Social media use as a busy academic

Lots has already been written about using social media as an academic, so what can I add?  Being honest, not much except perhaps to curate some of this for you and offer a brief summary.  So if you’re new to social media as an academic, here are some useful things to consider.

For starters, the LSE impact of social sciences blog has featured some great articles

Pat Thomson has written about project blogs:  What makes a successful research project blog? Forums for generating ideas fare better than sharing final results as well as Why do bloggers blog about blogging?

Inger Mewburn and Pat Thomson wrote about ‘Academic blogging is part of a complex online academic attention economy, leading to unprecedented readership.’  Across many of the blogs they looked at, they tended to be ‘academics talking to academics in an effort to advance knowledge and understanding’

Melissa Terras shared with us what happened to the dissemination of her work when she blogged and tweeted about it.

You need to tell people about your work if you want them to see it

What I’ve taken from these and the many other pieces about different forms of social media use, is that it is good to direct people’s attention to your outputs, as well as who you are.  Melissa is right:  people will read your work if you tell them about it.  What I particularly like from Melissa’s post is that you can put in some of this effort after your work has already been published and not necessarily at the point it is published.  I’ve found myself incredibly up to my eyes in work as a paper is coming out and wishing it could be delayed a week or two to allow me to ‘do the social media bit’.  What Melissa has taught me is don’t worry, you can still do this later.

Time is often a factor people cite as why they struggle with social media

There are some really useful tips online for creating Twitter lists, to make the most of your time on Twitter.

I also use TweetDeck on my computer to monitor the different Twitter accounts I manage, and schedule posts.  This displays as columns, and I can create a column simply to follow a conference hashtag, which is really useful if I’m not able to attend the conference.  Here’s an example from a University of Sussex blog post (and they explain really well how to use this functionality).

Being able to schedule posts for the Sexual Health Research Network is really useful to help me manage my time and ensure there is regular activity on the account.

Select a platform and try to curate your information there rather than spread yourself thin by trying to maintain too many accounts.  For example, if you like ResearchGate then try to keep that up-to-date and y’know it’s ok not to use anything else.  Personally, I find ResearchGate a bit tricky to use and I don’t like how it displays information.  A reason I started my own site was to have all the information I wanted to share in the one place, and where I was in more control of the content.

Finally, it’s also ok to be a ‘lurker’ – for example, to read twitter and not interact.  The Nature Social Networks survey from 2014 showed that many academics want to share information and view information, but are less likely to want to interact.  So, if you’re in that camp then you’re not alone.

It’s not equality of voice

I struggle with any training in social media use that assumes (by virtue of silence) that we all have equality of access and/or voice.  Alison Phipps wrote about research impact work not being neutral, and Tressie McMillan Cottom has shared her experiences of being a black, female academic putting herself and her work into the public domain. What these examples should alert us to is the potential personal cost to putting oneself in the public domain.  We hear about the importance of ensuring the public know of our work if it has been publicly funded, but we must protect our staff and students if they are at risk of being abused online in any way.  It is also acceptable to remain offline and this must be something that institutions support and do not force social media use on anyone.

Applying for a PhD studentship? Here are some tips from the ‘other side’

So you want to apply for a PhD and you see an advert for a funded studentship that sounds great! In this post, I want to walk you through what you should do from this point through to submitting your application.

Contacting your potential supervisors

Does the advert say something like get in touch with supervisors or contact to express interest?  Perhaps it doesn’t but you still want to submit an email to alert the academic supervisors to your interest in the PhD studentship.  My advice is please do not email busy academic staff with what we read as a simple ‘hiya’ email.  Please only get in touch to ask a pertinent question.  Be very sure that your question cannot be answered somewhere else, such as in the application pack information.  It does not look good for a potential doctoral student to ask for information on something that is easily found from the most basic research!

Of course, you may want to ‘test’ us, by emailing and seeing how quickly you get a response!  Smart.  But to reiterate:  have an insightful question for us.

Your application

Read ALL instructions well ahead of time so that you can prepare everything you need in good time.  For example, do you need to submit a reference or two WITH your application or AFTER?  Again, you are applying to undertake advanced research training, so to not do even some basic research at this stage does not look good to us your potential supervisors.

As to the information you provide in your application – please, please frame it towards research.  You’re applying for a doctorate, so tell us in detail about your research training and experience, across every bit of your application. Put your education upfront:  degree title, classification, dates, institution.  If you did a dissertation then tell us not just the title but which methods you employed and what software packages you used (e.g., SPSS, NVivo).  Summarise the key information for us, in a cover letter for example, so we don’t miss it.  I’ve read so many PhD applications that tell me very little about the type and level of research training the applicant has had, what methods they are experienced in from their own research at undergraduate and Masters-level degrees.  How can I possibly invite such a candidate to interview for an advanced research degree when I have no idea of their research knowledge and skills?

