Public engagement can be daunting, but could it be the best thing you’ve ever done for your PhD – and your future career? There are multiple and varied ways in which to communicate your research, and as we explored in a recent Doctoral Discussion, getting out there can be hugely important to your studies and even your wellbeing.
For some, public involvement can be an integral part of a PhD; for example, in the use of public-facing focus groups or questionnaires that feed back into the design of a specific project, or provide data in themselves.
For others, public engagement involves stepping out of the ordinary work environment and making time to communicate research via alternative platforms, whether this is in schools, public spaces, museums, special interest audiences or even the pub.
So, how can public engagement benefit you? Here are ten ways in which such work can add value to your studies.
- Experience & knowledge
Outreach and engagement activities can often be the best way to get experience of applied, practical work in your subject area.
It could be a chance to gain a deeper understanding of a related industry, or to work more closely with medical patients affected by your research. Perhaps it could allow you to build a deeper knowledge of your study organism. You may well have to read around a new, related topic, enhancing your wider knowledge.
Building a wider experience and knowledge of your subject can have real benefits to your research and motivation; as well as adding to your CV.
- Getting the ‘buzz’ back
One of the most important aspects of public engagement is the chance to step out of your bubble to get a fresh perspective on your research and its value. Engaging with the public can add real impetus and meaning to your academic work, and could even boost your wellbeing.
In my personal experience, one of the best things I’ve done for my PhD recently is to give a talk about bees (of course) in a pub in Newhaven – the animation of the audience was amazing, people asked me some really challenging questions, and I was asked to present again at a future event. I came away from the night completely re-motivated, and thrilled that other people found my work interesting and relevant.
- New ideas
Presenting your research to people of different ages and backgrounds can lead to questions you hadn’t even thought of – and perhaps trigger new ideas or project developments.
Whether you’re designing a new activity, making an accessible presentation, or planning a workshop, most public engagement requires a certain amount of creativity, a very useful tool as a researcher.
- Feedback and constructive (hopefully) criticism
Different audiences can challenge you in unexpected ways! People completely disconnected with your research will have a fresh outlook, and may have valuable comments on aspects including the methodology, study design or a research tool.
Alternatively, if you are presenting your work to the people it might eventually affect, their involvement can unearth some really on-point suggestions that could really benefit your study design.
- Boost your skill set
Public engagement can be a great way to boost your confidence in research communication. If public speaking has always been a terrifying experience, as it has for me, it is brilliant to practice with friendly non-expert audiences via public engagement initiatives.
Additionally, such opportunities can provide you with new abilities. For example, organising an event or creating a new outreach activity might build skills that you rarely use, which may be useful for future career paths, within or outside of academia.
For more on the value of developing your skills for all future career options, read this blog by the Doctoral School: considering your parallel career path.
- Reward and Recognition
Everyone likes their efforts to be recognised! If you’re spending lots of time on public engagement initiatives, it’s nice to think someone might notice…
And in fact, the importance of public engagement is increasingly reflected in its inclusion in award schemes and other forms of recognition. By taking part in such initiatives, researchers can qualify for awards from funders, from their university or research institution, and at a National level. Here at Sussex, the annual Research and Impact Awards are made in three categories, one of which is Public Engagement.
- Networking (ugh)
You might hate the N word, but… you never know who you might meet! Taking yourself out of your ordinary work environment can often spark interesting connections that could lead to future projects or collaboration, as well as media opportunities to showcase your work.
Very simply, you may enjoy stepping outside of your normal PhD life to do something a bit different! Research dissemination gives you the chance to mix things up, to meet different audiences, work with varied age groups, travel to other areas and more. As the idiom goes, variety is the spice of life…
… an unavoidable point as many funders will now mandate a certain level of public engagement. The UK Research Councils have a Concordat for engaging the public with research, embedding public engagement within universities and research institutes to “enhance the future of research and benefit the UK society and economy”. The RCUK have also published an interesting brief for researchers on the topic.
The inclusion of public engagement outputs will also benefit most grant proposals, if not already an integral requirement.
As a final note, is it our moral duty as researchers, publicly funded or otherwise, to ‘give back’ to society? While I won’t go into this in detail now, making research available outside of the academic community and maintaining an open, two-way dialogue is vital when it’s more important than ever to have public trust in research.
To conclude, getting involved with public engagement opportunities can have multiple, often unexpected benefits, and many people consider it a really worthwhile experience as an early career researcher. While considering time investment, seize opportunities when you can – and see an upcoming blog for tips on how to get involved at Sussex and around Brighton!