What is research impact?: An interview with Christina Miariti

This week is the Festival of Doctoral Research 2021! On Thursday, not only do we have an exciting keynote from the Head of the School of Psychology Robin Banerjee, there is also the announcements of several prize winners: Research Image and Research Poster competitions as well as the annual Adam Weiler Doctoral Impact Award.

The Adam Weiler Doctoral Impact Award recognises PhD students who demonstrate the potential to make a lasting, positive impact in their field. But what is research impact?

We revisit an interview with Christina Miariti, Research Impact Officer, who tells us why research impact is important and how Doctoral Researchers can improve their impact.

We all kind of know what it is or might be, but not really 😛 How do we measure it? How do we improve it in our academic work?

To shed some light on the mysteries of research impact and celebrate a launch of The Adam Weiler Doctoral Impact Award (look out for another blog post soon!), today we present to you an interview with Christina, the University’s Research Impact officer and a member of the Research Quality and Impact team. 

  1. What is Research Impact and why is it important for contemporary academia?

Research impact is the difference that research makes to one or more areas of society and the economy.  Research impact can be just academic but a key question is how the new knowledge that researchers produce affects the world beyond academia. The concept is linked to the change that becomes possible when researchers engage with external partners who access, co-develop and use research outputs. This change may become visible or felt immediately or in the longer-term. The effect can be conceptual (for example when thinking is informed), instrumental (when, for example, practice changes) or related to the development of skills that enhance one’s professional capacity (see the Economic and Social Research Council’s definitions of research impact).

Research impact is important as a funding and an assessment criterion in Higher Education in the UK. More and more funders in the UK and globally now include impact sections in grant applications and request the development of impact plans. At the same time, research impact that has been achieved is assessed through the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in the form of impact case studies. The REF is the UK’s exercise for assessing the quality and the impact of research produced in UK Higher Education institutions. It first took place in 2014 and will next run in 2021.

2. How can doctoral students improve their research impact?

By considering questions around impact early on. Different things work for different disciplines but there are some questions that are relevant across disciplines. Doctoral students can think about:

  • who might be interested in their research (specific groups, names of organisations, teams, individuals).
  • how might external audiences use their findings
  • what the key points are and how they can be shared with broader audiences

Discussing these questions directly with external partners is even better. You can try to establish what use they have for your research by keeping these questions in mind when establishing contact with external partners (e.g. at conferences or via the School). You can then reflect on the feedback you get to see how you might embed it your research. Taking advantage of secondment schemes to external partners allows a real-life experience of the non-academic world. In all cases, talking to colleagues and staff about research impact, especially ones from other disciplines can greatly help such thinking.

Preparing and practising a research ‘elevator pitch’ in simple language (e.g. what is the problem you are investigating, who is interested and affected by it, what is your unique contribution and what difference it makes) is useful for having in mind when needed. You can package your findings in accessible formats (e.g. a research briefing, a blog, a poster) and share broadly on social media and in a more targeted manner where appropriate (e.g. by e-mailing directly an established contact). This helps diffusion and may create opportunities for contacts outside the academy.

It is a useful investment if doctoral students take some time to improve their impact-related skills during their studies. They can attend training to familiarise themselves with impact language; (e.g. see the July session on impact organised by the Research Staff office as part of the Fellowship seminars); make a habit of thinking in terms of outcomes (the results of what they produce); take every opportunity to discuss your research with external partners; and become skilful with the various means for broader dissemination (e.g. podcasting). External audiences are often more interested in results rather than in the methodology of research. Building the capacity to engage confidently within and outside academia can be key for future employment.

3. How can doctoral students showcase their research impact? How much of it is based on predictions?

There are many ways to showcase impact today and very creative ones (videos, podcasts, posters, leaflets, essays are some) but the precondition is to have achieved impact first. Doctoral students need to keep in mind that impact is not about prediction. It is not about determining in advance, what may or may not happen. It is rather a consideration about potential, i.e. what is likely to happen as a result of your research and the new insights it produces. The possibilities are many and they depend on engaging with external partners, communicating research and incorporating ‘real world’ issues where possible. It is fascinating to witness your research making a difference to an organisation’s practice, to a community, a number of patients. To get there you need to make your research visible and to work with external partners to understand its meaning and significance for them.

Showcasing research works best when you choose means that work for your targeted audience. You might love writing long articles but it will not help your impact if your key audiences only have time to skim through a blog. Collecting such intelligence as you go and using it for targeted dissemination will work to your advantage.

4. Can research impact based on academic achievements (publications, academic excellence) be translated into non-academic job applications?

A PhD, just like any other job, will equip you with transferrable skills. In this sense, academic achievements can be valuable for non-academic job applications if translated into skills that matter for the post in question. For example:

  • The critical thinking and analytical skills you developed during your PhD are essential criteria for many jobs today
  • The ability to explain complex scientific concepts clearly and in simple language will be handy for presentations in non-academic contexts.
  • A distinct contribution that you made to your PhD project (i.e. an idea, a change of direction) might indicate creativity and resilience.
  • A collaboration with partners during your PhD may reveal initiative to contact and engage external partners. Your ability to listen to them and understand their perspective in order to make your outcomes more relevant shows adaptability.

The key is to use the terms that matter most in your desired field and job. Broadly referring to ‘research methodology’ knowledge and skills will not resonate with many employers if you do not provide more details. Being explicit about your distinct contribution to the non-intellectual tasks of your PhD also helps. If you helped ‘organise an event’ what does this really mean? It is different if you created the agenda for the event and helped identify relevant speakers and different if you coordinated a team of two to organise the event: both are important but you need to frame your experience according to what matters to the employer. Equally, you can talk about the attention that your publications have attracted and any implications from that (e.g. invitations for talks, media attention etc.) instead of just listing the journals where they were published.

Thank you for your time and informative answers, Christina!


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