Public engagement – an essential experience for the PhD student
By Ruth M Blackburn, on 13 January 2014
With 2013 now a thing of the past, I find myself reflecting on my progress over the last 12 months, which have taken me from fledgling PhD student to recently “upgraded”.
For the uninitiated, the Upgrade process is the gateway from MPhil to PhD student and marks one of the few official milestones between starting and submitting a PhD thesis. The format of this assessment varies between departments but may comprise; a report of up to 10,000 words, a departmental seminar and question time (an hour or so), and a viva with examiners.
At first sight, this is a daunting process with excellent potential for awkward questions, awkward silences and total demoralisation. However, I am not alone in finding the upgrade a useful and highly positive experience; a quick (and totally unscientific) survey of my peers tells a similar story. These post-upgrade students are utterly upbeat about their experience, they describe it as the perfect opportunity to “take stock” of the whole PhD, see where it is going and to focus and refine your work with advice from your peers and examiners. However, they do concede that you can be asked about ANYTHING (that can be vaguely related to your work) and that defending your work is essential.
These sentiments are strongly reminiscent of my experiences of being a Post-Graduate Student Engager; since spring 2013 I have spent time in each of UCL’s three extraordinary museums and conversed with an incredible range of people about all aspects of my research as well as the collections that they have come to visit. We (The Student Engagers) often receive feedback about the benefits of engagement to the public or at institutional level, but only occasionally is the benefit to ourselves discussed.
To my mind, learning to engage offers four major benefits to the PhD student:
Number 1: Clarity of thinking – there is nothing quite like discussing or teaching someone to help distill your ideas and identify gaps in your knowledge. Furthermore, discussion with people who are not familiar with your area of work necessitates dropping much loved jargon for plain English. But unsurprisingly, this can lead to benefit Number 2.
Number 2: Being challenged. Far from being a bad thing, well-directed questions and real-time feedback can be entertaining (essential for successful engagement!) and educational for both parties.
Number 3: The Randomness Factor. Not to be underestimated, chance encounters can have surprising implications for research. This includes everything from meeting someone who works on a related topic to discussing what “life” or “mental health” or “a museum” actually is. In my experience it is often these off-topic conversations that build the trust and rapport needed to probe further into your area of research, and what this means to different people.
Number 4: Greater perspective. Talking to anyone for long enough invariably breaks down barriers, allows us to see the world through another person’s eyes and can renew interest in our own work.
I have experienced each of these benefits when using the Elephant Heart in the Grant Museum of Zoology to discuss my research (on the prevention of cardiovascular disease in people with severe mental illness). This grand specimen appeals hugely to children and adults alike and has sparked conversation with curious (and impressively knowledgeable) nine year olds, A and E doctors and artists from the Slade. The scope of conversation is huge; “what does a heart do?”, “is it real?” (it is), “can elephants get heart disease”? (they can), and ultimately discussion of my research, including why heart disease and mental illness so frequently affect the same individuals.
Researchers are particularly susceptible to becoming so entrenched in their own work that the broader meaning and application can become lost. Public Engagement provides an ideal platform for enriching research and public interest in it, and I would encourage everyone to give it a go.