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where to begin?

September 26, 2022

the road to public engagement is fraught with road bumps but also with miles of open, beautiful road.

the work is hard, time consuming, and can be thankless. but the reward can be substantial. not financially, of course. though this process could be parlayed into grant writing and consultations, among other things. what i think about, and what you should focus on, is how the work you do can and will impact the communities affected by your work.

are you debating entry into the world of public engagement, unsure of where to start?

where to begin?

first, consider: what kind of scholar do you want to be?

this is THE question. your values, goals, and convictions will guide you toward things that bring you joy and purpose. think back to when you decided to pursue a terminal degree – what were your intentions? who did you want to be? if your ultimate goal was to solidify a tenure track position, publish, get tenure, and live happily ever after, that is absolutely your right. but i have a sneaky feeling many of us pursued our PhD’s because we wanted to make an impact in some way. something in this world is so significant to us, we decided to dedicate our life to studying it. sit with that for a bit.

why did you pursue your phd? why do you continue to do the work you do? take some time to reflect on these questions as you consider public scholarship. what kind of scholar do you want to be? how you will measure the success of your career in the end? there is additional labor associated with public scholarship, without a doubt. but how you answer these questions will help uncover whether the work will feel more like labor or love. life of an academic is already rife with unpaid labor, and no need to add more if it will not bring you joy and meaning.

establish your scholarly identity and your story.

knowledge, expertise, and science is constantly being questioned. do what you can to ensure your scholarly identity speaks for itself outside of your CV and your university bio webpage. this step lays the foundation of your work for external audiences to reference, leaving no room to question your authority. build your ORCID page. add your research to your LinkedIn page. create (and monitor) a Google Scholar page. promote your work on Twitter. you can create research profiles on research reference sites like OpenAlex, Academic.edu, ResearchGate, and Scopus. establish your scholarly identity and tell your research story so no one else can.

make space in your research workflow.

being a public scholar shouldn’t be limited to the occasional blog or op-ed. it should be ever flowing, a part of your daily work life (within your own boundaries, of course). again, it should not feel like work. public engagement should complement the work you already do. take some time to reflect on your research and writing process or your workflow. from initial conception to your lit review to data collection and so on. there are opportunities to put your work forward and include the world in the process.

some academic blogs are used as public research notebooks. researchers use blogs to process their ideas, hypothesis, questions, about their research area and other related (and unrelated) topics. a similar process can also take place on other social media platforms like facebook or twitter. you can share thoughts, quotes, and insights that appear throughout your workflow. this display of thought leadership also provides your public audience an opportunity to engage with you on the content. share your research as curated content if you want options without relying on social media.

the research writing process is more accessible through small shifts in the process. build a curated research list. use a blog or other social media as a open research journal. these small but mighty practices can help you build your public profile as well as influence the conversation.

figure out what you want to say, to whom, and where.

what project(s) do you want to share? is there a story to tell with your data and findings that the audience can connect to and engage with? where is this potentially interested audience? what medium(s) would best reach them where they are? is there an actual audience for this particular work? these are very important questions to address, and they should be addressed truthfully. without an audience, who are you writing for? if you don’t meet them where they are, how will they know your work exists?

medium & message

selecting the medium can be the trickiest bit. it depends on your message, your audience, the timing, the goal. public engagement may require use mixed media and data visualization resources. web apps such as Canva and Adobe Express can help you share your research in more palatable ways. if you lack the creative skills (or the time), use Fiverr and Upwork to find freelance graphic designers. if your output is written, share your research through active voice and prose that tells a story worth reading.

and presenting your research in other, more public mediums may help your research! don’t just take my word for it! see how adding a video abstract to your published paper may increase your citation score by 20%. or this story of how a tweet turned into a blog post and evolved into a research article!

make whatever you create worthy of the reader’s time. consider the average American has an 8th grade reading comprehension.  design it to be a two-way street where you can engage with the audience about the work. speak with your audience in a welcoming tone, not condescending or rife with jargon. show, don’t tell. and listen.

understand the risks, and revel in the rewards.

your colleagues near and far may feel a type of way about your public work. your audience may not agree what you have to say. the internet and its trolls could be triggered. you could get misquoted. your research ideas may be stolen by other researchers. your livelihood can be threatened. your department may fail to support you. there is no sugarcoating this. the world can be a fucked place. this is where your conviction and value system prevail. this sounds very clear eyed, full heart, can’t lose (try being a woman or minority). but without this conviction, it can be difficult to see past the vitriol.

your academic position probably pays you to publish research, write books, teach classes, and mind the business that pays you. so with all that can go awry on Jeff Bezos’ internet, and a poorly designed incentive structure, why? why would you do it? because of your conviction. because of the kind of scholar you intended to be.

measure everything.

you already know how the tenure game is played. the use of altmetrics has grown in popularity (and acceptance). altmetrics pale in comparison to academic published works, but they are something! retweets, shares, comments, page visits are various ways to quantify and measure impact. Impactstory, Altmetric, and PlumX Analytics are a few professional outlets that measure research impact beyond h-indices. Paperbuzz tracks the online buzz of scholarly work. some major R1 universities such as University of Minnesota established tenure and promotion guidelines to include public engagement. check out the few scholarly and professional papers that outline ways to measure your work. look to these documents and guidelines to make your case, as you are accustomed to doing.

tl;dr

the journey to becoming a publicly engaged scholar can be complicated, disheartening, exhausting, thrilling, insightful, and rewarding. with your convictions in mind, remember why you pursued your PhD to begin with. establish your expertise by building your online profile and telling your own scholarly story. assess your research workflow. determine where you can include publicly accessible touch points like an open research journal blog. figure out what you want to say, who your audience is, and where they spend their time. this will guide effective engagement. recognize that not everyone will like what you say, and prepare yourself to fight the good fight. and don’t forget to set your goals in advance and track your impact.

check out our webinar –  So You Want to Become a Public Scholar? if you want to learn more on this topic.  you can get started today with the right mindset and a bit of strategic planning.

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Alicia Cintron

Research Public Communications Trainer & Coach

hi there. here you’ll find insight, musings, and thoughts about research, public engagement, communication, and higher education. have an idea for a topic for us to cover? shoot us a note
 

Alicia Cintron

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