But isn’t my employment important for other reasons?  Yes of course it can be.  If you are applying for a social science doctorate on a sensitive topic, for example, then of course it is important to tell us that you have experience of working with vulnerable groups.  But do more than simply bullet point a job, as this is leaving us to connect the dots.  Tell us where you worked, with whom and when, and then be explicit why this experience is invaluable for this PhD.

In any application it is not enough to simply state the qualities you think you have, you need to EVIDENCE them.  Are you a self-starter?  Then say that and then back it up with an example.  Do you have good time management skills, then tell us of a time this was vital.  Prioritise the skills you think are most relevant to the doctoral research you are applying to do.

In short, tailor every application and do not submit a generic CV, cover letter etc.  We.  Will.  Know.


You are invited to an interview?  Well done!  You’re likely among 3-6 interviewees.

Be prepared to talk research.  You are applying for an advanced degree in research so it will be research focused.  Brush up on your methodology and methods knowledge, and be prepared to talk through your own research training and experience.  Be prepared to answer why you want to do a PhD, why THIS PhD, and why this institution.  What are your career goals?  Use your question time to probe our approach to supervision and gauge whether you want to be supervised by us! It is important to try to get to know your potential supervisors as 3-4 years is a long time to spend with people you might not get along with.  I recognise that it’s become difficult for candidates to feel they have choice on such matters, given the competition for fully funded studentships.  Nevertheless, it is worth doing a bit of research into your supervisors and institution so that you are prepared for what you will embark upon for at least 3 years of your life as a full-time PhD student (longer if part-time).  Search for advice on these matters on other sites, as there is some really good information out there on this.

Finally, good luck!

What exactly does sexual wellbeing mean?

That was a question we asked as we reviewed the evidence so we could know whether there is any definition of sexual wellbeing, and how people have measured it.

I’ll provide more information on the review findings in due time (we need to finish writing the paper first!), but let me provide a few interesting bits of information to whet the appetite:

  • There seems to be very few studies that offer a definition of sexual wellbeing, yet they are attempting to measure it.
  • One study developed a multi-dimensional measure of sexual wellbeing (see reference, below) although they did not explicitly refer to sexual wellbeing and said sexual health instead.
  • If we think about the various influences on peoples health, we can draw on the social determinants of health framework, which tells us such influences can come from individual factors but also from wider community and indeed socio-cultural factors.  So, sexual wellbeing should also be influenced by such a variety of factors, as it’s an aspect of our health and wellbeing.  But there don’t seem to be many studies that explore the wider level influences, as most seem to focus at the individual level – cognitive-affect – as well as the relationship level.

If we can’t define this nor measure it more broadly then how can we assess the outcomes of complex interventions?  Will we miss what’s really happening?  How can we tell how well we’re doing as a society if we don’t know to what we refer when we say sexual wellbeing never mind have a way to measure it?

So, a lot more work needs to be done, particularly on how the wider community-level and socio-cultural levels impact on individuals’ sexual wellbeing.  But let’s start by trying to come up with a good definition, on which we can all base our work.


Smylie, L., B. Clarke, M. Doherty, J. Gahagan, M. Numer, J. Otis, G. Smith, A. McKay and C. Soon (2013). “The Development and Validation of Sexual Health Indicators of Canadians Aged 16-24 Years.” Public Health Reports 128: 53-61.

You can read our paper:

Lorimer, K., L. DeAmicis, J. Dalrymple, J. Frankis, L. Jackson, P. Lorgelly, L. McMillan and J. Ross (2019). “A rapid review of sexual wellbeing definitions and measures: should we now include sexual wellbeing freedom?” Journal of Sex Research.

We need to look beyond individuals if we want to tackle gender-based violence: embracing social determinants of health

This is a re-posted blog piece I wrote for Gender Politics at Edinburgh blog; the original post can be found here.  It was part of their series for 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence.

As a sexual health researcher with a background in sociology, I’ve always been fascinated by the influences upon people’s health.  The social determinants of health framework conveys the various levels of influence on health, including individual, peer group, community and wider society [1]. Often depicted like a rainbow, the framework shows at the inner level there are the immediate or ‘downstream’ influences, such as individuals’ knowledge.  As we progress outwards, the neighbourhood and community level is where we may see the reinforcement of certain norms and individuals may reside in a gendered environment.  Moving towards the outermost layer, or the ‘upstream’ influences, are the wider socio-economic, cultural and environmental level influences such as poverty.  This is an important framework to draw upon in relation to the prevention of gender-based violence, as it reminds us that individuals who perpetrate such violence do not exist in a vacuum, and that should inform our prevention work. We should be trying to intervene across these levels to prevent gender-based violence. However, we do see the dominance of interventions targeting individuals, and which seek to modify individual-level factors such as knowledge [2, 3].

