From the editor: many thanks to Abigail Mottershaw for writing about these highlights from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) First Year Student Conference, 2015
This year I started my PhD in behavioural genetics at the University of Warwick using the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS) data. My research explores the nature and nurture of adolescent wellbeing. I am three months into it and although it can feel overwhelming with so many possibilities to research and such a huge variety of methods to learn, I absolutely enjoy every day. Recently I went to the ESRC First Year Student Conference 2015 held in Cardiff by the Wales Doctoral Training Centre. The conference was really valuable for any early career researcher, PhD student, or anyone looking to create more of an impact for their research.
The key message from the conference was that engaging with a wider audience is about your attitude: if you want to engage with the public, other academics, or policy makers then do it. It is important to create a name for yourself in your field, especially if you want to build a career and one of the easiest ways to do this is to construct an online presence.
The difference between output and impact
A basic but important argument that was made by Frances Burstow, ESRC, was the difference between output and impact. The importance of research impact expands nations, and particularly researchers in the UK will know that impact played an important part in the REF 2014 and is likely to have increasingly more weighting in the REF 2020.
Output: This includes any way that your research is disseminated. Seminars, conferences, and publications are a few examples.
Impact: When your output is taken up and used by policy makers or practitioners to make changes.
This distinction between output and impact is important: we need a way to have impact. We need to be able to connect our research with policy makes and practitioners to be able to have impact. This is why it is important to create a name for yourself within your field, and an accessible way to do this is by creating an online presence.
Being a digital scholar
Professor Martin Weller, from The Open University and author of The Digital Scholar: How Technology is Transforming Academic Practice gave a fantastic talk on building an online presence.
When someone, be it a journalist or policy-maker or even perhaps fellow academics from other areas, is looking for an expert in your field then a typical place to start will be Google. If you can make yourself appear in the first few search results using key words from your area, then you will maximise your chances of impact.
And using technology does not have to be difficult or time consuming. You could start a blog in the style of a journal by using sites such as WordPress. You could research papers in your area and publish open access papers in your blog, with your own comments added. (Note that open access papers published with the right licences, such as CC-BY will allow you to make and share such copies.) This could just be a way of keeping your notes that you make about the papers that you read; we all have to read journal articles or do some form of a literature review. Why not post your comments online?
You could invent an app that relates to your field. If you’re exploring what makes people happy, why not make an app where people can share photos or comments about what makes them happy?
Another way to use technology is through podcasts. Martin Weller recommended checking out researchpodcasts.co.uk for a simple introduction.
Furthermore, his book is available on open access, so there is no excuse not to have a read!
Dr Pamela Cox gave a truly inspiring talk on getting creative with impact. She has transformed her research, including her PhD, into books that can reach a wider audience than a thesis. Furthermore, she has created BBC documentaries based on her research. Something we could all aspire to!
Pamela’s advice for making your research reach a wider audience included these points:
• Try to avoid jargon
• Connect with the audience’s experiences and emotion
• Be aware of timing: what is going on in the world and the media right now? Does your research fit in?
• Write in a way that is accessible, but gives an intelligent debate
And her advice for where to begin:
• Don’t wait to be asked to share your opinion. Look for websites to post on. For example, Comment is free: The Guardian, the conversation, and tedx.
• Learn to visualise. You need to make your research accessible through images.
• Build up contacts. Follow them on twitter. Connect with people in your area, both in academia and in a wider setting.
Key message for early career researchers:
The ESRC First Year Conference 2015 really was a lot of fun, and included many inspiring talks other than the ones discussed here. For me, the key message was to build an online presence. And do so now. Do not wait until you have done original research or feel like you are qualified enough to give an opinion: your authentic opinion counts!
Start connecting with others online. Start commenting, or at least start thinking what you could comment about. Try to tweet other academics. If you have read a journal article, tweet the author and tell them what you think. It gives them publicity too so it can only be a good thing.
And finally, think of some way that you can present your research visually. Could you use photographs to give meaning? Could you use data visualisation? For example, the world mapped according to population size that has been trending recently is something simple but highly relatable to a wide audience.
Abigail Mottershaw is an ESRC sponsored PhD student at the University of Warwick. She is exploring the nature and nurture of adolescent wellbeing, using the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS) dataset. At the moment Abigail is particularly interested in understanding the genetic and environmental contributions towards different aspects of wellbeing, such as life satisfaction, subjective happiness and gratitude. She also intends to explore the relationship between wellbeing and geographical location, and hopes to be able to use spACE to visually display her findings.