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.

Your PGR skills: from feeding bees to being the bees-knees…

PGR Careers Adviser Holly Prescott and current PhD researcher Nick Howe discuss how to get to grips with transferable skills as a PGR

Bee

The term ‘transferable skills’ often elicits either:

  1. Yawns
  2. A flashback from a cringe-worthy team-building day
  3. Utter bemusement

So let’s think about it in another way.

Imagine your postgraduate research degree wasn’t just about writing a however-many-thousand-word thesis. Imagine that, at the same time, you were also becoming a proficient project manager, an expert in conveying complex information in an accessible way, and a skilled diplomat capable of managing a whole host of potentially tricky professional situations and working relationships.

Call it selling yourself, call it ‘spin,’ call it whatever you like… but there’s no imagination required. As a PGR, you are already ALL OF THESE THINGS. And, chances are, much more besides. When it comes to considering potential careers and applying for jobs then, the trick is being able to reflect not just on what we know as PGRs, but what we can do.

Currently undertaking a PhD looking into the recent decline of the honey bee, Nick Howe talks about how attending the University’s Postgraduate Enterprise Summer School (PESS) helped him understand the skills with which he was armed as a PGR.

‘It’s sometimes hard to see what skills you are gaining when you spend a lot of time doing esoteric things, like feeding nectar to bees,’ says Nick. ‘I assumed my PhD was only teaching me how to be a better scientist, and why shouldn’t it? But as someone who has realised that academia isn’t for them, I began to worry if this was enough. Would I be able to work in the “real world”’?

On PESS, Nick worked in a team of researchers on a problem set by Innovate UK to design a solution to improve the wellbeing of freelance workers. ‘The time-management skills that I’ve gained during my PhD really paid off in PESS,’ says Nick. ‘In fact, I feel that they were crucial to my team’s success.  A PhD gives you a range of skills that employers like, such as good self-awareness and self-reflection. Working with supervisors is also good experience in dealing with managers. Tenacity, time-management and working independently are all in there too.’

As Nick attests, effectively communicating your skills to potential employers, investors or other key people is all about audience. How can you translate your skills to business and industry? How do you show your ‘audience’ what you can do in a way that means something to them? There are some useful tips on this in pages 9-10 of this Career Planning for PhDs e-book written by Postgraduate Careers Consultant Jayne Sharples.

In addition, investing some time in a team activity outside his research showed Nick that he possessed some skills that he had never previously had the chance to showcase. ‘During PESS I began to realise that I had skills which I didn’t even know I had, like a talent for design work.  This has actually translated well to my PhD with some pretty nifty poster designs.’

So there you have it… it’s not just about feeding bees. It’s about stepping outside of yourself to see just what you’re capable of and why others should/will be interested in what you have to offer. For help with this and for some great experience in growing your transferable skills (who knows, maybe one day you’ll talk about it in an interview…), make like Nick and apply for the Postgraduate Enterprise Summer School. Nick says:

‘I highly recommend PESS. It’s a lot of fun and is great for improving team-work: something in which many PGRs get little practice. I didn’t realise all the skills I had until I had an opportunity to use them. PESS gave me that opportunity.’

PESS 2017 will be taking place from 17 – 21 July 2017. Registration is now open; click here to find out more. For more information, contact Holly Prescott, PGR Careers Adviser

Why you should take part in the Research Poster Conference

Presenting your research in a poster format might seem like a daunting task, but there are many reasons that this is an essential task for PGRs. Jenna Clake, from the College of Arts and Law, shared her experience of participating in the Conference with us…

RPC2

I presented my research at the Research Poster Conference last year, with a poster entitled ‘Do You Think I’m Crazy?: Feminine and Feminist Humour in the Absurd’. As a Creative Writing PhD researcher, sometimes it is difficult to gain the opportunity to disseminate my research to a wide audience. My research focuses on two main areas: my ‘creative’ work (poetry) and my ‘critical’ work (researching literary theories and trends). I rarely have the chance to talk about the latter, especially to academics and researchers outside my specialism, so the Research Poster Conference offered the chance to receive some much-needed peer review.

The exercise of creating a poster to share your research is helpful in terms of identifying the key aspects and terms of your project. Firstly, you must engage your audience! I was encouraged to think of an interesting title for my poster to gain attention. By asking a question (‘Do You Think I’m Crazy?’), I managed to engage a variety of people – they were intrigued, and wanted to know the answer. You have limited space on a poster, so you must identify the key points of your research: this is incredibly helpful, as it reminds you of the key ideas behind your project. Once you have identified these, you can start thinking about discussing your project with a variety of audiences. Posters shouldn’t be too text-heavy, so after identifying the key points, you can think about how to sum up your research succinctly and clearly: this will certainly help in future discussions about your work!

When presenting at the Research Poster Conference – whether to judges, other researchers, or members of the public – it was essential that my presentation was accessible. I quickly learned that what thought was ‘accessible’ might not be to people outside my discipline! I learnt to adapt very quickly and explain some of my key terms in a comprehensible way. It is important to think about the impact that your research has (or will have), and the impact of your research will certainly increase if you can share it with more people.

I previously mentioned that peer-review was a major benefit of the conference. The Research Poster Conference draws a large and varied crowd; this meant that many people saw my poster and presentation, and could offer feedback. It was incredibly helpful to see my research from another perspective: some people were able to question my conclusions and the logic behind them, whilst others allowed me to defend my point of view and articulate my reasons. As a result, I was able to highlight areas of my research that needed work, and also interrogate my arguments to ensure that they were sound. I came away from the conference with some clear ideas about what I needed to do to improve my thesis.

The Research Poster Conference offers you a great chance to engage in your development as a researcher; you will disseminate your research to a large and varied audience, consider the key ideas of your research, and receive feedback on your work.

This year, the Research Poster Conference is taking place on 15th June 2017, and applications for abstracts are currently open until 3rd April 2017.

If you would like to take part this year, you can find more information about applying to the Research Poster Conference at the University Graduate School website