The international research impact and engagement agenda continues to gain momentum. But are early-career researchers, shown to be under-represented in impact-generating research, being left behind? Many PhD students report a lack of any training on research impact throughout their research studies, and even continue to conflate impact with dissemination. Melinda Laundon argues that integrating research impact and engagement into PhD programmes may help prepare students for many facets of academic careers; not only in the context of research evaluation exercises but also throughout the course of their projects, when considering possible industry, government, and not-for-profit partners for research collaboration.
The growing pressure on social science scholars to demonstrate the impact of their work outside academia has been well-documented in this forum and elsewhere. Planning for impact beyond academia and understanding how to engage with research users are considered essential capabilities for academics, but it appears that PhD students are being left behind.
The international research impact and engagement agenda continues to gain momentum, with the Australian Government recently announcing details of its first Engagement and Impact Assessment, due to take place in 2018. This will assess the social, economic, environmental, and cultural impacts of university research, as well as engagement, which is defined as:
“The interaction between researchers and research end-users outside of academia, for the mutually beneficial transfer of knowledge, technologies, methods or resources.”
However, it seems that many students undertaking research training degrees receive, at best, only incidental exposure to these ideas.
The flow-on effects of a lack of impact knowledge are evident in research drawing on REF2014 impact results for the Business and Management Studies unit of assessment, which showed that early-career academics were under-represented in impact-generating research. While this may be mostly due to the time taken for research to achieve impact, there does still seem to be a significant gap in research training.
I asked a group of PhD students and early-career researchers from around the world whether they had had any formal or informal training on research impact during their research studies. Their comments showed some awareness of the impact agenda and some training directed at established academics, but none reported any research impact training as part of the PhD. Interestingly, many associate research impact with ways to disseminate their research to the public, through blogs or outlets such as The Conversation.
What are the benefits of teaching PhD students about impact?
Integrating research impact and engagement into PhD programmes may help prepare students for many facets of academic careers, including navigating job applications and interviews, applying for grants, and participating in national research evaluations requiring demonstration of research impact.
The average age of PhD students in Australia and many other nations is over 30, meaning that students often have substantial work experience prior to commencing their research degree. As many research collaborations emerge from individual researchers’ existing networks and contacts, it may be worthwhile encouraging PhD students to think about possible industry, government, and not-for-profit partners for research collaboration from the time they commence their research degree.
Furthermore, those PhD students with more recent domestic and international industry experience may also provide a valuable link in assisting more experienced researchers to understand the current needs and imperatives of potential research partners. These students may be better placed than more experienced colleagues to understand the needs of research end-users and work out how to get research findings into the hands of those who can actually make use of them. They might also help to identify, create, or take advantage of new sources of research funding. All of this can contribute to changing the conceptualisation of the ideal PhD researcher from being someone with no baggage to someone with a bag full of industry knowledge and contacts.
Teaching students strategies for evidencing impact, such as asking research users for testimonials of impact, can improve their ability to demonstrate the value of their research and evaluate whether people are engaging with the research findings – and who they are.
Integrating research impact and engagement training into research degrees may also benefit those students who move into non-academic careers, by helping them to plan for, maximise, and articulate the benefits of their research to future employers.
Finally, since many students receive some type of public funding, teaching them to articulate and maximise the benefits of their research to society has an important ethical dimension.
The valuable and diverse resource offered by the REF 2014 Impact Case Studies provides solid examples of the different pathways to impact, and can be a good starting point for educating PhD students. They just need to be taught about what impact and engagement are, why they are important, and where they can find out more.
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About the author
Melinda Laundon is currently completing her PhD on employee reward systems at Queensland University of Technology’s School of Management. Her other research interests include public policy, research impact, and research engagement. Melinda previously worked on Australia’s national research quality evaluation exercise, Excellence for Research in Australia (ERA).