Inside Higher Ed: Translating ‘grad student’ into English

By Kevin Kiley, for Inside Higher Ed

May 16, 2011

Several years working on a PhD in the back corner of a chemistry lab or lost in a library’s stacks can make anyone a little detached from reality. So it’s not surprising that when graduate students emerge from their years of close study on a topic, their dissertation titles can be a little unwieldy to the average graduation attendee or website visitor.

Turning the pages of the 2011 graduation guide at Emory, one encounters the following dissertation titles:

“Suppression of calcineurin signaling and PGC-1a expression during the chronic skeletal muscle atrophy associated with diabetes mellitus: implications for muscle function”

“Statistical methods for robust estimation of differential protein expression”

“Hearing what you expect to hear: investigating the social and cognitive mechanisms underlying vocal accommodation”.

While those are valuable undertakings, and significant enough to earn PhDs from a research university, they’re all a little unwieldy to the untrained eye.

So in 2010 the university’s marketing and public relations department intervened. The office asked PhD recipients to boil down their dissertations to about 100 words that summarised their research and explained its impact, all in a way that “a friend who wasn’t in their field” could understand.

“We wanted to show how that knowledge generation has an impact on the world,” said Jan Gleason, executive director of university marketing. “This isn’t some esoteric work. These students’ dissertations have applications and can inform other ideas.”

So history PhD Leah Weinryb Grohsgal’s “Reinventing civil liberties: religious groups, organized litigation, and the rights revolution” becomes an exploration of how Jehovah’s Witnesses helped spark the modern civil rights movement and shows that “religious liberty, far from being an afterthought, was integral to the 20th century transformation of civil rights”. Psychology PhD Pavel Blagov’s “Personality constellations in incarcerated men who scored high on psychopathy” highlights two subcategories of “psychopaths” that could help prevent, diagnose, treat and rehabilitate such individuals.

In 2010, the university had 14 of its about 250 PhD recipients explain their research in the humanities, natural and social sciences, and professions. This year, 24 of Emory’s 225 PhD recipients participated.

The exercise is certainly difficult. Not only does it require boiling down years of research, it also requires the student to step out of his or her discipline for a minute and try to relate to others. A look down the list shows that most can’t quite eliminate all the complexity from their descriptions. There are still some big words and terms in each “translation” that laymen likely wouldn’t understand, such as “Enantioselectively” and “Taylor rule fundamentals”. But the descriptions are certainly less complex than the list of dissertation titles.

Some students took to the exercise naturally. Jongwoon “Willy” Choi, whose business dissertation explored the effects of signing bonuses, and the labour market they are made in, on worker motivation, said he is constantly trying to explain his research to those outside his field. He titled his dissertation “When are signing bonuses more than just ‘pay to play’? An experimental investigation”. He said that if his wife, mother and sister can’t understand what he’s working on, he needs to rethink how he’s describing it.

“In a field like business, it’s important to get people to understand that the work academics do has a lot of applications to real-world business settings,” he said. “We’re exploring why we do these prevalent business practices, what might be wrong, and how things can be done better.”

Choi, who’s taking a job at the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz School of Business next year, said he encourages all academics to think of an “elevator speech” about their research.

But the task wasn’t so easy for all students. Some deal with abstract concepts or very specific scientific processes. Alyssa Dunn, a PhD recipient in Emory’s education school who “studied the recruitment and pedagogy of international teachers hired for US urban schools and the policy context in which such recruitment unfolds”, was one student who struggled to meet the marketing office’s criteria.

Her problem was not converting her language to something that was comprehensible to readers: she has the kinds of findings that yearn to be made public, and because the findings are concrete examples of the problems that such programmes create for students and teachers, the language doesn’t deal with abstract theories or statistics.

Her problem was boiling down her 250-page dissertation of diverse findings into a 100-word statement. Because it was a case study instead of an exploration of a single hypothesis, there were multiple topics to discuss. “With so many different findings, you really have to think about which are most important now,” she said. “What do people need to know about?”

Emory’s dissertation project falls amid a bigger push nationwide to encourage researchers – particularly scientists – to become better communicators and develop the skills necessary to share their findings with the public.

The university engages in several other techniques to help graduate and undergraduate students, as well as professors, learn how to communicate research goals and findings. David Lynn, chairman of the chemistry department, runs a class where graduate students teach their research findings to freshmen and seniors.

Researchers at the university have even explored alternative forms of communication, such as pairing with artists, to reach even broader audiences. One programme teamed science researchers with the Atlanta-based Out of Hand Theater. Together they designed a flash mob to help people understand molecular behaviour.

“We’re living in a world where, in all areas, information is changing so quickly,” Lynn said. “When things change so quickly, people become fearful and recalcitrant. We need to be able to share new information to make justifiable decisions, or as a community we can’t go forward.”

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