At a recent talk to early career academics, I was arguing for the importance of engaging non-academic audiences in your research, when one disgruntled participant shot back that I was encouraging them to become celebrities. This wasn't what I intended, but the response isn't untypical. It reflects an unease among a lot of early career researchers: on top of everything else, do I really have to learn to become a media don or children's entertainer? Is this what I actually need to do to improve my career prospects?
Advocates will counter, rightly, that this view of public engagement is unfair. They will say that the reason to do public engagement is not solely to advance one's own career, and that we have a duty to explain to the public what we do. However, motivations for engaging the public can feel more practical than ethical. We all know that it's simply what's expected by the Research Excellence Framework (REF) assessors, the funders, university senior leadership, press officers, policy makers and the media.
But let's separate the arguments. The question of whether public engagement is good for early career academics can be broken down into two sub-questions:
1) Is public engagement good for applications to academic jobs?
2) Is public engagement good for applications to funding calls and fellowships?
Academic jobsThere's no denying that talking to non-specialist, non-academic audiences can be of immense value if done well. As the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement puts it: "Engagement is by definition a two-way process, involving interaction and listening, with the goal of mutual benefit." The mindset that makes public engagement effective is not about putting members of the public in a room and talking at them.
If you don't, at the very least, enter into a dialogue with your audience, how will you know whether they've understood you, let alone found the work convincing? And this is surely of vital career benefit: to navigate the job market, especially when it comes to interviews, you must be able to describe the significance of your work to audiences of different backgrounds, experiences and interests.
Two cautionary factors should, however, be borne in mind. First, your best chance of securing that elusive academic job is to pursue high-quality research, evidenced by first-rate publications and external funding. No amount of media presence or devotion to schools outreach is going to make up for subpar research and a meagre track record of disseminating your work to traditional academic audiences.
After all, it's academics from that traditional audience who are most likely to be recruiting postdocs and sitting on selection committees. (We track the questions asked to our researchers in their job interviews, and the evidence is of very few questions specifically about public engagement, and even fewer if one excludes questions about reaching out to potential sixth-form applicants.)
The second cautionary factor relates to whether the benefit to your career is worth the cost in time of public engagement. Consider carefully, for example, the value of volunteering to staff a stand or shepherd visitors at an open day. You need to do your bit for your group or department, because employers look for candidates who will take on their fair share. But you don't necessarily want to keep doing the same, low-key activities year on year. Think: what will stand out on job applications? Aim for high-return, eye-catching initiatives – preferably ones that leave a digital footprint to which you can subsequently link prospective employers.
Funding & fellowshipsThis seems pretty clear-cut: you will need to have both a good lay summary and a plan for public engagement (what some funders describe as "pathways to impact"). For the former, as above, a dialogue with lay audiences is the only efficient way to find out whether your research narrative is clear and compelling. If a member of the public doesn't understand why your study of a particular enzyme or long-dead author is important, then you can't write the person off as insufficiently informed. Why don't they get it? What part of the story are you missing out? What does hook their interest?
For the plan, what's not clear-cut is whether prior experience is an absolute must, or whether a really good plan for what you intend to do will suffice. My sense is that this varies significantly by funder, often in proportion to the value of the money for which you're applying. Read the funder's guidelines carefully and any case studies or press stories that they highlight on their website. Ask colleagues (not forgetting departmental administrators) whether they have examples of successful applications to the same scheme. In other words, try to find out what others have proposed. Better yet, find out whether they stuck to their plan, and if so, how it went.
Becoming famousThinking back to the participant who spoke up during my recent talk, there's no point denying that some researchers are seemingly drawn to the public eye. So, looking at the issue through this lens, it's ironic that being famous is probably the career ambition least well served by public engagement. That's because the high profile of those media dons who appear regularly on the box, on the wireless or in print shouldn't blind us to how few they are in number compared to the total number of academics out there. In other words, there are better ways to become famous than by pursuing academic research.
[This piece is a re-posting of my latest article for the Guardian Higher Education Network.]