One could say that tackling wider structural issues, such as poverty, are commonly for governments to implement across policy fields; but we should still see a lot more work at community and peer levels than we do.  If we keep focusing on trying to change individual knowledge and behaviours, will we really transform society? The Scottish Equally Safe framework [4, p6] explicitly references gender inequality as underpinning gender-based violence:

We need to eliminate the systematic gender inequality that lies at the root of violence against women and girls, and we need to be bold in how we do it.

None of this is easy, and individual-level interventions have an important role, but on their own they will not be enough to tackle violence against women and girls.  Systematic reviews have found very little evidence on how community level factors are associated with sexual violence [2, 3].  So, if we are to see more work across different levels then it is important that we do that work on the basis of evidence.

This is where the work by my colleagues and me is useful:  we carried out interviews and focus group discussions with 116 men and women age 18-40 years, in which we sought to better understand local gender dynamics and the importance of experiences in places, for the way these influence sexual health understandings and behaviours, including coercion and violence.  Within this, we focused on masculinities, to explore how they are shaped and how they impact on behaviours and attitudes. If we go back to the social determinants of health framework, our work found masculinities at the wider societal level being reworked at a local level of community, peers and family [5].  For example, at the community-level we heard of peer group acceptance of violence and a sense of how normalised various forms of violence were.  Ally [pseudonym], an interviewee from Glasgow, said of domestic abuse:

It’s just something that I’ve seen for years, aye [yes]. It’s a common thing, aye. You know? You might no’ see the physical acts o’ violence. You dae [do] sometimes. But you see the way women are.

When the gender norms flowing from the dominant form of masculinity – hegemonic masculinity – get reworked at community levels and picked up by individuals, then we need to try to tackle the issue at the wider ‘upstream’ level.  When you hear how localised, socio-cultural influences did not appear to foster more egalitarian expressions of masculinity, then how do we expect individuals to be empathetic and respectful towards women?  Thomas, an interviewee, captured this when he said:

people just don’t realise what it’s like tae live and kind o’ grow up in some o’ these places and I think that they’re kind o’ ignorant when they think that they can just change a couple o’ things and it’ll make everything awright

There is a limit to what individual-level interventions can achieve, but they are important when used alongside other approaches. So, we need to keep our attention firmly fixed on improving gender equality, and fostering more positive community-level norms. We must seek transformation not just incremental gains. There are some good examples of interventions that have sought to shift individual behaviours by tackling gender norms as they are linked to gender inequalities.  For example, the Stepping Stones intervention in the South African context is labelled gender-transformative as it sought to reconfigure gender norms towards gender equitable relationships [6]. However, when dominant structural-level influences, such as poverty, remain unchanged then it may be that we only see marginal gains even with such work.  This is why it is important that we pay attention to each of the levels a model such as the social determinants of health alerts us to. We must impress upon governments to reduce poverty, we must ensure there are not just laws but law enforcement, and we must seek to intervene across communities to ensure these environments are conducive to individual behaviour change.  Importantly, this means understanding various communities and not assuming everywhere is the same.  Yet, as the same time, gender inequalities across the whole of societies must be tackled to improve women’s lives.  The Scottish policy says we should be bold.  Indeed, we should.


  1. Dahlgren, G. and M. Whitehead, Policies and strategies to promote equity in health. Copenhagen: Regional Office for Europe. World Health Organization, 1992.
  2. Tharp, A.T., et al., A Systematic Qualitative Review of Risk and Protective Factors for Sexual Violence Perpetration. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 2013. 14(2): p. 133-167.
  3. DeGue, S., et al., A systematic review of primary prevention strategies for sexual violence perpetration. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 2014. 19(4): p. 346-362.
  4. Scottish Government & COSLA, Equally Safe: Scotland’s strategy for preventing and eradicating violence against women and girls. 2016: Edinburgh.
  5. Messerschmidt, J.W., Engendering Gendered Knowledge: Assessing the Academic Appropriation of Hegemonic Masculinity. Men and Masculinities, 2012. 15(1): p. 56-76.
  6. Gibbs, A., et al., Reconstructing masculinity? A qualitative evaluation of the Stepping Stones and Creating Futures interventions in urban informal settlements in South Africa. Culture, health & sexuality, 2015. 17(2): p. 208-222.

