Thursday, 4 April 2013

Telling others about your research – no, not experts, real people!



Think like a wise man, but communicate in the language of the people’.
W.B. Yeats

Yes, but was he talking about PhD students??

The core of any PhD is of course the generation of new knowledge, but research is not complete until this knowledge is passed on.  What would be the point of doing the most important and significant research in the world if you were not to tell anyone what was found, or were to tell the wrong people, for whom it would not have an impact, or tell people in such a way that they do not understand the message and its significance?


Thus, communication skills of all sorts, written and oral, formal and informal, are truly one of the most important attributes of a researcher, and one of the key skills to be developed during a PhD degree.   This of course includes far more than just the dry transfer of knowledge, but rather the ability to make arguments, to convince, motivate, explain, and persuade. 

However, PhD students still probably focus most on communicating in a way they are unlikely to ever use outside academic contexts, writing theses, papers and maybe books in the high rarified style expected of academia, stripped of emotion, controversy, humour and the like.  This was perhaps fine when they were setting themselves up for a life in the ivory towers, actively repelling those who could not speak their arcane codes.  However, today it is increasingly recognised that the ability to communicate complex information to a range of audiences, far beyond the expert, is a key skill to be acquired in the course of doing a PhD.

In terms of the Yeats’ quote at the start of this post, doing a PhD, in theory at least, involves a certain amount of thinking like a wise (wo)man, or at a minimum trying to convince your supervisor and examiners that you are.   However, today there is a huge need for students to be able to reach outwards and communicate their work outside the university entirely, to the public, policy-makers, stake-holders and employers.   The modern university has a responsibility to serve and support the society in which it is set, and so the sharing of knowledge beyond academic circles is hugely important.  It is also obvious that the results of research being undertaken in any typical university are relevant to doctors, patients, government departments, the media, cultural organisations, teachers, farmers, and many more groups and individuals. 

So, it is critical that those generating such knowledge are able to communicate it in a way that suits the needs and background of those with whom they are dealing. Related to this is the growing acknowledgement and ambition in recent years that PhD graduates will increasingly find employment in sectors far beyond academia, with employers who may not be directly interested in what their thesis concerned, but are very interested in the skill sets they have acquired along the way.  In this light, what skill could be more fundamental, transferable and valuable than to be able to communicate effectively, convincingly, engagingly and in a wide range of styles and contexts?  These are key skills for any PhD student to acquire, and will be the subject of several forthcoming posts on this blog.

As one example of how these can be developed, competitions and programmes have been introduced in many countries and universities to challenge students to explain their research in non-specialist language.  A great example of this is the ‘Three-minute thesis’, where students have the aforementioned time period, and typically a maximum of one slide, to ‘sell’ their research and why it is important.  In Ireland, the Higher Education Authority run an annual competition, called Making an Impact, where students compete to present their research to an audience largely comprised of school-children, who then vote on the winner.  To see the really high standard of presentations at this year’s final, held a few weeks ago, visit:

Another example is the Famelab competition (http://famelabireland.wordpress.com).  Of course, a further option is to avail of the huge possibilities for communicating about your research by using social media, whether it is a research blog or tweeting about your thesis.  In this vein, the University of Leeds held a Thesis Twitter conference in 2012, which can be read about at

As a final thought, it is arguably easier to hide behind fancy words and jargon then to strip back your work to its bare essentials and ask ‘what does this mean and why is it important?’. Learning how to do just that will give you a new perspective on what exactly you are committing these years of your life to.

PhD skill: explain your thesis to your Granny, and keep her awake!

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