Developing Online Resources for Postgrads: The Internal-External Binary

This is my third post exploring key binaries that emerged whilst working on an initiative developing online facilities for postgraduate research students in the School of Education at the University of Nottingham. The project highlighted key sociocultural aspects of digitally mediated doctoral practice that have resonated with my PhD research. Following my two previous posts problematizing the student-staff binary and further student binaries, I focus here on the internal and external contexts that typically underpin this type of departmental online provision.

It is common for departments to provide doctoral students with opportunities such as student seminars and conferences to formally disseminate their research internally to peers and academic staff. These established procedures are an integral part of institutional postgraduate training programmes and can play a key role in the socialisation of students within their immediate disciplinary community. Many early-stage students in particular draw value in the opportunity to disseminate work in progress, participate in discussion and contribute ideas in a relatively ‘safe’, supportive and familiar environment, that helps build confidence and skills for subsequent engagement further afield.

We routinely associate similar activities in online environments – such as those facilitating social networking, forum-type discussions and blogging – with the social web. However, when these are incorporated into bounded, departmental and institutional platforms – which may or may not include staff moderation and participation – they can present opportunities for students to engage exclusively with in-house audiences. As such, these activities can replicate the type of benefits described above, and provide an anticipatory and exploratory stage to subsequent external-facing and externally hosted activities.

The internal-external binary also has some relevance to student profiles. It is increasingly common for institutions to provide students with an online platform to develop formal external-facing profiles. These can be particularly useful to later-stage students, and even more so to those who do not actively engage in developing their own web presence. However, given their typical focus on cultivated research interests and formal publication and affiliations, these may seem irrelevant, inappropriate or even intimidating to early-stage students. Internal platforms limited by departmental or institutional boundaries can present opportunities for more flexible, tentative and explorative approaches to developing profiles.

Further, even within a relatively small department or postgraduate community, we should not assume that campus-based students are aware of the research interests and work of all of their peers. An informed knowledge of other students’ research will tend to be limited to those close colleagues and critical friends that emerge through the regular and proximal physical engagement provided by shared offices and social cliques. Such conditions may exclude distance or part-time students entirely (see previous post). Therefore, internal-facing profiles that provide the opportunity to display more informal, expressive and convivial content can facilitate an increased visibility within the student community, with the potential for establishing peer support groups or collaborative partnerships around shared research interests, literatures or methodologies.

We should expect all doctoral students to be familiar with the key online publications and journal databases in their fields. However, there may be significant variation in their awareness and engagement with external web resources, either related to their specific research topics or more general academic and doctoral practice. Surprisingly few may be aware of the resources that other universities may provide (primarily for their own students, but openly accessible to others), the many independent academic websites and blogs, or the social networks that enable loosely-connected communities and networks such as #phdchat to regularly share resources and discuss ideas. Those students (and indeed, academic and administrative staff) who actively engage with these web environments often act as mediators between the external and internal domains, by sharing these externally-sourced links and resources with others within their departments. Whilst this tends to be done intermittently, through e-mail and other commonly used internal communication systems, dedicated online provision such as repositories, RSS and tagging systems can provide a more systematic and efficient way of peer resource sharing and management.

Additionally, it is possible to facilitate in-house recommendation and ratings systems. This raises the issue of how students prioritise internally and externally produced resources. Whilst assumptions based on the trustworthiness of their own departmental and institutional sources of knowledge, expertise and guidance are to be expected, how might students go about informally evaluating external resources? By the institution they are derived from? The credentials of individual academics or research groups? Recommendations from external sources? It’s an interesting area to explore.

Doctoral student identity is shaped by the process of familiarising and locating themselves within their (inter)disciplinary fields. Whilst this is partly undertaken through reviewing and synthesising key texts (Kamler & Thomson, 2007), student engagement with peers and experts both inside and outside faculty constitutes an additional dynamic, multimodal set of influential practices that are increasingly mediated by digitally networked environments. As students negotiate both internal and external communities (and their identifiable, invisible and imagined audiences), the boundaries that define them are becoming increasingly pervious and ambiguous.

Of course, the ‘internal’ exists on a number of institutional levels; i.e. within a department, a faculty and the institution itself, and can incorporate a number of discipline-specific and generic research and training programmes, such as those provided by a Graduate School. These and other initiatives (some of which may be student-led) provide opportunities for interaction and potential collaboration across and between formal cohorts and research groups. Likewise, the ‘external’ can be seen as a multidisciplinary and multicontextual landscape, incorporating sources of expertise, enterprise and funding both within and without academia. Collectively, these represent a number of different and potentially conflicting practice domains in which the student may need to engage to successfully complete their doctorate. Further, academic-based social and participatory media and online networks provide access to discourses that are increasingly complex, fragmented and democratised (to a degree) by academics – including PhD students themselves – acting individually and collectively inside and out of formal roles and professional duties.

In sum, a doctoral education is informally regulated by norms of opportunity and expectation that can be seen as broadly defining a graduated ‘internal to external’ trajectory. This, for some students at least, represents a reliable and trusted form of socialisation and enculturation in the academic domain. Yet in exploring and managing online resources, profiles and their own dissemination, PhD students often negotiate between the internal and external domains of their departmental and institutional affiliation concurrently, and with varying degrees of engagement and agency.


Kamler, B., & Thomson, P. (2007). Rethinking doctoral work as text work and identity work. In B. Somekh & T. Schwandt (Eds.), Knowledge production: research in interesting times. London: Routledge. 166–179.

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