By Heather Doran, contributor
In the lead-up to our Naturejobs Career Expo and conference in London tomorrow, where we will have a panel discussion on science communication, Heather Doran, a Project Officer in Public Engagement with Research at the University of Aberdeen, shares her thoughts on the benefits that public engagement can bring to scientists in this guest blog post.
In order to perform well in both academia and industry researchers need to develop their personal skill sets to not only complete research but also write papers, teach and demonstrate the impact and relevance of their work. Competition for jobs both in and out of academia is fierce and these skills and activities often viewed as being ‘extras’ are actually fundamental for success in any career. But there is no reason why activities designed to enhance skills in public engagement, writing and teaching should be seen as separate entities to the research process.
I’m going to share an example from my PhD. I wanted to share my research work at an overseas conference. After my abstract was accepted I needed to raise funding in order to attend. My travel budget did not cover the full cost of the conference. At that point in my PhD I had already been blogging about my PhD and had spent time developing my writing skills through my editing role at the science magazine I co-founded with other students. I was invited by one of the societies at the conference to act as an official conference blogger.
This allowed me to raise money to attend the conference (and the society supported me attending too). I presented my work and wrote posts from sessions at the conference. On reflection, blogging from the conference also gave me an extra edge when I was networking – as I was given access to the press room and press releases this helped me get an overview of what research was being shared at the conference and get much more out of it. I was able to create a wide number of connections in my research field and in other related areas which could have aided further academic research. This is one isolated example of how the culmination of skills development, public engagement and my research came together.
There are many other examples of how public engagement can help you develop as a researcher. Learning to present your research work to a different audience, such as a secondary school or in a different way such as at a Bright Club comedy night for scientists can help increase confidence and help researchers deliver a clear message about their work. Learning to communicate with those outside your research field clearly about your work can also help create two way conversations and may shape and lead to new research projects.
In recent times, the UK major funders and research councils have placed more emphasis on the impact and societal relevance of research findings. For many, public engagement is now recognised as a vital part of the pathway to impact of a research project. Research councils have even supported the integration of public engagement within the core business of universities through funding calls, including Beacons and Catalysts and guidance frameworks, for instance the Concordat for Early Career Development and Engaging the Public with Research.
There’s no one answer as to what makes a good impact pathway as all research projects are different. Any public engagement should be designed to help complement and support the research as well as developing the skills of the researchers involved.
Public Engagement can take many forms; it can inform an audience – for example through a lecture or talk, it can consult with an audience – through a panel or focus group. It can be collaborative where two different groups work together for one outcome such as an art/science exhibition or project with a community group.
Public engagement is also a fantastic way for scientists at any stage of their career to gain important skills and also transferable skills that can be used when searching for job opportunities. After all, the best way to demonstrate to potential employers, both academic and non-academic that you have gained these translational skills is by providing specific examples of how you have used them.
Heather Doran is a Project Officer in Public Engagement with Research at the University of Aberdeen. The University holds an RCUK Catalsyt Awards for Public Engagement with Research, one of eight across the UK. The project is led by Dr Ken Skeldon and Dr Lucy Leiper and has recently been nominated for a Times Higher Education Award for Outstanding Support for Early Career Researchers. Through the project, the team are embedding a progressive approach to public engagement that pervades research, teaching, knowledge transfer and researcher development.
Heather studied Molecular Biology and Biochemistry with a year in Industry at Durham University and then completed her PhD in Molecular Pharmacology at the University of Aberdeen. During her PhD she founded the science journalism society and launched and edited the student-led Au Science Magazine. You can follow her on Twitter: @hapsci