Why Early Career Researchers Should do Public Engagement

Public involvement is a process that involves people with research, not as subjects or participants of that work, but as partners who work with researchers to plan, manage and carry out research. Involving the public is something that we’re seeing more and more of; often grant applications have a designated section for public involvement and if you don’t plan to involve members of the public in your work, you risk not getting funding at all.

I think most researchers agree that the idea of public involvement is a good thing; if we’re spending public money to conduct our research then it’s generally a good idea to have someone representing the public to critique our work, help develop our plans and improve it, ultimately ensuring that the work we do is of importance to the public.

In my experience, public engagement is viewed very differently. The National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement say:

Public engagement describes the myriad of ways in which the activity and benefits of higher education and research can be shared with the public. Engagement is by definition a two-way process, involving interaction and listing, with the goal of generating mutual benefit.

To some people it’s just another thing on their to-do lists, often the first thing that gets ditched when they’re busy with other work. Early career researchers like me are busy trying to get to grips with this new world of research, learning all the time and working to build skills quickly so that we can carry out our research work within the timescales of our funding.

It’s widely accepted that public involvement is good, but why should early career researchers be making the time to get involved with public engagement?

Skills development
Engaging with a non-specialist audience forces you out of your comfort zone – it pushes you and helps you to understand your own research better than you have done before. You’re suddenly out of the relative comfort of your office, you’re no longer surrounded by colleagues who speak your scientific language, and you need to explain the work you do in such a way that anyone else can understand it. Your communication skills improve quickly, and diversely depending on who you’re interacting with. From writing online blogs like this one, to doing public talks or even taking part in events aimed at families like Explorathon, you’ll learn new skills with each project you work on.

Fresh perspectives
When you’re working on one project (in my case my PhD) for a long time, it becomes the only thing you think of (I’ve been known to wake up in the middle of the night and scribble down notes after I’ve had some sort of weird mid-dream brainwave…). You focus on your own work, sometimes thinking and re-thinking about problems and potential solutions for days at a time. Taking a step back to explain your work to others and engage in conversations about it, can be just the thing you need to provide new perspectives and ways to tackle problems.

It’s really good fun
In what other job can you spend time doing the research you love one day, and then pitching up outside a shopping centre to do a clinical trial involving chocolate the next?! Spending time engaging with the public will not only provide you with questions you never thought you’d answer as part of conversations you never thought you’d have. It’ll help you build close bonds with your team, go back to your normal working day re-enthused, and it’ll leave you with a big smile on your face at the end of the day too.

HSRU staff (and James Lind) involve the the Aberdonian public in their ‘Explorachoc’ chocolate trial

I don’t have much experience with public engagement yet, the only face to face activity I’ve done so far was through Explorathon. The ‘Explorachoc’ chocolate trial that I was involved with along with other staff from the Health Services Research Unit was really great first foray into the world of public engagement, and I’m looking forward to getting involved with more engagement activities over the remainder of my PhD and beyond.


12 responses to “Why Early Career Researchers Should do Public Engagement”

  1. […] meetings – though they are both brilliant things to do. Presenting could also include public engagement activities; for me doing public engagement has been a part of my PhD that I didn’t think I’d […]


  2. […] presented work on behalf of the HSRU Public Engagement With Research Group – mentioned in this blog post. I talked about our event, ‘Explorachoc’; a chocolate trial that aimed to demonstrate […]


  3. […] Weekend’ because it would give us a chance to interact with a different audience to the Explorathon and May Fest events we’ve done before; the Activity Weekend is much more child-focussed. We […]


  4. […] a post dedicated to explaining it (I’ve clearly been too busy banging on about women in STEM, public engagement, and clinical trials in general terms…), so here’s a blog post focussing on my PhD […]


  5. […] wait until after my thesis is handed in. Between now and thesis hand in, I do want to keep up with public engagement work – but on a smaller scale. I’m thinking of creative projects linked to Science On A […]


  6. […] to do list that never ends. It covers PhD work, other project work that I’m involved with, public engagement stuff, blog posts I want to write, Science On A Postcard work, household chores, self-care stuff, […]


  7. […] one that I’ve been asked, and I myself have asked, numerous times over the course of my PhD. Public engagement and patient involvement are both areas of academic life that are getting increased focus; we know […]


  8. […] going to keep working on creating products for Science On A Postcard, and getting involved in public engagement projects. Those creative projects are fun but help to keep me feeling productive, and they always […]


  9. […] said it before, but I’ll say it again for those that missed it – every single researcher should be doing public engagement. Whether you are an early career researcher, or you’ve been leading your own group for years; […]


  10. […] been pretty vocal on this blog about the importance of public engagement and science communication, but I’ve also said that I want to stay in academic research […]


  11. […] (spoiler alert: the scourge of scurvy!) The “sweetie trial” that Heidi talks about Heidi’s blog post manifesto on why early career researchers should do public engagement Trial Forge, the project that Heidi is […]


  12. […] Earlier this month one of my fab colleagues, Dr Katie Banister, went into a few of the local schools to talk to students about clinical trials. She invited me to go with her and it was SO FUN! We talked about the trials that are going on at the Aberdeen Trials Unit, as well as the subjects we chose at school and University that then led us to the careers that we’re in. I left feeling suuuuuuper passionate and motivated to get stuck into work, just like every other time I do meaningful public engagement. […]


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