PhD candidate. Centre for Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Manchester
Doctoral and early career researchers in the social sciences are experiencing increasing pressure to produce research result outputs with academic impact and offer practical and socially acceptable solutions for stakeholders. Moreover, high quality public engagement and visibility beyond academia are required as more and more important parts of researchers’ development. In this context, it is particularly necessary for early career researchers to look after their wellbeing and mental health, not only to boost their academic productivity, but also because they deserve to be happy and healthy. The University of Manchester offers many services to support PGR students’ wellbeing. It is understandably difficult for many early career researchers to shoulder the burden of academic impact and public engagement while looking out for one’s health. This is especially challenging for doctoral researchers working on a long-term thesis without obvious short-term results. It may feel that all this hard work does not lead to real outputs, and it is not uncommon to feel that no one (else) cares about your research. But guess what, there are plenty of non-specialists out there that not only believe that what you do is exciting and interesting, but would also like to know more about it and even make an active contribution. My experience is that public engagement events enhance the quality and impact of research and help to regain trust in your own research.
There are several ways and many opportunities for engaging with the public. These include talks and presentations organised within and outside university, festivals and non-academic conferences, public debates, crowdsourcing initiatives, dissemination of research findings in non-academic media, and digital engagement in its different forms and practises. Their purposes may vary, but most involve informing non-specialists, consulting citizens’ views about your research or collaborating with the public, and more commonly a little of all three.
I have recently taken part in several public engagement events and activities, both within and outside university. At some of these events, you will share space with other social scientists, while at most you will be seated next to academics from many disciplines and non-academics. This means that your audience will probably know nothing or very little about your topic and you will need to adjust your language to non-specialists. You will also need to spice up your topic and use catchy titles to gain everyone’s attention. Natural scientists and engineers are well aware that the concepts and methods used in their research are outside the scope of most people’s knowledge, and thus try to engage with the public by using references to people’s everyday experiences. However, many social scientists may believe that their areas of research are known to everyone. I have experienced academics presenting highly technical speeches at public engagement events and losing 90 percent of their audiences early on. It may feel frustrating, if you cannot simply explain that your p-values are lower than 0.001, that the random effects included in your models reduce the AIC and BIC by 20%, and that your operationalisation of the notion of materialism varies from the one of certain philosophers. But the line between people’s attention and people’s indifference is very fine. You will definitely lose most of your audience if you make your presentation too simple, but face a similar issue if you use your favourite author’s highly technical conceptualisations or describe the significance tests in your statistics analysis. In your mind you will look bright and sharp, in theirs rusty and worn.
There is no definitive guide for successfully engaging with the public, but I would suggest some very basic rules of thumb. Make sure you are aware of the purpose of the event and who is going to be there. Think about what you want people to take away from it. Consider ethical issues that may arise when engaging with the public. Keep your title short, powerful, and spice it up where possible. Begin with a very brief introduction of who you are and what you (actually) do. Summarise your research problem or objective. Explain why your research topic (in general) is important, and how this relates to people’s everyday life. Introduce your approach in a way that allows people to see its implications for life outside the Ivory Tower of academia. Make, where possible, continuous reference to people’s experiences. Be ready to be asked questions not directly related to what you just presented, such as your research career and your field of study. Ask participants to report back their opinions and consult their views. And last but not least, enjoy yourself and be enthusiastic: your research is already having an impact!