Making your thesis relevant to a non-academic audience is a challenge that I think many PhD students have (or will) face at some point. This means going beyond the general answer that you tell acquaintances because you don’t or can’t go into detail about your research, like this latest exchange that happened a few days ago with the lovely little granny in front of me in the queue:
Granny: “So you’re at uni? Good for you! What are you studying?”
Me: “I’m a PhD student in Education.”
Granny: “Oh a teacher! My niece is studying her GCSEs to get into teaching.”
Me: “Um…I’m doing a PhD not a PGCE.“
Granny: “Oh is that what they call it nowadays.”
Me: *smiling politely*
This isn’t about “dumbing down” your research – far from it – but actually figuring out how to explain what you do in a way that is engaging to a non-academic audience that goes into more detail than, say, presenting your thesis in under three minutes (which is a skill in itself!). I was invited to speak at the Northern Association of TESOL seminar which hosts several talks throughout the year. These talks cover a range of topics, some of which are practitioner focused with emphasis on pedagogical matters where others, like mine, are focused on current issues in the English language teaching industry.
It was my first experience talking at length (1 1/2 hours) to a mostly non-academic audience about my research. I was very nervous about presenting my study because my topic raises issues that are sometimes awkward to talk about. My presentation had the title “If you heard me speak, I’d bet you’d think I was white – Problematising teacher identity in TESOL” which looked at how visible ethnic minorities who consider themselves native English speaking teachers (or VEM-NEST for short) challenge the current native speaker / non-native speaker binary by demonstrating that these labels are not so clear cut. For example, what does the term ‘native speaker’ actually mean? Does it matter? Why? I’ll be discussing this in a future blog post, so for now, the abstract and my slides can be found HERE. What I did learn from speaking at this event were these five points:
1) A good introduction sets the scene. My supervisor was the first to speak, where he provided the backdrop in terms of the areas of the native-speaker/non-native speaker binary and the narrative “turn” in educational research. This enabled me to come in with my own introduction where I was able to start directly with my data. I began by telling the audience a personal anecdote as an opening gambit. Once I did that, the rest of the presentation seemed to flow.
2) Using data in a presentation is a good way of demonstrating what you do. I’m a narrative based researcher and the individual stories that I’ve generated for my PhD are powerful. There’s an actual person behind the data and I wanted to show the human side of this study. Thus, I used carefully chosen examples from the stories of my participants (with their full consent of course) to show, in their own words, the topic area.
3) Sometime people think about what you said long after the talk is finished. Several days later I’m still receiving emails from audience members who ask questions and/or want to share an opinion with me. It’s a little weird being on the receiving end of questions. I’m the one emailing presenters – particularly after conferences (if I remember their names and was able to recall the content of their presentations). It takes a lot of effort on my part to take the time to email a presenter with a question so I was genuinely surprised and thankful to receive email correspondence.
4) I’m having fun! Usually I’m a complete stress head before, during and a little after any sort of talk to the point that I don’t get to really enjoy presenting. This time, it was different! I found myself having …fun (weird, I know). Despite being stressed before hand when I actually started I felt relaxed.
5) Supervisors (can) give you space to find your feet, so take the opportunity! I’m in a fortunate position where I have a very good working relationship with my supervisor who offered let me have centre stage during this event. I could have said no but I didn’t because I thought that I might not get another chance like this to talk about my research to the local community. I wasn’t feeling ready but I said “yes” anyway, which forced me to focus and rise to the challenge. I’m glad I did!