In this guest post, Heriot-Watt University PhD researcher María de los Angeles Zapata Rodriguez discusses how sharing her research within and outwith the academic community has helped her to better understand both herself and her research, and she gives advice on how to get the most from our sharing experiences.
You need to share your work! (Even when you’re not sure)
When doing research in Arts, Humanities, or Social Sciences, it can be difficult to explain to people what you study – or why you study what you study. When I say people, I refer to your family and your friends. For example, my first degree is in politics, and many friends used to think I was a politician (wrong!). I would think the same happens to those who study psychology and are assumed as counsellors, or those who study literature and are assumed as novelists.
Therefore, one of the milestones in a PhD journey is to talk about your research. In other words, to be able to communicate what you do, why you do it, what your contribution would be, and what you’re passionate about in your topic (no one does a PhD without being passionate about something). This exercise goes beyond explaining to your neighbours what you do for a living (or for researching!), it is about where you are within your research.
How did I overcome this breakthrough in my own PhD? I decided to present my work as soon as possible. By the second month of my research, I presented my first bit of literature review, and it was an experience that I remember to this day. I remember saying to myself ‘nothing to lose, but a lot to win’. And it was, indeed.
After my first presentation, I realised I grew as a professional researcher and also as a person. Since then, I always encourage any doctoral colleagues to present their work to a broader audience than their supervisors. This experience (no matter whether face-to-face or online, especially now in Covid-19 times) involves a high level of reflection on a research project and, more importantly, it encourages us to have a position about our research projects. Presenting my research project meant I had to be willing to defend what was ‘defendable’ (considering there’s always room for error) but also to receive criticism.
Why to present your work?
One could say that presenting your doctoral work is unnecessary exposure, but to be honest, it is a constructive exposure. There are countless benefits, from doing networking, getting feedback, articulating your ideas, among many others. In this piece, I will focus on three key advantages:
- Learn how to communicate your research. Not all people know what your research is about or the jargon in your field. It will help you to build your arguments in a way that specialist and non-specialist audiences can follow them. And beyond this, I learned that being able to explain my research was not only important for communicating but to be clearer when drafting pieces of my thesis.
- Receive feedback. Let’s admit it. Working in a PhD is solo work 80% of the times (the other 20% would be working with your supervisors). This means that most of the time you work with literature, data, participants, but not with other colleagues. Receiving feedback has the great advantage of hearing the opinions of other academics or doctoral students who probably can provide non-specialised feedback that makes sense and is still applicable to your project.
- Have eureka moments. Have you ever had this moment when you casually talk to someone about a random topic, and you have a revelation about something going on in your life? The same happens with your research. Talking about your research to or with others makes you realise missing parts, put concepts together, internalise your research, and to know that you know.
If all these ideas have not convinced you yet, you might want to think of it as a cyclical process. It is not only about the presentation day, or preparing slides. It is part of your training as a researcher. Then, you can consider the days after you present your work.
What happens next?
This is the richest part. On the day of my presentation I had received so much feedback that I almost felt like my brain was foggy. But I took all feedback very seriously, so I wanted to apply every single advice into my research.
Luckily, the day after the presentation, my brain was clearer. This is the time where you are going to return to solo work with your research project and the feedback you received. This is where you decide on how to use (or not use) what you learned.
Assuming you have written down (or recorded) the feedback you received, think of every piece of advice as a potential gem. Feedback can be a gift. Do not dismiss it just because it hurt you or your baby (our research projects are our babies!).
In your academic journey, and especially when you present your work as a PhD student, you will receive diverse feedback. You will need you use you research criterion to decide which feedback you will consider, and which you won’t.
This a brief list of potential kind of feedback you might receive:
- Useful feedback. This is the feedback you realise straight away is useful. You will recognise it because it is precise.
- Useful feedback based on wrong assumptions. When you present your work, you will have time constraints and you won’t be able to explain every single task you’ve done. Feedback based on this could be a good opportunity to review your research’s parameters, paradigms, and assumptions, and analyse if this feedback could be applied. It could be also a chance to review how you communicate your research.
- Non-useful feedback based on wrong assumptions. Someone might suggest something from their point of view that might not be entirely applicable to your research. Or that is based in parameters that do not align at all with your project.
Presenting my work for the first time was a unique experience. I learned, I stressed (a lot), I laughed, but mostly, I realised I was in the right place at the right moment, doing something I love.
And that’s what presenting your work is about: putting yourself out there to build your confidence, reassure your passions and inspire yourself. A three-to-four-years journey requires a lot of self-motivation, but also belief in yourself and your project. And don’t forget, of course, to savour the fun part: meeting people going through similar experiences, getting advice from other academics, and learning that there’s a world out there willing to listen your ideas (your ideas MATTER!).
María de los Angeles is a PhD candidate at Heriot-Watt University, member of the Centre for Research on Employment Work and the professionS (CREWS), and also works as a teaching assistant. She is also currently a Student MP for HWU’s Student Union.
If you’d like to write a guest post for the SGSAH blog, email Danielle.Schwertner@glasgow.ac.uk