Being a PhD researcher in a digital world (Carolyn Leslie)

Carolyn Leslie is a PhD researcher in the Department of Creative Arts and English at La Trobe University, Australia. She is doing a creative-led PhD by writing a novel for young people about girl internees in Changi during World War II who made a quilt in secret, as well as an accompanying critical component. Carolyn is also an accredited editor and an author of works for young people and adults. 

She can be found @carolynleslie on Twitter. Her ORCID is 0000-0001-7622-1975.

Note: Carolyn wrote this post before COVID-19 restrictions came into effect. Because so much has changed in the intervening time, she has written an update that addresses some of the challenges that these restrictions are having on higher degree researchers. Her update appears at the end of this post. This post is simultaneously cross-posted on the Research Whisperer blog. 

Photo by Mike Erskine | 
During last year, I found myself drawn to attend several workshops run by La Trobe's Research Education and Development (RED) team. They had topics such as blogging and developing a digital profile. My interests sprang from a desire to get my research and writing on girl internees in Changi during World War II – and my wider interests in the editing and publishing worlds – out into the wider world.

However, kept coming up against an existential blockage: what sort of ‘me’ did I want to be when I’m out there in the digital world? And who did I want to connect with? Who did I want to share my work, words and thoughts with?

Why is being a digital ‘me’ such a complex question?

Who ‘I’ am in the digital world had been a fraught question for me – because ‘I’ contain many selves. Apart from being a (part-time, mature-age) PhD researcher doing a non-traditional style of PhD, I’m also an editor running a freelance business, a published author (for both young people and adult readers) and a family member/friend/local community member.

For a long time, I tried to take the marketing approach of segmenting your audience. That is, I worked to develop a different ‘voice and channel’ tactic to reach out  to different groups of people and organisations. However, most of the time that just lead to a form of textual shutdown. Was I writing to reach out to clients? Or members of the academic world? Young people who might want to read my work? Adults who might want to publish it? This pre-considered thinking made it all too tough to write. I didn’t write or participate anywhere, because I spent so much time being caught in an analysis loop.

What worked for me is when I started to think less about who I wanted to reach, and more about what communities I was a member of and what I had to offer. In other words, I stopped thinking about what the digital world could bring to me, and more about what I could offer the communities that resided in those spaces.

Who do I want to connect with? Who do I want to share my work, words and thoughts with?

My digital communities swirl around each other. I gravitate towards discussions about doing a PhD, writing and publishing, children’s and young adult literature, and editing. Sometimes, these worlds overlap, especially the writing and PhD worlds. The discussions that take place in these spaces revolve around topics such as strategies on getting the work done, balancing research, paid work and family life, upcoming conferences and opportunities, and general support.

Who I am in these communities is an extension of the kind of academic/writer I want to be. This is a mixture of my personality, preferred mode of working and who I am inspired by. I aim to be warm, encouraging, generous with my knowledge and vulnerable. These working traits – while some of them simply are just an extension of who I am IRL – are ones that I’ve carried over from my extensive editing career. Editing and publishing are collaborative work spaces – nothing is produced without the input of an entire team that bring their unique skills to a project. Long-term success as an editor – and especially as a freelancer – is dependent on building good working relationships as well as doing high-quality works. So, it is within the digital academic communities I belong to: the focus is getting the work done and getting it out there while being supported and nurtured as you do it.

I’m a highly text-based person, so I look mostly to Twitter and Facebook for my communities. Other visual- and video-based social media spaces – like Instagram, YouTube and TikTok  - are also useful spaces to browse. Here are some hashtags,  Twitter handles and moderated groups that I’ve found welcoming and useful:

PhD support and conversations about how to get it done


Editing and publishing conversations


Writing for young people (children’s + young adult literature)


Academic research in children’s literature


So: who am I in the digital space?

I’m a member of overlapping sets of academic and writing communities. I’m a (proto-)academic and writer operating in a thoughtful, yet imperfect, way that offers – and is offered – peer support. I share resources and discoveries, and I’m not afraid to ask my communities for help if I need something. I do this with mostly with text, in digital spaces where my people are gathering. Being ‘me’ online means being a member of communities that support, nurture and foster academic and creative thinking and writing.

In the digital world, I am my outward-facing, flawed, blossoming, writerly self.


I’m writing this section in early April 2020, where COVID-19 restrictions are coming in to play. In my home state of Victoria, Australia, we are in Stage 3 restrictions. This has important ramifications for everyone, but for PhD researchers, it means the university campus is closed, people are working and studying at home, and all teaching is being done online. Furthermore, other institutions (like archives, libraries, museums) are also physically closed (although many are opening up their digital offerings). It means that for many of us, our research and its methods are dealing with wild and fluctuating changes. What we signed up for may no longer reflect what we are actually able to do.

COVID-19 restrictions also mean that the conditions that we are working under are massively affected. Many people have lost their jobs – and while the government is announcing financial help, this still causes stress and financial pain. Being restricted (mostly) to our homes means our home world is also now our work world; we may be suddenly sharing limited spaces with other members of our households. The adults we live with may also be working from home; our children might not be returning to school for months (which may mean that supervising online learning is coming our way). We may leaning into roles as carers in a way that we are not used to – or be the ones needing care when services are being altered on a daily basis. And, sadly, many of us may face severe illness and heartbreaking situations as this virus takes hold.

All of this has had me thinking a lot about being a PhD researcher in a digital world. Because now – more than ever, even more than when I wrote the original version of this post – we are operating in online spaces. We have been forced, in many ways, to quickly adapt and adopt to working online. We Zoom our university courses, our meetings, our conversations and even our social lives. We use apps to form study groups, writing circles and critique groups. And, despite the individual difficulties, there is also widespread (and in some cases, institutional) acknowledgment that we are all finding it tough.

Personally, I’m finding two useful – maybe even positive – elements are developing out of these conditions. The first is the emotional support that is being poured into digital spaces. We may being physically distancing, but it feels that for many of us, we are socially re-connecting online. The second is the movement towards digitising events. For example, in-person attendance conferences – often held in places far away from my campus - are currently being replaced with online events; making it easier to meet, learn from and collaborate with researchers from a global academic community despite geographical distances.

None of us know how long these restrictions and the resulting challenges will last. While being a PhD researcher in a digital world is certainly challenging, it feels more important than ever that we seek to remain connected. The threads (or should that be ‘optic fibres’?) that connect us are operating in two directions. They give us access to our peers, supervisors and colleagues, providing us with avenues to seek out information and support. In turn, we get to broadcast our empathy to others, express our vulnerability and provide support to others, investigate different modes of working plus communicate the results of our research to the world.

In the middle of this pandemic crisis, there is much to be gained from being a PhD researcher in a digital world. To be honest, for me, the digital world has a lot to do with what is making this time bearable, let alone productive. Here’s hoping that the positive outcomes outweigh the more difficult ones in the times ahead.