Public Engagement with Research: The Personal Development Holy Grail

This week James Walker, a postgraduate researcher in the Centre for Doctoral Training in Fuel Cells and their Fuels in the School of Chemical Engineering, shares his public engagement experience with us…  

Ever been at a party and killed a conversation in ten seconds flat when asked “so, what do you do?” If so, you’re probably also a postgraduate researcher (PGR) – or perhaps a town planner. My heart goes out to my peers who are both! I used to get as far as “oh I’m doing a PhD in Chemical Enginee-,“ before I’d notice the glazing over of the eyes of what had been my audience. “You must be very smart,” they all say, before suddenly needing to nip to the loo. Now I lead with “well I make really tiny renewable energy catalysts and look at atoms using fancy, expensive microscopes that look like weapons in a Bond villain’s arsenal!” Suffice to say, the second response engenders significantly more discussion. The subtle difference is in knowing your audience and tailoring your delivery, I’d say. These are among a crop of new skills that I’ve picked up since becoming heavily involved in public engagement with research and I’m writing this to tell you how you too can revolutionise your personal development simply by talking about the thing that you spend most of your time doing. Convenient eh?

I recently hosted a workshop as part of the University’s Arts & Science Festival. Entitled “In The Chemists’ Kitchen,’ my workshop invited a group of unsuspecting adults for a look behind the scenes in our labs in the Birmingham Centre for Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Research. Workshop participants joined in in preparing nanoparticle ‘soup’, made microwavable ‘ready meal’ silver nanoclusters and recrystalised a copper sulphate ‘cheesecake’. It might sound wacky to use cooking metaphors to communicate scientific concepts but it occurred to me that while my lab is veritably inaccessible to the public, most people have at some point made a pot of soup and can relate to chopping up vegetables and boiling them to release the tasty goodness – usually as per the secret family recipe. When I synthesise nanoparticles, I boil up chemical compounds in a broth-like solvent until bonds break and smaller fragments assemble as desired, and I am usually following a recipe handed down ceremoniously in Nature Chemistry. The parallels are clear – to me at least!

James Photo

So what did I learn from developing my workshop, I hear you ask? First of all, independently developing and hosting a workshop required a significant amount of planning and project management. Keeping the activities and briefing engaging required a very critical assessment of my aims and objectives for the workshop, and a shrewd review of the way each concept would be communicated. I could not have achieved this alone – my workshop developed iteratively through inputs from experienced Public Engagement with Research Committee and Cultural Engagement staff, as well as technical suggestions from colleagues and the School’s health and safety officer. On the night of the workshop, I was ably supported by four PGR colleagues. I think the term “collaboration” is overused but in all reality my event would not have been nearly as successful were it not for my collaborative working with each of the above individuals – from encouraging me to be creative in my approach to physically assisting participants in their experiments. Finally, my colleagues and I were shocked by just how awe-inspiring routine and frankly boring aspects of our day-to-day work (using a magnetic stirrer, for example) were for the workshop participants. This new perspective well and truly answers the “surely people won’t find this interesting?” question that is such a barrier to getting researchers involved in public engagement.

To summarise, then, organising and hosting my workshop offered me an all-encompassing opportunity to develop my communication, team working and project management skills. It’s easy to get bogged down in the pursuit of data for that all important PhD thesis, but I think it’s also prudent to remember that there’s life after the viva and these kinds of transferrable skills will stand anyone in good stead for just about any career that I can think of.

We’ll be discussing the pragmatic personal development merits of getting involved with public engagement and highlighting just how fun bringing your research to a wider audience can be at an upcoming coffee morning for PGRs and ECRs. Please join us! The aim of the coffee morning is to encourage a collaborative and peer-supportive approach to PGR/ECR-led public engagement activities so some things to think about – how can we best assist each other to deliver impactful public engagement? How can we organically foster an interdisciplinary/cross-college approach to developing these activities?

For their kind assistance with his workshop, James would like to gratefully acknowledge Caroline Gillet, Jon Wood, Laura Milner, Kaye Winwood, Aimee Jackson, Laura Allerston, Pete Mardle and Alan Stephen.

It’s not all about you: How to make some sweet non-academic CV music

PGR Careers Adviser Holly Prescott explains how a quick change of perspective can make all the difference when writing a non-academic CV…

As a PGR Careers Adviser I’ve learnt to spot some classic PhD CV errors quicker than Theresa May can call a snap election. Something that really interests me though is one of the most popular questions I get asked by PGRs, which is…

‘What should I include in my CV?’

A relatively understandable and inoffensive question you might think?

Well… What I find interesting about this question is that the person asking it seems to be approaching their CV in a very specific way that comes from the self: what have I done? What should I write?  When we’re thinking in this way though, it then becomes easy to forget that our CV isn’t a summary of our life story: it is a marketing document strategically written for a particular target audience.

The CV mind-set shift we’re thinking about here is:

Moving from ‘what should I include’…

To thinking instead… What does this recruiter want to know about me?

This is why, in order find out what we ‘should include’ on our CV, we first need to know:

  • For what kind of opportunity are you using this CV?
  • What is involved in the role?
  • What essential and desirable skills and experience is the employer is seeking?

Think of your skills and experience as music (bear with me…). Your potential employer’s job description and person specification are musical scores. Once you know what’s written on those scores, you can hit all the right notes. Without knowing or paying attention to what’s on the scores, your chances of reeling off a Beethoven-standard application are pretty slim. So, the answers to these key questions become our blueprint on what the employer wants to know about us… and hence, what to include in our CV or application. So, we know what the employer is looking for, and hence have some good clues as to which of our skills and experiences should take priority on our CV. Cue the next inevitable question…

What about my PhD?

How can we effectively communicate our PhD skills and experience to match what it is that an employer wants to know about us? Especially when applying for non-academic jobs where a PhD may not speak for itself?

Mike graduated with his PhD from the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences in 2016 and wanted to take his PhD outside of academia. He secured a place on a Graduate Scheme, and has some useful advice for current PhDs applying for jobs beyond academia.

‘When talking to people (including employers) who haven’t been through the PhD experience, it can be quite hard to convey what is involved in a PhD and how hard it is,’ says Mike. One way that he addressed these difficulties in communicating the value of his PhD to non-academic employers was to include his PhD under both the ‘education’ and the ‘work experience’ sections of his CV. ‘Under “education” I’d give the working title of my thesis and a couple of bullet points covering the main points and achievements. What was far more substantial though was what I wrote about my PhD as “employment.”’

Here, Mike used his PhD experiences to pick out key skills relevant to the employers he was targeting. ‘I presented my PhD experience in terms of competencies relevant to that employer. I looked back on the PhD and times when I’d showed qualities like leadership or team work. Then, I gave demonstrative examples of when I’d showed these competencies: for example, coordinating a team of volunteers during fieldwork.’

So there you have it… those key competencies and skills that the employer is looking for are our ultimate guide on what to include in our CV and how best to present our PhD experience to that recruiter. If you want to know more about how best to nail your non-academic applications and interviews, join us for our workshop ‘Successful job applications outside of academia: a complete guide for Postgraduate Researchers’ on Friday 26 May.