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The lasting benefits of SDP participation

Published on
9 Feb 2017
Written by
Victoria Nash

From reading the blog posts written by our SDP alumni, it should be obvious how much all our students enjoy the programme. The combination of thought-provoking seminars, supportive peer engagement and helpful faculty advice is one that’s hard to beat, especially when it’s served up alongside stunningly beautiful architecture and a healthy dose of socialising.

But whilst the immediate satisfaction of participation is worth celebrating, for me, the greatest benefits take rather longer to emerge. We state that there are two aims of the programme: to support and improve PhD dissertations, and to build a strong peer network. Demonstrating such effects (any effects!) is challenging for a social scientist J, but I can at least offer some examples of the ways in which we think we’ve helped.

On the thesis front, we can’t hope to replace the continuous support of supervisors. But it’s often valuable to share and talk through problems. Some of the most obvious wins are methodological. Many of our faculty specialise in innovative methods designed to capture and tame digital data. In the past few years I’ve seen students learn about new tools that halve their Twitter data analysis time, share coding tips to scrape their own data, and find ways of revising research questions that better support their own research. Add to that the value of non-judgmental peer support and understanding at moments when the dissertation just seems impossible, and it’s easy to understand why so many of our participants say in their evaluations that the course has helped improve their thesis. Shane Horgan’s blog from last year’s SDP explains how the programme helped him.

As for the value of a strong peer network, from a social perspective that has worth just in and of itself. But again experience suggests that our SDP cohorts do more than simply support each other as friends, rather they find ways of working together in professional relationships that really last. Just a few examples from recent years: in terms of publications, Andrew Schrock (SDP 2013) and Jeremy Hunsinger (SDP 2004 and alumni tutor) have co-edited both a special journal issue and a forthcoming book on hacker and maker movements; Marcus Foth and Laura Forlano (both 2004) co-edited (with colleagues) this great book on urban informatics, and two 2012 participants Kevin Driscoll and Shawn Walker co-authored this great paper on transparency in the collection and production of big Twitter data. Conference panels also seem popular, such as this one from AOIR 2015 on fame and micro-celebrity organised by five members of the 2014 SDP cohort or the 2016 AOIR panel on ‘The Rules of Engagement: Managing Boundaries, Managing Identities’ involving Sander Swartz and Stacy Blasiola (both SDP 2014). Last but not least, we often hear about joint projects such as the ongoing work on editors of Chinese Wikipedia between OII’s Taha Yasseri, SDP 2016’s Meg Zheng and Grace Benefield or the Access My Info project developed by a Citizen Lab team that included collaboration between Lokman Tsui (SDP 2005) and Sonny Zulhuda (SDP 2008). I wish I had space to list more!

These are just a handful of the examples of the ongoing academic collaboration that develops from the lasting relationships built at the OII’s Summer Doctoral Programme. All the evidence suggests that our participants gain both immediate and longer-term benefits from attending, a fact which makes us enormously proud. I believe we’ve also even had an SDP wedding, but I’m not technically allowed to use that in the advertising…