How to devise your research question(s)

For a couple of years, I have been involved in tutorials with students who are required to produce a research proposal.  They are undertaking a module on research methods, so the coursework is to facilitate their learning and convey they understand certain processes and ideas.

One issue I hear from them is how exactly do you devise a research question.  

Pat Thomson has an excellent post which I highly recommend! You can read it here.

In her post, she provides examples of different types of research questions.  I would also recommend that students familiarise themselves with the concepts of epistemology, ontology and methodology as part of a process of developing a research question.  You do need to have some understanding of what counts as knowledge and the objects under scrutiny.  If these are new terms then please have a listen to the very excellent Tara Brabazon, at Flinders University

Here is her vlog on epistemology

Here is the one on ontology

and here is the one on methodology

Perhaps also have a read at Raul Pacheco-Vega’s blog post, in which he suggests paying attention to the scope of your research. He says “It’s also important that the Masters’ student supervisor/advisor is realistic in terms of expectations and ability to achieve goals within the shortened time frame, and often within tight budgets or the risk of facing a shortage of funds.”

So, think about epistemology, ontology and methodology, then reign in your scope. By the time you get to the stage of thinking about your research question you should have already done quite a bit of reading. You want to know that you have found a gap.  But you also what to be able to convey why filling this gap is important.  What will your work add?  Even if it’s small scale, it’s still new knowledge, so pay attention to the contribution you hope to make to the field.

Happy research!

Holistic sexual health

What do you think of when you hear ‘sexual health’?

This is a question put to people in a qualitative research project on sexual health and wellbeing.  Overwhelmingly, people said bugs and babies.  In the project, men and women age 18-40 years were asked about a range of topics, including physical violence and sexual violence.  Our question that sought to find out people’s understandings of sexual health came after all of those questions yet still people equated sexual health with avoiding STIs and pregnancy.

I fully appreciate that disease avoidance is high on people’s minds when they think of sexual health, as it has been a dominant narrative pushed by public health for years.  However, the World Health organisation’s definition (although not officially endorsed) of sexual health is

“…a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity. Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. For sexual health to be attained and maintained, the sexual rights of all persons must be respected, protected and fulfilled.” (WHO, 2006)

Such a holistic definition has been taken up in policy frameworks, including the Scottish Sexual Health and Blood Borne Virus Framework 2015-2020, developed to promote key outcomes including STIs and unintended pregnancies, inequalities, and violence against women but also to encourage a cultural shift in norms and attitudes.

Going beyond ‘bugs and babies’

In our DeMaSH project (Deprivation, Men and Sexual Health) we did not view sexual health in narrow terms, but embraced the notion of holistic sexual health.  We are very much entering the terrain of wellbeing here too.  Why does all of this matter?

If to have good sexual health you need to have knowledge of contraception, STIs and health services then ensuring that people have sufficient knowledge to make decisions and enact behaviours is important. What if a woman is in an abusive relationship?  She may have good knowledge but the intimate partner violence may cause her to lack control over her reproductive health.  Here, it is important to understand people’s substantive freedoms not just what they do, or what they know. What is meant by this?  Well, do we only think that it matters what people do?  What about what people are capable of doing?  If we place an emphasis on the latter, then it matters that people have a certain level of capability for good sexual health and wellbeing.  Having the ability to choose one’s contraception or access a health service for contraception becomes important, even if none is used. If we ask people about using contraception and not whether they feel able to then we miss useful data. An individual in a coercively controlled relationship is unlikely to report good sexual wellbeing, so asking about what they are capable of achieving tells us so much more than if we focus on what they do (e.g. behaviour) or have.

We are entering the terrain of ‘capabilities’ here.  Amartya Sen proposed the Capabilities Approach as a framework for wellbeing evaluation. The Capabilities Approach is a multidimensional framework, that enables an evaluation of wellbeing in terms of people’s real freedoms and opportunities to lead a life they have reason to value. It is less about focusing on what people do (functionings) than what they are able to achieve (capabilities), given a combination of personal abilities, the political, social and economic environment. Amartya Sen’s well know example is the fasting priest compared to the starving man: each arguably has similar deficiencies in nutrition (functioning) but their capabilities differ with one able to be fed.

Sexual wellbeing is multidimensional and multifaceted.  However, to date it has largely been thought of in terms of functioning and/or satisfaction.  This is a narrow view of sexual wellbeing.  Gender norms, discrimination, ageism, stigma etc are all important here.  Thinking about the social determinants can help us think through the various influences on sexual wellbeing. Is it time to start thinking about what people are capable of doing and achieving and not just what they actually do and have? Might this open up our evaluative space to take account of people’s real freedom to flourish?