I'll start this post off with a story. When I was half way through my PhD and I had found my passion for science communication, I approached my supervisor for the first time to ask “Can I have this day off to go do this science outreach event?” And this was the first time I had the reply “But don’t you think you should be in the lab rather than doing that?”
Now I know I am not the only one in this situation - wanting to do some public engagement but being told by their supervisors that it isn’t important. So, I thought I would share 10 reasons that you should do an outreach event this year - or any year! - so you can justify it to your PhD supervisor the next time that they try to stop you.
Any funding grant that your supervisor submits now will include a section about public engagement, so the likelihood is that they may have already been given some funding as part of your grant to do just what you want to do. If they haven’t, then they will almost definitely have to include something in their next grant application. So, by you wanting to engage with the public and communicate your science, you are already helping them by giving them something to write about and work towards achieving. There are a lot of PIs who are not interested in communication, so you might even be able to help them fill that bit in which will also give you some grant writing experience. Win, win right?
2. Public understanding
A lot of people’s motivation to communicate their science is to aid public understanding of their research topic. Being able to highlight the importance of your research and how the public can relate to it is incredibly important. In fact, it comes back to policy and funding again. If the public care about your research, they are going to influence where the funding goes and what policy decisions are made, which could come full circle to affect you in the lab. I think it is particularly important if you work with something that some members of the public may disagree with. I’m talking about things like embryonic stem cells, embryos or any animals, or even vaccines, climate change or artificial intelligence. Explaining the importance of doing this research with the public and how it affects them is essential to helping us combat misinformation.
The list of incredible and inspiring people I have met through doing outreach events is endless. Every single one of them as taught me something new, either about myself, their story or about their amazing research, or introduced me to more opportunities and contacts. Those contacts are invaluable because you never know when you may need their help. There are contacts I made through events I did over two years ago that I have managed to contact this week to help with a project I am doing in my job now. It is not only a good opportunity for you to meet people, but because you never know who you are going to meet, it could be a good opportunity for your lab too. You could be able to get media coverage for your lab, which could boost the lab’s profile. This could in turn recruit more students and postdocs for your supervisor but potentially even more money and even freebies for the lab too.
4. Potential collaborations
Building on the last point, you never know who will be at these events, and it could lead to collaborations. Again, for both you and your lab. You may meet someone who has the knowledge, expertise and equipment to help solve your research questions. And you may meet someone who can introduce you to CEOs of companies looking for freelancers, or get you entry to an event where you get to meet Hannah Fry, Dallas Campbell and Tim Peake - true story!
5. Different research perspective
You get asked a lot of questions doing an outreach event. I guess that is a good thing as you are trying to share knowledge and educate. But some of the questions that I got asked really made me think about the research question I was trying to answer in the lab. You can learn from the public too to shape your career and research.
Getting involved in an outreach event allows you to think out of the box and find engaging ways to share your research by creating fun props and demos or using analogies and stories to share the facts. Many people believe that science is not a very creative career path, but I don’t believe that to be true. As scientists, we have to create hypotheses of what we think is going on and design experiments to try and find the answers to our questions. All of these things require an element of creativity, so being able to exercise that skill and build upon it is only going to benefit your career.
7. Improving presentation skills
Many outreach events involve speaking in front of an audience - whether that is just a few passersby who have stopped to listen to you on your soapbox, to lecture theatres full of hundreds of people waiting to hear your talk. These events challenge you to do presentations without slides and without notes to have a more conversational style, or to get quite complex things across in a simple and clear way for the entire audience. Skills that will be developed and improved at engagement events that can be applied to your research careers. Sometimes even your academic seminar presentations don’t have to be crammed full of data. The best ones tell a story and show highlights of your research. That is exactly what outreach will help you achieve. If people want to know more, that is what Q&A sessions are for.
8. Transferable skills
Getting involved with outreach events doesn’t always been giving a presentation. Sometimes it can involve making videos, or building models, or utilising your elevator pitch, or planning the events. Skills that the lab would never teach you but are going to make you 100% more employable at the end of your PhD journey whether that is in research or not. Check out what other transferable skills I learnt during my PhD in this blog post I wrote for Reagent Genie as food for thought.
I have always been the shy one in the group. The quiet one who just sits and listens to others. I still am, but am so much better than I used to be. Doing all these events realised that I don’t need to write out exactly what I want to say in the notes of my presentation word for word - yes I did that! - before I could give it. It made me realise that I have skills and passions that exist outside of the four walls of the lab. It has given me opportunities that I never thought I would get because I had the confidence and belief to pitch myself to companies who paid me to create things for them, and now I get sought out my companies because of what I have created. I’m still not the most confident of people but I am leaps and bounds further on than I would have been without these experiences under my belt. And you could be too.
And last but not least, doing science communication and engagement is just fun! You don’t - and shouldn’t - be stuck in the lab for what feels like all day every day. Some days deserve to be spent on the seafront sharing science, or sat in a pub listening to speakers you recruited to your event. A PhD is not all work and no play!
I could seriously keep going, but hopefully one of these reasons will be able to help convince your PhD supervisors to let you get involved with events. If they still need more convincing then please do get in touch and I will be more than willing to help you out as much as I can. So, to finish this one off, I should probably finish my story. After two years of pestering, doing the outreach events anyway because I believed it was important and it was what I was passionate about, and showing my supervisor the impact that I was having, I finally managed to convince them that letting their PhD students do public engagement was actually a worthwhile thing. You can change your supervisor’s minds about science outreach. It is great for you but also fantastic for their lab and academia as a whole.