Five ways to engage the public with your PhD work

This article was one of the last things I wrote whilst at the University of Southampton. It was published in the Humanities Graduate School newsletter.
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Publishing in academic journals and engaging academics can help you get an academic job, get promoted, be invited to serve on committees, and get invited to speak at academic conferences. Yet if we want to make some sort of difference in the wider world we need to engage with people outside academia.

Most of us will never have our own TV series or sell millions of books, but here are five ways we can engage the public with our research.

  1. Start a blog: With blogger.com or wordpress.com you can get going within a few minutes. Try to write a post every week or so about something related to your thesis. The blog puts your work ‘out there’, especially if you are disciplined enough to write something on a regular basis. Your blog may be found by potential collaborators, journalists seeking an expert opinion or other people with an interest in your work.
  2. Write for non-academic audiences: There are lots of opportunities to write in publications for school pupils, teachers, activist groups, charities, popular magazines and clubs and societies where an audience for your work may be found. These sorts of publications are not a substitute for academic books and articles, but they will probably be read by more people.
  3. Get involved in non-academic activities: Similarly look for opportunities to give talks about your research to these groups and/or get involved in their activities. Before he became well-known for Time Team the late Mick Aston came to my school and gave my A-level history class a talk about the excavation of Hailes Abbey in Gloucestershire. I have never forgotten that experience.
  4. Don’t keep interesting things to yourself: If you find out something you think may be of wider public interest speak to supervisors, colleagues and the university press office to explore how you might communicate your work.
  5. Get involved in the outreach activities of the faculty/ university: Public engagement is not just about your own work. The university reaches out to the public in many ways including lifelong Learning programmes, open days for prospective students, partnerships with local organisations and outreach into local schools.

Finally, two notes of caution.

Firstly, public engagement is important, but it is not a substitute for publishing in academic journals, going to academic conferences and becoming known in your academic community, especially if you desire an academic career in the future.

Secondly, make sure your public engagement is good public engagement. Despite the popular saying, there is such thing as bad publicity. Be very careful what you say and do, especially online. A negative ‘digital footprint’ is difficult to erase.

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