You may have been encouraged, at some point, to think about the ‘impact’ of your research. The term ‘engagement’ most likely came up during these discussions too. If not, then you will probably be introduced to both themes in the near future. These terms might feel vague and bring you out in a cold sweat as you ask yourself why your research matters. However, ‘impact’ and ‘engagement’ are just ways of describing how you communicate your research and share it with a variety of audiences, both within your field and beyond.
Most of us will have some experience of presenting our findings and discussing our research in academic circles, usually quite formally at conferences and symposiums. Sometimes, it can be easy to forget that your research and the skills you develop as a PGR are valuable beyond academia. You could volunteer to help community groups, heritage organisations, or get creative with younger audiences – the possibilities are endless. You might be keen to get out there and share your interests with the public, but find it difficult to know where to start. Here at the UofG we have lots of programmes that you can get involved with, no matter what your discipline is. Check out our recent posts on the 3 Minute Thesis competition and Science Slam for some inspiration.
You should also take a look at the Hunterian Associates Programme. Run by The Hunterian at UofG, this programme encourages PGRs to ‘share their expert knowledge and to develop their skills through meaningful public engagement and knowledge exchange activities’. To get involved you need to design a small project based around the collections of The Hunterian or our Archives and Special Collections. If you are familiar with The Hunterian, there may already be an object (or objects) that you know and love and would like to share with others. Or it may be that you want to spread the word about your own research, but in a new and creative way. Have a good look through the online catalogue of The Hunterian’s collections and you are bound to find something related to your research. It might be that you find something from the same area as your research, or collections owned or used by figures from your field. You can also browse the A-Z of Hunterian Associates projects to see the breadth of topics, across all disciplines, that the collections encompass. And who needs an excuse to spend an afternoon wandering around our museum and art gallery?
As a former Hunterian Associate, I definitely recommend getting involved. My project on the Northern Rebellion of 1569, a short-lived but bloody rebellion against Queen Elizabeth I led by nobles from the north of England, explored proclamations, warrants and pardons from MS Hunter 3 (Special Collections, Glasgow University Library). These documents were all signed by Queen Elizabeth I and I had the opportunity to present them to staff, students and the public at the annual showcase event in 2014. I also created an online exhibition of the collection, using specific manuscripts to highlight events before and after the rebellion in a ‘virtual tour’ of sorts.
During the programme, you are supported along the way by your fellow associates, and by the fantastic teams at The Hunterian and in Archives and Special Collections. Staff are generous with their time and are enthusiastic about highlighting the objects in their care. Everyone at Special Collections went out of their way to help me develop my project, even allowing me to take the manuscripts out of the archives to put on display for the public (with the necessary care to keep them safe!).
You can share your project using a variety of platforms: podcasts, short films, musical recitals, online exhibitions or pop-up displays. You really are encouraged to be as creative and innovative as you like, with practical aid offered whenever possible to make your ideas come to life. There are also a number of training opportunities offered during the programme, including brushing up on your digital media skills, boosting your confidence at a public-speaking workshop, and coming up with creative ways to share your findings. For me, this meant developing my storytelling skills, so that my presentations were more engaging for audiences of all ages. Being able to grab people’s attention, and keep them interested, is something I have taken back into my academic and teaching roles.
Sharing your research with the wider public can also be hugely rewarding. Giving a talk to the public as part of The Hunterian Insight Talks, towards the end of the programme, I found myself surrounded by regular and new visitors to the collections, all of whom were excited to learn more about the objects on display. They asked questions and were happy to chat about their own interests in history in a lovely relaxed way. I was also able to share some nuggets from my own PhD research: the anecdotes and rumours that can’t quite be verified but keep you hooked. Working on the programme and interacting with different audiences recharged my enthusiasm for my research and reminded me that other people do think it is worth pursuing.
Finally, there is no denying that my time as an associate has continued to offer benefits. As I have come to the end of my PhD journey and turned towards the job market, the training I experienced and the skills I developed will be crucial. For example, my experience handling objects from the collection safely, and of working with senior curatorial and archival staff, has given me the confidence to seek out roles in the heritage and cultural sectors that I might not have considered otherwise. Moreover, the transferable skills I gained, like using website management systems, effectively using databases, and managing multiple projects simultaneously, have no doubt helped me to secure positions later in my career, such as my role as a PGR Blogger!
So, I encourage you get out there, get creative and get involved! To find out more about the Hunterian Associates Programme get in touch with Ruth Fletcher, Student Engagement Officer at The Hunterian (Ruth.Fletcher@glasgow.ac.uk). Keep a look out for info via your college and department. And don’t forget to share with us how engagement activities have improved your PGR experience.