Increasingly, universities engage in a variety of public outreach activities and all the main research funding bodies expect the key results of the research they fund to be make available publicly and to be communicated them as widely as possible. There will be opportunities for you to get involved with these here in the Department of Materials at Imperial.

Communication and maximising impact

Because in most cases the public have paid for us to do the research through their taxes, and/ or they may be the people who stand to benefit most from our findings, it is important that we communicate our results externally, beyond the academic community, in a way that everyone can understand. In other words, we are required to “disseminate” the results.

It is also sensible to share our results as widely as possible within our professional networks, including both academic and industrial networks. The main practical implications of this requirement for researchers are that we must plan ahead and show how we will do the research on the majority of research grant proposals: funding can be denied if we don’t do so.

Important skills development

Even as a PhD student, it is important to consider how you will maximise the dissemination and impact of your work at the beginning of your research project, because as well as being good professional practice, you may be required to put forward plans or demonstrate competency in these areas in future fellowship or job applications. Dissemination and outreach are beneficial to your career, as this will help you improve your communication skills and convey more effectively what you have done to future employers.

Opportunities and ways to do outreach

Typical dissemination routes include newspaper articles and public talks/events (when aiming at members of the public), industrial and trade conferences, articles in industry-specific magazines, visits to industrial partners (when aiming at members of our industrial network) and academic conferences, tutorial workshops and research papers (when aiming at members of our academic network).

At institution level, Imperial has made a commitment to the Office for Fair Access to help improve the diversity of applicants who wish to study here. This includes doing a broad range of outreach work, where “outreach” refers to a broad range of activities and approaches in which we reach out to non-specialists to promote our work and communicate what it is like to be a scientist or to study in our field.

At Imperial, the focus is on running events which help to engage and educate younger people between the ages of 6 – 18 years, with the intention of stimulating their interest in scientific and engineering careers and in studying relevant subjects at the university level. Our role here is to advocate for our subject to the next generation of scientists, explaining what it is about and what the culture at Imperial is like. We may also be addressing particular groups or issues- for example, encourage females to study physical sciences, or social mobility. Events include open days, summer schools or the Imperial Festival. Being active on social media, giving talks and/or mentoring at schools, institutions and museums, writing newspaper or magazine are also options available to you.

There are also plenty of events external to Imperial, such as the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition (open to all, though aimed primarily at schools), the British Science Festival, and the Pint of Science events (the latter is aimed at adults).

Other ways of engaging in outreach articles about your results and/or your experiences as a scientist, writing books for a general audience or writing articles for blogs or websites.

Commit to what you can achieve

In general, it’s sensible for scientists to participate in outreach, because if the public can see that what we do is useful or interesting, then we are likely to continue to get support and funding.

However, on the individual level, when deciding whether or not to get involved in outreach as a PhD student, it’s important to ask yourself what exactly your aim is, whether the proposed activity is going to be helpful in achieving that aim, who it is going to reach and whether you have fully considered what’s going to appeal to them and get them interested. If all goes well, it can be a great opportunity to improve your communication skills, a chance to get creative, and a good way to gain perspective by learning about how your work is perceived by people from different educational and cultural backgrounds. Outreach activities will take up some of your time, so it’s important to consider the impact it will have on your research before making any commitments.

>> See also: Teaching while studying