At my institute, we have a strong public engagement commitment. At first I was wary to get involved, but once I did, I absolutely loved it. We’re very lucky to have a brilliant public engagement manager that organises events and coerces convinces us to take part in everything from fashion shows to open days and lab tours.
A couple of weeks ago, I ended up giving a talk about breast cancer to a room full of strangers, completely on my own. No slides, no time to practise or rehearse. I was asked on Thursday afternoon, and by Friday morning I was stood up there waffling away. If you’d have told me even a couple of years ago that I’d be doing that, I would have laughed at you. Public engagement is a really important aspect of science now, so here are some reasons you should get involved and communicate your science. (Bonus: also gives some great Instagram photos.)
Especially if you’re shy or the thought of standing up in front of a room full of people, this one’s for you. As part of your PhD you will at some point have to stand up in front of a room full of people and explain what you’ve been doing for the past few years. Gaining a coffee addiction and learning to look productive while watching cat videos is not the right answer.
The prospect of justifying myself, and my work, is horrible. However, by explaining what you do to lay people, it can help you learn to explain the difficult aspects of your research in a simpler way. A bonus I’ve found is that as I can now explain my research in both layman’s terms and in a more technical way to somebody who is an expert in my field. All without losing the meaning and importance behind my research question. If that isn’t a big confidence boost, I don’t know what is.
It helps you to understand your research area better
Some of the most thought-provoking questions I’ve been asked about my research have been by members of the public. When you don’t have any preconceived ideas about what should be happening in a certain process, it means you can think about a question more openly. Unfortunately for us, we’re so involved in our projects that we often lose sight of some of the simpler questions that we might not have answered yet.
It’s only when you present your research to an audience with little to no prior knowledge of your research that you get asked these ‘simple’ questions that maybe you haven’t thought about for a long time. Mostly, they are very insightful questions into a certain aspect of your research. ‘Does X link to Y?’ Well actually, you haven’t looked into that, because to you it didn’t seem important or relevant. Time to go back to basics. Having to explain things in simpler terms to a non-expert audience can also help you to really gain an appreciation of the broader picture.
My research is funded by the MRC, a government-funded research council in the UK. If it isn’t the government, it’s likely that you’re funded by a charity. Either way, the public have paid for the research we’re doing. Considering they’re funding us, we have an obligation to tell them what we’re spending their money on. It’s becoming much more common for funding bodies to have a section on grant applications to detail what public engagement or sci comm you do. By practising as a PhD student, you can perfect it for when you will rely on your experience later.
Whatever your post-PhD plan is, anything you can add to your CV is invaluable. This is especially true if you’re thinking of leaving academia. Some of the most popular routes for ex-academics are medical writing and science communication, as well as going into industry and, for some reason, finance roles. With this in mind, it’s worth every moment of your time to branch out from the lab and talk to people that aren’t in your circle and area. Any experience that you have of communicating with people will land you in good stead and give you plenty to talk about when you’re asked for an example of X, Y or Z in an interview.
- Explaining difficult concepts? ✓
- Working with people in different areas? ✓
- Taking on extra responsibilities? ✓
- Time (and event) management? ✓✓
No matter how you look at it, public engagement has the potential to give you a bucket load of experience, while being a legitimate use of your time outside of the lab that your supervisor shouldn’t be questioning. As an even bigger bonus, there’s often tea and cake. Who can say no to that?