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5 ways to fast track the impact of your PhD

Generating societal, cultural and/economic impact from your PhD is no longer an optional extra - it is an essential step on the career ladder and one we hope you will enjoy along the way!

Whilst getting good papers from your PhD is a great start, it is often not enough to secure an academic post. Being able to demonstrate impact from your papers can set you apart and add real value to a prospective employer. For PhD students who pursue non-academic careers, impact is even more important. Impact opportunities often turn into job opportunities, and a recent Vitae survey of recent PhD graduates who went into non-academic careers showed that communication skills were the transferable skills that employers found most valuable.

Naturally many PhD students and supervisors are concerned that there is not enough time in a PhD to start chasing impact. Supervisors may fear that impact related work may distract from the core work of completing your PhD. This is where we come in.

We have collected our top five ways to generate impact from your PhD without wasting time.

Each of these five principles and related tips focus on ways to generate impact with minimum distraction, bearing in mind your limited time and resources. The principles are based on our hugely popular training for PhD students, led by Jenn based on her expertise and experience, and Mark’s Research Impact Handbook.

1. Design impact into your PhD from the outset

  • It is never too late to set impact goals for your PhD. You will have many more options open to you if you are able to set goals at the start of your PhD, but even if you’re approaching the end of your PhD, having clear goals for the impacts you want to achieve based on your research is crucial if you want to actually make a difference

  • Make an impact plan. Once you have clear impact goals, you can make a plan. This plan is the key to being strategic about impact and saving yourself lots of time designing relevant activities for your key publics and stakeholders, tracking your progress and planning for things that might go wrong. The Fast Track Impact planning template takes about an hour to fill out, and is the one thing that will make the difference between you aspiring to achieve impact and actually making a difference. You can find it on our resources page – try it out now

  • Start to build a network. Impact begins with a conversation. Ensure that you cast your net widely with regards to those you inform about your work and if appropriate keep up to date with what’s happening in related fields both within academia and outside – you will be surprised what connections can develop and grow with a conversation

  • Ask yourself, “why am I doing this? Why does it matter?” You enjoy your research -chances are others will too. Engage with and reflect on your motivations for conducting research and transfer that enthusiasm to those you intend to influence – it can be contagious and it will create a buzz around your work

  • Team up with other PhD students to pool expertise. Other than time, one thing PhD students lack when it comes to impact is funding. That means you need to get creative about how to make use of existing expertise and resources in your institution

  • Get the skills you need to deliver impact. You will have access to a Press Office and may have access to an Impact Officer who might be able to help you. However, many PhD students overlook the skills of their fellow students. Are you a keen amateur photographer in your spare time? Is English your first language? You may be able to provide invaluable help to someone else in your cohort. In turn, they may have the web design skills or social media network you need to generate impacts from your work. Also, work to your strengths, impacts are not always generated alone, be willing to collaborate. Think carefully about the skills development you need and plan it into your schedule to maximize your chances of success!

2. Systematically represent the needs and interests of your publics and stakeholders

  • Identify publics who will most likely be interested in and benefit from engaging with your research – who are they, what characterizes each group, why should they engage and what is in it for them?

  • Identify hard-to-reach publics that could benefit significantly from engaging with your research but who wouldn’t naturally come to events or activities you might arrange. Now start to think of creative ways you could reach out to these groups and make your work more accessible, approachable and relevant to their needs

  • Identify stakeholders most likely to be able to use your work or empower you to achieve impact – think about how you can access them and keep them engaged

  • Identify stakeholders that are strategically important but disinterested in your research. Work out how important they are – if you could get them interested in your work, might they be able to help you significantly, or might you be able to prevent them from blocking you from achieving impact? If they are important, you may need to think of ways to make your research more relevant, so you can get their attention and open dialogue with them, for example by linking your work to issues they are focusing on, or teaming up with other researchers to broaden the relevance and appeal of your work

  • Embed key stakeholders and public representatives in your PhD research e.g. as formal co-supervisors or informal advisors that you meet regularly. This is especially relevant for projects that involve co-production of knowledge with stakeholders or you are working on sensitive issues of particular pubic interest

  • Consider ethical implications of engaging early in the research cycle, especially if this involves giving people access to data or findings before they have gone through the peer-review process. Check this with your supervisor and your institution.

3. Engage in long-term, two-way, trusting relationships with those who will use or benefit from your research

  • Listen to and work with publics and stakeholders as equals, so you can build mutual respect and long-term working relationships

  • Find knowledge brokers in your department or University who can introduce you to key stakeholders and public representative organisations. There is almost always someone in your existing network who is a knowledge broker: someone who sits between multiple different networks of people who otherwise wouldn’t interact with each other. That person can introduce you to many valuable contacts, and the chances are that they will trust you by proxy on the basis that they trust your colleague. Of course, you then need to earn their trust in your own right, but this can massively short-cut the process of engaging with the right people at the necessary depth

  • Understand what will motivate different publics and stakeholders to get involved in your research, bearing in mind that different groups and organisations may have very different motivations to you, and to each other. If you can understand the aspects of your work that are most interesting and useful, and why, you can start to engage with them at a level that is instantly relevant and interesting to them

  • Work with stakeholders and pubic representative organisations to interpret findings and co-design communication products so that they instantly resonate with the language and interests of your target groups

4. Get quick wins to keep publics and stakeholders on board for your whole project

  • Recognise the different timescales over which PhD projects and stakeholders/publics work, and identify quick wins that can provide people with tangible, valuable benefits early on, so they are motivated to continue working with you throughout your PhD

  • Initiate public engagement based on existing research to build networks & experience, so you can hit the ground running with impressive activities towards the end of your project when you have findings that are worth communicating. If you make a splash too early with your work, news media are unlikely to be interested again when you actually have results to talk about, as they may perceive it as “old news”

  • Make your literature review chapter available to key stakeholders as an unpublished PDF “not for circulation” or a series of briefing notes in simpler language (check with your supervisor). Many stakeholders will be comfortable with technical language but will value bring brought up to the cutting edge of your discipline by reading your literature review chapter. It just takes an extra day’s work to pull out key sections and put in simpler language with a bit of simple design to turn this into a series of briefing notes. Make sure you don’t put it online in case you want to publish the chapter at a later date and a publisher refuses to look at it on the basis that it was already “published” online. This way you deliver instant value to stakeholders right at the start of your project.

5. Reflect on your successes (and failures) so you can improve your practice and generate more and better impact

  • Find ways to easily and regularly track the impact of your research, including successes and failures of impact generating activities as well as progress towards your intended impacts. Some researchers send everything to themselves as emails and store it in an email folder; you might even want to go as far as to print things out including news clippings! We use Evernote to capture our impacts on the go with our mobiles

  • Regularly reflect on your knowledge exchange with other PhD students, and if possible with your publics and stakeholders. If things are not going well, these people may not feel comfortable telling you unless you ask them directly. If you know things aren’t going according to plan, you have the chance to correct your course. Learn from your peers and share good practice

  • Identify the kinds of knowledge exchange activities which need to continue after your PhD and consider how to generate long-term impacts. This is especially challenging if you do not want to go into academia or if you end up discipline-hopping to a very different area in your first post-doctoral research job. One option is to introduce your supervisor(s) to key stakeholders and public representatives, so that they can continue the relationship and build on your impact after you have left. Creating connections via social media can also be an efficient way of staying in touch with what happens after you finish your PhD so that you can intervene and help when necessary

Find out more

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