Social Media Maven Dr Karen Sutherland
I never expected to be a researcher. Nobody in my immediate family went to university. My father began encouraging me to study at university early on, so by the time I was about to finish Year 12, it was the next logical step for me, so off I went. I will always be grateful to him for his encouragement. I may have never studied at university without it.
My undergrad was challenging. It was completely different to secondary school and I wasn’t aware of any services to assist me. Being first in the family also meant that I didn’t have anyone close to me to seek guidance from except other students. It was a struggle, but I persevered. On top of the academic challenges, I also worked two jobs to support myself financially. I had to live away from home due to the location of the campus and money was extremely tight. Most weeks I had around $20 to cover my food. I definitely could not manage that now. I nearly quit in my final year, but thank goodness, I pushed through. However, at the end of my Undergrad, I swore that I would never return to university.
Fast forward eight years. After working in a range of marketing and communication roles in corporate, nonprofit and in the media at places such as ABCTV and Neighbours the TV show, I began assisting a friend as they attended university for the first time. It reminded me of my love of higher education. I also knew that education was the only way that I could move forward in my career, so I began a Masters online coursework degree in Marketing at the University of Newcastle.
Fast forward again two years. I began working at Monash University as the Research Communication Manager. This is where I truly learned what research was. My job was to visit researchers from all areas of the university and communicate stories about their activities and breakthroughs. This is where I caught the research bug. The excitement and passion that I witnessed from the researchers that I interviewed was contagious. In this role, I also learned about what Higher Degrees by Research actually were. This was never explained to me as an undergrad. I had finished my Masters by this stage and felt a strong desire to begin my own research journey, but didn’t know how.
After a life-changing conversation with a colleague at Monash, I learned that I could complete a Postgrad Diploma of Arts (Research) that would then qualify me to apply for the PhD program. That’s exactly what I did. Honours was never discussed with me as an undergrad, so that wasn’t an option. After completing this bridging qualification I went on to complete a PhD at Monash University, exploring social media and nonprofit organisations.
Now, I work at the University of the Sunshine Coast as a Lecturer in Public Relations and a social media researcher. I lead Public Relations as a discipline and I am the Coordinator of the Bachelor of Communication (Social Media), major and minor. My research passion lies in better understanding how social media can be used more effectively by nonprofit organisations, in the education sector as a pedagogical tool and more widely to create positive experiences and relationships on and offline. There is still so much that we do not know about social media, and the technology constantly changes. It also seems as though we need to learn more about how to use social media technology in a social way offline. Rather than staring at phones in social situations, how can we use the technology to build more meaningful face-to-face interactions and ongoing relationships?
Many of my research studies and papers are very niche, therefore, sometimes finding top ranking journals that are interested in my work can be challenging. However, I feel that there needs to be more research undertaken in this area, so will continue until it is more accepted by mainstream journals. Also, there isn’t anyone at my university in the same area of scholarship which can feel a little isolating at times, but there are some fantastic online groups such as the Social Media Professors Facebook group that helps me to keep connected with other social media researchers and educators around the world.
My greatest achievement to date is being happy and being in a position to be able to help others. That means more to me than any qualifications or accolades. I’m extremely fortunate to have a career that I find intensely interesting in a beautiful part of the world. There is nothing else that I could truly want.
Long-term, I would like to focus on social media research that can help groups in our community that need it the most. Social media can be such a powerful tool when used in a positive way. I would like to research more deeply into ways that social media can be used to directly benefit those less fortunate.
In terms of the future, I really love what is happening now. More of the same is fine with me, anything else is a bonus.