Social Media, Outreach, and Your Thesis

Ever wondered about the benefits of social media and public outreach for your thesis? Matt Knight presents some of his experiences and why he thinks everyone should be trying it.

It’s been hectic few weeks in which I have inadvertently immersed myself in the world of public engagement, outreach, social media, and everything in between. Two years ago I would have had no idea what I was doing – for the most part I still don’t! But I thought I’d try and tie some of my incessant thoughts together about why I’ve bothered trying to engage with the complexities of social media and general public outreach and its overall benefit to me and my thesis.

To give you some background, I’ve been using social media (Twitter and Facebook mainly) and blogging about my research since I started my PhD two years ago. It started as a way to help my mum understand what I do (a problem I think most us have encountered!), while also giving me an avenue for processing some of my thoughts in an informal environment, without the fear of academic persecution that comes with a conference. I coupled this with helping out on the odd public engagement gig.

It’s safe to say this has steamrolled somewhat, as four weeks ago I found myself sat in a conference workshop dedicated entirely to Social Media and its benefits for research, and two weeks ago I was one of four on a communications and networking panel for Exeter’s Doctoral College to offer information and advice on communicating their research. This has been intermitted with a presentation of my semi-scientific archaeological research to artists, as well as educating a class of 10/11 year olds, alongside teaching undergrads. To top it all off, last weekend, I inadvertently became the social media secretary of a national archaeological group.

presenting to primary school kids

– A picture of me nervously stood in front a class of 10 year olds!

As you read this, please be aware, I don’t consider myself an expert in this field whatsoever. I have 300+ followers on Twitter, 230ish on Facebook, 40ish followers on my blog and minimal training in public engagement – these are not impressive facts and figures. Much of what I’ve done is self-taught and there are much better qualified people who could be writing a post such as this. And yet, I want to make clear that the opportunities, experiences, and engagements I’ve had are beyond anything I could have hoped for.

alifeinfragments facebook page

– A screenshot of the Facebook page I established to promote my research

A lot of this stems from the belief that there is no point doing what I do – what many of you reading this also do – if no one knows or cares about it. From the beginning of undertaking my PhD, I knew I wanted to make my research relevant. For an archaeologist, or indeed, any arts and humanities student, this can be difficult. Every day can be a battle with the ultimate question plaguing many of us:

What’s the point?

Social media and general outreach events are a great way to get to grips with this and have certainly kept me sane on more than one occasion. Last year I participated in the University’s Community Day, in which members of the public were able to attend and see the ongoing research at what is such an inherent part of their city. That day was one of the most exhausting and exhilarating days of my PhD thus far.

Archaeology Community Day

– Myself and a fellow PhD researcher setting up for Exeter’s Community Day 2015

But then, 6 non-stop hours of presenting your research to nearly 2000 people will do that to you.

It will also help you gain perspective on the value of what you do. Children are particularly unforgiving – if they don’t think something is interesting or matters, they will let you know. The key I’ve found is to work out one tiny bit of your research that people can relate to or find interesting and hammer that home.

This rings true of outreach and engagement events, whether that’s to academics outside of your specialist field, or a room full of restless 10 year olds.

Where I’ve had my most success by far though has been online. My minimal online numbers inevitably stem from my niche field (i.e. Bronze Age metalwork), and yet it’s attracted the right people online. Through Twitter and Facebook I am in regular contact with some of the leading experts in my field, without the formality of “clunky” emails. They retweet and share pictures of what I’m doing. They ask me questions. They share ideas with me.

I’ve recently found out that my blog has become a source of reference for several upcoming publications. This is huge in a competitive academic world where getting yourself known matters.

alifeinfragments blog page

– A screenshot of my blog site where I summarise lots of my ongoing research

Beyond this, you’d be amazed what members of the public might contribute to your thesis. So many of my ideas have come from discussions with people who have general archaeological interests, wanting to know more, and asking questions that have simply never crossed my mind.

I’m not going to lie – maintaining this sort of approach is time-consuming and exposing. It’s something that needs to be managed, and needs careful consideration. You need to be prepared that it opens you up to criticism from a wide audience and can add another nag to the back of your already stressed mind. But I know without a doubt my PhD experience, and indeed my research, would be weaker without it.

This blog post has inevitably been largely anecdotal, and by no means explores all of the possibilities open to you. But hopefully it might encourage a couple of you to think about the benefits of engaging with outreach events (there are hundred on offer through the university), as well as turning social media from a form of procrastination into a productive avenue.


Matt Knight is a PhD researcher in Archaeology studying Bronze Age metalwork. He frequently posts about his research and can be followed on Twitter @mgknight24.


 

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