an honest answer along the lines of what you just said would be fine with most prospective advisers. And if there is someone who responded to your answer by saying dismissively “You’re wasting your time” or words to that effect, well, that’s a reason not to join that person’s lab, because it suggests he/she wouldn’t be a good match for you.

      Thanks for the kind words about Dynamic Ecology, glad you like it.

  9. Any advice on when to take a break from a blog or when to end a blog? I have neglected mine for the past few months because of, you know, my real job :), and am hoping to get back into it soon, but am wondering whether I should in future keep a bank of posts to put out on a regular basis or whether long hiatuses are well-tolerated.

    Also, any advice on how a blog might morph over time? When is it time to throw in the towel?

    • Good questions Arjun.

      The only person I know of who consciously gave up a science blog (as opposed to having one just peter out “accidentally”) is Larry Wasserman, who had a quite prominent statistics blog. Click through, his last post is about why he stopped (basically, he decided he’d said everything he had to say):

      (Aside: I personally don’t agree with Larry’s reasons for stopping. I think the strength of blogging as a form is that you can keep revisiting topics as your thinking evolves. Plus, only a very small fraction of your readers read *every* post, so if you revisit a topic it’s mostly going to be seen by fresh eyes.)

      In economics, Noah Smith became a prominent blogger as a grad student. When he got a faculty position, he stopped blogging for a term while he found his feet. But rather than putting the blog on hiatus, he turned it over to a group of guest bloggers for a term. Of course, to do that you have to find willing guest bloggers, which I think is much easier in economics, which has a much more active blogosphere than any other field. Maybe you could tell your grad students to do some blogging for a term, to give you a break and to give them some practice writing and thinking about big issues in their field?

      No personal experience with long hiatuses. Brian and Meg have taken shorter ones, but only a month or two, not a term or more. I think they’ll really hurt your readership. You won’t be starting entirely from scratch once you restart, but you might be close. Plus, no matter how sure you are that you will restart, there’s a risk you won’t. Put it this way: if I was sure I wanted DE to continue on, I’d never let it go on hiatus. As a last resort, I just repost old stuff from our archives to keep things ticking over.

      I think a blog can morph over time however you want it to. I used to blog on my own, then later invited Brian and Meg on board, which also broadened our topic coverage. If you were to totally change your topic coverage I’m sure you’d lose some readers, but you’d also gain some.

  10. Hi Jeremy,
    Thanks for many good points on why and when to blog.

    There was one point I did not totally agree on though. I do think that practice writing could be one reason, although should perhaps not be the only one. However, I might mean a slightly different thing than you. As I do not have English as my first language, being from Sweden, I see a point in writing about science in my own language and for another audience than scientists. Writing popular science takes some practice in itself and also switching to another language than the common science language English can be another challenge, even if that language is your mother tongue. I see you point though why only practice writing might not be a good reason to write a blog. But it is not obvious that if you write about issues quiet easily in a scientific language in English you are good at expressing that same issue in your own language in a more popularised way. Practicing writing in this way is necessary if you want to be better at it and doing it in a blog have the additional benefits of perhaps getting feedback were you might sense if you got the message cross. A blog might be better to not succeed totally and getting comments on that, than say if you would have written it in a newspaper.

    • Good point Greg, and I don’t actually disagree with you at all. As I said, blogging is good writing practice, including practice writing in a second language. But it’s only good practice if you do it, obviously. What I was arguing against in the post is the idea that, if you merely set up a blog, you’ll *force* yourself to post.

      • Yes, I agree to that. It is possible to set up a blog which is closed to all except invited people. That might be used as a writing exercise journal or similarly in for example a course. But as you said, you have to want to write from the beginning.

  11. Before I started college, I wanted to write about science. To make that dream come true, I created a science blog (The blog is an education/humor blog.). I’m not writing full-time or getting money for my work, but at least I’m doing what I want (and of course, I’m happy).
    Thanks for making this post 🙂

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