As researchers we often aim at changing the world for a better place. For example, we identify a problem and keep on seeking the ways of resolving it or explaining a certain phenomenon.
It is a long journey and, at times, it feels isolating us from non-academic world. But if you think of it, the “non-academic world” is in fact the primary target of your research. So, how about giving your project a chance to become something real, meaningful and, perhaps, inspiring for others – those outside academia?
They say than just a handful of people will read our thesis: “your supervisors, an external reader and you”. Well, lucky you, if you manage to turn it into a book a series of academic articles; then your scholarly impact can be significant. But there are ways of making your current PhD research more visible – becoming the Brilliant Club tutor.
Why to engage with non-academics at all?
Well, one reason is that they pay us – through their taxes. I owe my scholarship to British taxpayers, so I believe I should give them something in return. By ‘something’ I mean new knowledge, an innovative approach and solutions to some problems of social life. However, contributing with new knowledge is one thing, whereas promotion and communication of it, in a simple jargon-free language, another.
Today public engagement is not just optional, to some extent it is a must for us, PhD students. If we want to think of ourselves as serious scholars, we need to start treating seriously a non-academic audience too.
They are different modes of engaging with “outsiders”; for example, social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc) or blogging. I do both – they are cheap and relatively easy way of promoting research. But what I tried and truly enjoyed last year was the Brilliant Club.
Becoming a tutor
I have heard of the idea of public engagement during one of the very early courses which I attended as a fresh PhD student. It intrigued me then – I realised that I was not doing my study for myself and contribute to the science, in general – but there is a non-academic audience that might be interested in too.
I learned about the Brilliant Club during the same course. It is a charity which places
doctoral students at schools (of various levels) and they deliver a series of tutorials on a chosen topic related to their PhD. Sounded great, but it was too early for me to become a tutor back in those days. It was just the beginning of my PhD journey and literature review was taking me forever.
What intrigued me the most in the Brilliant Club was its mission; it targets young clever pupils from under-privileged backgrounds in the UK. Knowing myself how much good education means and how hard is to get one, I felt for this project and knew I would be part of it one day.
Two years ago I applied for it and got accepted and after the special training and preparation for my course, they offered me placement at two secondary schools last year.
A fresh perspective on your research
As PhD students, we get used to work independently. As the Brilliant Club tutor, it looks pretty much the same. From the very beginning up to the end of the tutorials, you paddle your own canoe. You chose the topic of your course, prepare a course book and decide on the final essays’ topic which you later mark. The organisation supports you at all stages.
But being a tutor enriches your own research. The real fun begins when you discuss a topic related to PhD – in my case it was, social capital and religious organisations – and see how your pupils react. They often are critical and come up with interesting and original insights, some of which you would probably never think of. Since they have not immersed in your study (as you do because you spend so much time on it) and are not familiar with ‘the real big names’ (big yet untouchable) as we are, they do not take certain concepts for granted. Instead they question their relevance or practicality often pushing you to thinking about own work outside the box. A rare yet precious opportunity.
In my case, in the beginning the pupils did not share my enthusiasm with the concept of social capital. But with time some start appreciating its scholarly and daily life relevance.
So, it might be worth leaving your own academic cave and starting thinking of the most convenient way of speaking to non-academics about your own research! The Brilliant Club may suit you too.