Get out more and learn to share

February 10, 2006

It is no good for postgraduate researchers to spend all their time working in isolation, says Harriet Swain. They can spark interest in their theses by making contacts and exchanging ideas with others

There you are again sitting at your desk, just you and your thesis. Quiet isn't it? Too quiet, in the opinion of Howard Green, chair of the UK Council for Graduate Education. He points out that even the Quality Assurance Agency wants you to get out more. In its code of practice governing postgraduate research programmes, it states that a good research environment is one that gives, among other things, "opportunities and encouragement to exchange and develop ideas with people at appropriate levels who are also engaged in doing and learning about research". It also advocates postgraduate-run journals and postgraduate organisation of and attendance at conferences. If your supervisors object that you aren't ready yet for public presentation of your work, point them in the direction of this code, Green advises.

"You need to be a bit pushy," he says. Make sure your supervisors give you advice on which seminars and conferences to attend and who to speak to once you are there. You also need to scan conference networks yourself to find out about any event at which your research would be relevant.

If you don't find anything that grabs you, try organising a conference yourself, says Catherine Feely, a postgraduate student in history at Manchester University. Most research councils have generous pots of money for this purpose. Feely says that as well as the networking opportunities offered by the conference, your name will get about on any material associated with it.

Philip Cunliffe, a research student at King's College London and convener of the Sovereignty and its Discontents working group, says big-name academics are more than willing to help out postgrad students by contributing to a conference, workshop or seminar series since "it gives them a chance to talk about their own work to bright young things". He says that one advantage of running your own seminars and working groups is that it "ensures that you have greater control over the content and direction of the discussion you wish to pursue".

But Janet Metcalfe, director of UK Grad, which helps postgraduates to develop their skills, advises starting small. She says it is wise first to find out the worth of your research and to practise talking about it by offering to present work in a group or departmental seminar. You could then try approaching professional societies to see what opportunities they offer for young researchers - many have events or poster presentation competitions aimed at postgrads.

Richard Race, senior lecturer in education at Roehampton University, who as a postgraduate organised a number of conferences at Keele University, says it is also important to keep your supervisor informed and on side. If you organise a conference, you should at least let your supervisors know and ideally invite them, he says. It may well be that they can help provide the keynote speaker.

Feely says you should also try to disseminate your research outside academia. She has addressed left-wing groups interested in her research on Marx in Britain while her colleague, Rachel Ritchie, has spoken to women's groups about her work on housewives.

Cunliffe says you should not underestimate public hunger for informed debate and novel ideas, although he advises making sure you have mastered technical issues, such as how to write press releases and how to organise a public debate, before you try to reach a lay audience. He suggests finding a "hook" -an event of contemporary relevance that provides an entry point to the issues in which you are interested.

These are the kinds of techniques taught by the Economic and Social Research Council, which runs courses on how to disseminate research through the media. Alexandra Saxon, who runs the courses, says the first piece of advice is to get to know your audience. If you want to get something into the media, you have to read the papers and know what the news agenda is, she says. She also advises developing contacts but says you must have something relevant to say. "Make sure you are prepared and knowledgeable," she says. "Sometimes you can talk to researchers who are so immersed in their own area that they cannot apply it more generally."

Green says you should find out about and sign up for skills seminars run by your institution's staff development, student support offices or by the research councils. He says it is important to make sure that you receive advice on how to write a poster presentation, conference paper and journal article from somewhere, whether in one of these seminars or from your supervisor.

Green also recommends setting up your own website and putting everything you produce on it. Feely says she struck up an e-mail conversation with someone she had footnoted on an article she published on the web after he found it in a Google search. "You would be surprised how many people e-mail you randomly because they have come across your name," she says.

Race says it is worth checking what websites and chatrooms are available within your institution and subject discipline so that you can contribute if appropriate, although he warns that it can be hit and miss and may spark junk mail.

Metcalfe says you should not hesitate to start talking about your work - whether you are in your first or final year. But "don't jump in too deep", she warns. "The academic community isn't slow in giving feedback so you need to be comfortable that your research will stand up to academic scrutiny."

Further information:

Economic and Social Research Council including toolkits on communications and knowledge transfer: www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk

UK Grad programme: www.ukgrad.ac.uk

UK Council for Graduate Education: www.ukcge.ac.uk

Research Councils UK: www.rcuk.ac.uk

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