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Posted on 10 Oct '19

Explaining Impact – a Key Ingredient for Your PhD Research Proposal

Dr Alex Conner is a senior lecturer at the University of Birmingham. He'll be helping to deliver the Research Proposal Masterclass at our free PhD LIVE events in Oxford, Edinburgh and Sheffield. In this preview post he introduces the concept of ‘impact’, with 5 tips for enhancing your research proposal.

Academia is not getting easier. The research pot is shrinking and the number of PhD graduates wanting a job is not! So how do you make sure your PhD stands out?

If you are writing an application for a funded PhD position, or a proposal for your own project, you will now see a box marked ‘impact summary’ or similar on every single application form.

What does this mean?

One interpretation of this impact summary is that you are expected to know exactly what your PhD results will be and how this will result in a cash output for HMRC 20 years from now.

This interpretation is wrong.

A brief history of ‘impact’ – (why) does it matter?

When I starting trying to get grants in academia, there was no suggestion that scientists and scholars would have to explain what future generations could actually do with our research. I certainly didn’t have to consider the public.

This was a long time ago (for some perspective, it was just as Oasis released ‘Wonderwall’ and some of the nearby caves were starting to hear about the internet). But it seemed to be accepted that how we spent the taxpayer’s money had nothing to do with the taxpayer.

Times have most certainly changed.

I sit somewhere uncomfortably on the fence when it comes to linking funding with impact.

There are arguments for and against this policy.

One was offered by the Head of Impact for Research Councils UK (the main source of public funding for research – and PhD students).

They memorably suggested that research into the cultural landscape of Britain should arguably receive the same funding as Morris dancing.

The other side of the argument is that (to quote the accidental discoverer of penicillin): ‘One sometimes finds what one is not looking for’.

Or, as Professor Bryan Cox has observed: ‘We’ve spent more money on bailing out the banks in one year than we have spent on science, in Britain, since Jesus. And look what we’ve done with that – We’ve invented the industrial world’.

If we can do all of that with blue-sky thinking, maybe we should support our researchers to research and leave the financial impact to the next generation of entrepreneurs and politicians?

My view is that none of this matters a damn. . . If you are a young PhD student looking for a position, or a new researcher wanting to get funding.

In that case, all of your competitors are writing an impact statement and unless you have deep pockets, you’re going to write one too. So you might as well enjoy it. And do it well.

Benefitting from impact – scholarship, society… and your PhD

It’s not all bad news and cynicism.

I find that thinking about what the future could hold, who could help me change things and how I could explain my work in an accessible way has had tremendous value for my personal understanding of my research.

This approach has moved our current area of focus from the academically interesting structure of a tiny protein to a potentially ground-breaking human clinical drug trial. A process that would never have happened without the basic question ‘what could this discovery be for?’

Impact for PhD students – 5 top tips

So, how do you do this as a PhD student? How do you start thinking about impact in a practical way? And how can you get this into your research proposal?

I thought I would break it down into five key factors that I use when thinking about the impact of my research:

#1 Remember that impact can be about potential

This is not about committing to what you ‘definitely will do’ with this research. Try to think instead about ‘what could be done’.

Research is still the pursuit of novel information. If you knew what the results were going to be, there would be little point in doing it. So think in terms of possibilities.

If everything worked out beautifully, what could be an outcome? If there really, truly isn’t one, it might be OK to ask yourself: ‘Why am I doing this?’ The answer could start your impact case. If you don’t have an answer. . . sit down and have a think.

#2 Be specific about impact in your proposal

Impact may be about possibility, but you still need to be clear about what those possibilities are.

If you mention public engagement, know with whom, when and where you will be engaging.

Going to a conference? Where? When? What will you do there and why?

Working with schools? What is the name of the school? Have you emailed the head to discuss?

#3 Take a lesson from Rudyard Kipling

The famous poet once wrote of his ‘Six Honest Serving Men…’: Who? What? Where? Why? How? And When?

You may not be a poet (and your PhD may not be in literature) but including these details in your proposal will make your impact statement much clearer – and more persuasive.

#4 Look for people you can work with (and benefit from)

Think about specific groups that might be interested in your research. The list of potential stakeholders (or beneficiaries) may not be limited to your specific academic field.

Think about schools, local interest groups, policy makers, online forums and special-interest publications or web-sites.

Reaching out to 15 specific people can have more impact than a million uninterested ones.

#5 Engage

A big part of impact is about opening your research up to other groups. It’s never too early to consider how you can do that. Or start doing it.

Social media has opened up a whole new arena of networking possibilities. Think about how you might use them.

Talk to people currently doing research you are interested in. Talk to wider groups with related interests.

And don’t just talk: try summarising the current field and writing your thoughts about this. You can do this in on-line publications, your own blog or even 140 characters.

After all, academic journals are great for your CV but very few of them are ever actually read. We now have more ways than ever of getting a message out there and learning from many other people with perspectives you may not ever have thought of.

‘Why?’ – the meaning of impact

It can seem hard to write about the future impact of a PhD you haven’t started. But, at this stage, all you really need to do is make a convincing case for the potential impact of your work.

That can be as simple as answering the ‘why?’:

Why are you doing the research? Why is it interesting to you? Why should a university or supervisor care? Why should someone fund this research, by this student, at this university, at this precise moment in time?

If you don’t know why, a funding body certainly won’t either.

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Last Updated: 10 October 2019