By Sibyl Adam |

Public engagement, or its more convoluted brethren, impact, has always seemed a bit obvious to me. Why wouldn’t you be interested in institutions and groups outside of academia, and why wouldn’t they be interested in you? Clearly not everything is easily communicated from inside academia to outside of it: I understand the initial anxiety of trying to explain abstract theory or obscure poetry to curious friends at social events, but the walls between the academy and the ‘real world’ are most often overlapping and permeable.

In the past year, I have been part of a public engagement project in Scotland called ‘Spaces of Belonging’, co-organised with Laura Beattie, Sarah Stewart, Moira Hansen and Agnes Sile. This project trained PhD students from different backgrounds in the humanities and social sciences to run public walking poetry workshops based on certain locations in Edinburgh and Glasgow. These were aimed at migrant communities via the charities The Welcoming and Maryhill Integration Network. My involvement in this project has been one of the most fulfilling and interesting things I’ve done during my degree. I share with you some wisdom learnt from the project, in the hope it will encourage more postgraduates to engage with this type of work.

Think practically from the start. What interests you the most that can be achieved realistically? Is there something you could organise that would be particularly fresh or pertinent? You can’t change the world, but you can introduce a person to an interesting topic, give a child a fun day out or help someone new to your city develop their language skills. We came up with our project through a combination of personal interest and a sense that there was a lack of opportunities for postgraduates to actively engage in public engagement work.

Be creative about where you apply for funding. There aren’t vast amounts of funding options, and from my knowledge none specifically for postgraduates to do public engagement work. We applied to the SGSAH Cohort Development fund (for PhD training) and the Innovative Initiative Grant at University of Edinburgh and won both, which allowed us to double the scope of the project. Take into account the aims of your funders and tailor your applications to these. For both funding applications, we sold our project mainly on the basis of the benefit to PhD students in terms of training and development, even though there were clearly mutual and multiple benefits for our audiences too. Draft and edit your applications and get feedback from others, especially those with experience of grant applications.

If you are planning a one off event or a cheaper project, such as a public lecture or reading group, it is always worth asking your department or school if they have any spare bits of cash they can contribute for catering or travel, especially if you emphasis the benefit to students.

Admin, admin, admin. It is very difficult to get funding that will give you a wage, so you are essentially a volunteer. Factor that in when planning your project or event in terms of scope. There are vast amounts of unpaid labour expected in PhD and postdoc life, often by women, so be honest with yourself about whether you have time to do it. During our project, we were essentially managing 25 people at once, while advertising, buying supplies, keeping on top of emails and dealing with emergencies. While this work can often be very mundane, it’s necessary for the backbone of your work and makes everything run smoother. In terms of balancing this work with my PhD, teaching and other responsibilities, I found committing a full day each week to it was the best strategy so it didn’t continually interrupt and distract me from other things.

Manage the Logistics (but don’t sweat it when it goes wrong). Our project was logistically quite large, a total of 11 half day events, with one full day training at the beginning and a celebration event at the end. No matter how organised you are, things will go wrong: cold weather, low attendance and a few emergencies involving catering, forgotten materials or ill participants. Remember that you can’t control everything and that no one expects you to be able to. Try to be flexible and open and make sure you reiterate this to other PhD students involved in your project. This may seem obvious, but I think it can be a shock for those who spend so much time in control of their own research.

Be confident in your ambitions. There were moments at the beginning of the project when I wasn’t sure people would ‘get’ what we were trying to do, that PhD students wouldn’t want to sign up to take part, that participants wouldn’t enjoy the workshops or would simply not turn up. But, in the end, we got an overwhelming amount of applications from PhD students and consistently good attendance to the workshops. We just had to give it our best shot and hope it worked out. Hearing from our public attendees about how much they enjoyed the workshops, and moreover how it helped some of them feel more at home in Scotland, made every bit of boring admin worthwhile. The lessons learnt from public engagement work translate to the rest of your academic work, being adaptable in teaching, thinking more creatively about your research, or just getting really efficient at mass emails. Remember to be organised, think carefully about what you want to achieve and, most importantly, have fun!



Sibyl Adam is a third year PhD student in English Literature at University of Edinburgh, funded by the Wolfson Foundation. Her thesis uses affect theory to theorise migration as an everyday experience. This work analyses a range of literary narratives of Muslim women migrating to the UK since the Edwardian era in order to argue for the importance of emotional knowledge and experience.

Image courtesy of Laura Beattie