PhD students are increasingly required to gain experience of public engagement before entering the jobs market. Candidates who have shared their research with the public tend to be highly marketable in today’s Higher Education employment landscape. Disseminating your work to a non-specialist audience is one of the best ways to develop your confidence of speaking about your research in public, but it can often be a daunting prospect. This article offers some advice and suggestions on how to get involved in public engagement activities while a PhD student.
1. What do you want to gain from public engagement?
There are so many activities that can be considered as public engagement that it can be difficult to know what to do. Think carefully about how your research could be best disseminated to the public. This might take the form of media activities, or it could involve working with local schools, but it’s vital to plan how this will benefit your career in the long-run.
2. How is your research relevant?
You should be prepared to make the case for why your research is worth the time of the audience. School students are just as likely to be put off by research which seems to lack any relevance to their lives as your local radio station. Tie your research into a wider theme or to an event to gain the interest of your audience and be explicit about what your research adds to the discussion.
3. Seek out contacts.
Whether it’s visiting schools to give mini-lecturers or appearing in the national press, you need to have contacts to be able to carry out any public engagement. Speak to colleagues and friends about contacts within your institution. If you’re hoping to appear in the media, then the university press team is the best place to start. Your university may well have a link to popular academic websites such as The Conversation which you could exploit in order to publish an article. You institutional outreach team can help to find schools contacts to set up a talk in a school or provide you with details of upcoming visits to the university.
4. Practice explaining your research in an informal setting.
Attempting to present your work to non-specialists for the first time live on national radio could prove to be disastrous. Make the most of opportunities offered within your institution to hone how you present the ‘headline’ points to your research. Skills development programmes often offer such workshops for free, while you can sometimes sign up for media training events. Speaking to researchers from other departments and faculties is an easy way to become confident about sharing your research with non-specialists and to work out which aspects to your work prove to be most engaging.
5. Build on your momentum.
Once you have begun to engage with the public, build on this success by keeping in touch with contacts in schools or the media. Keep records of any public engagement activities and publicise these on your webpage or social media accounts. If your media appearance or schools talk was a success, the chances are that the relevant university teams will come to you again in the future, so be prepared to say yes to any further opportunities.