By Emma Nielsen.
At the heart of my research are people. I am interested in understanding how people respond to, and deal with, the difficult things that they face in their lives so as to better understand the social and psychological factors related to self-harm and suicidality. This matters so that we can best help people; so that we can understand more about how to support prevention measures and promote wellbeing and ‘recovery’. Without people contributing their experiences, my research would be not be possible. If I do not get my research ‘out there’, it may as well not have happened. Other people are even central to my funding; without taxpayers my PhD would not be.
By now it is hopefully clear that others are integral at every stage of my research. As a psychologist, I imagine that they are central to yours too. Consequently, the notion of an argument ‘for’ public involvement and engagement (INVOLVE, 2017) may seem unnecessary and the reasons self-evident: the general public are stakeholders who hold valuable knowledge and expertise, involvement can make research more relevant and, arguably, people have a democratic right to be involved (in research which affects them and which is often taxpayer funded). Indeed, if your research relates to people and you are interested in people then it makes sense to work with people too.
Involvement and engagement work takes more than motivation and an appreciation of necessity. These activities take planning and often require support, skill development, and resources (e.g. time, money). In trying to start out with these activities we can face challenges. As postgraduates, we are often guided by departmental priorities and working within the parameters determined by funders, graduate schools and supervisors, who may or may not favour involvement and engagement. Furthermore, the outcomes of involvement and engagement activities are sometimes less tangible or less well regarded than a high-impact journal article or an international conference presentation. So, as early careers researchers (ECRs) where can we start? This article considers hints, tips and ideas for what we can do and how we can be the change.
Tip 1: Start where you are, with what already exists
Find out what is already going on. Your school or university may have established engagement or involvement activities, or there may be a blog or a video project that you could contribute to. I first began in involvement by volunteering an afternoon to showcase some of the psychophysiological research methodologies we use within our department at a Brain Awareness Week event for sixth form students. This event was hosted within our school. Outside of the university there may be established science-specific engagement events (e.g., Pint of Science, British Science Week) or opportunities aimed towards ECRs (e.g., PubhD) already running in your area.
Getting involved in existing activities is a great starting place for a number of reasons. Firstly, it gets your name out there and lets people know that you are interested. If people know what you do and that you are keen, they might get in contact with you in future about upcoming opportunities. In my experience, one opportunity often serves a catalyst for the next. Last year, a post I wrote for an existing blog led to two requests to write for charities in my field. This proved to be an invaluable opportunity to (i) start important conversations, and (ii) network.
Secondly, trying out different things gives you a chance to find out what fits best for you. Maybe writing press releases and speaking to the media is your thing. Equally, it might not be. Perhaps you feel more comfortable writing blog posts or accessible research summaries (e.g. The Mental Elf; https://www.nationalelfservice.net/mental-health/). Contributing to existing activities is probably also much more amenable to your timetable and current commitments. Whilst setting up your own blog might seem an attractive option, it is also quite a commitment and will likely require greater attention. Many charities and Institute blogs accept guest contributions. Writing guest posts may be more sustainable in the first instance and help you to reach different audiences by the variety of your contributions.
Tip 2: Keep it simple, do what you can
Keep your plan simple and be clear about what you are trying to achieve. There are a number of important considerations to make, including whether you are you aiming to do engagement or involvement activities (or both) and at what stage(s) of the research your planned activity will take place – for example, it may be that you would you like to have people involved in shaping your research questions prior to starting a project. Alternatively, your data collection may already be in progress and you might be planning ways to disseminate your research or seek feedback on your findings.
Be realistic about what you can aim to achieve at this point. Admittedly, it is easy to get carried away with the excitement of planning, but it is crucial to think carefully about what is feasible given the time and resources available to you. This is another moment where having a mentor, or peers, to run your ideas past can be a real asset. Remember that your postgraduate study is, in essence, a period of apprenticeship and training. It is a great time to test ideas and outline how you want to work as an academic, but it is not your defining moment. The involvement and engagement activities that you do at this stage of your career do not have to be the optimal piece of work you could imagine if you had all the time and funding available because, chances are, you do not.
Think creatively about what you can do. It may be that you do not have scope for a focus group before finalising your study questions, but are able to ask participants for feedback on the study which you could use to inform your next study. Set out to do something realistic and achievable and do it well. Learn everything you can from that experience and take that forwards into planning your next project. There is no one best option, per se. The best thing you can do is often the thing that you can do well at this stage.
Tip 3: Plan, but remember it is not all about you
As with conference presentations and manuscript submissions, involvement and engagement activities require planning thought, planning and practice. Involvement and engagement work often also requires flexibility. Remember that people may have different schedules to you or different priorities. When planning activities remember to think about when and where it would be best to host your event. The university setting is not always a good (or feasible) option for the people you wish to reach. It may be important to consider the feasibility of planning an alternative venue. Community venues often work particularly well and there is great scope for out-of-the-box thinking here. I have previously been involved in events held in a full range of settings, from cafés to a city centre ‘pop up village’ event, a Scout hut to a contemporary arts gallery. When to hold the activity also requires careful consideration. Depending upon the audience you are aiming to reach you might have to be flexible around timings (e.g., do you need to consider school hours and school holidays?). Throughout the planning, keep in mind that this is a collaborative process. It is not about you deciding, or about people coming to you. It is about working together. It is surprisingly easy to inadvertently alienate people. Try to be aware of your assumptions and challenge them. Aim to build in flexibility where you can and, if in any doubt, ask people what works for them.
Supervisors are great, but they are also academic and/or clinical experts. While they undoubtedly have a lot to add when planning and can give really useful feedback, ensure to get feedback from those not professional in your field. They might have some great ideas to bring (indeed, my sister contributed this point), be able to help you with ‘jargon busting’ and, even thinking about novel avenues for engagement (e.g., perhaps your press release could be improved with a quote from someone with lived experience who has helped shape your research or who can comment on their relevance to their life. Perhaps the piece could be co-produced).
Tip 4: Be present, be visible
Have a presence. Take pride in what you are doing and share updates of your activities (e.g., via your school’s social media profiles or research group’s website). Remember that being self-reflective is valuable. Be honest about what went well, what could have been better and what you have learnt from your involvement/engagement activities. Invite people to share their ideas and feedback with you. Social media can be really useful here – set up a Twitter account (and use it).
Do not be afraid to measure the impact of what you are doing (e.g., how do attendees at an engagement event rate their knowledge of your topic pre- and post- attending?). As an ECR, publications really count. Consider whether it would be possible to write up your project, particularly if you are doing something novel. Show people that involvement and engagement work makes a difference. Publishing is likely to further your own research career, but it may also inspire others to progress forward with their own involvement and engagement ideas.
Tip 4: As ECRs, we are more than the sum of our parts
Postgraduate study can often feel quite isolating, but there is a whole community of ECRs out there (e.g., #ECRChat, #PhDChat). Community is something which we can all be part of and can all contribute to (e.g., a colleague and I established an online journal club in our field, #ECRSASJC. This now functions as a platform for broad discussion and resource sharing). It is important that we ‘combine forces’. It may be that someone has faced the same difficulty you are currently wrestling with and could share some ideas. Perhaps you have had a great success with an involvement or engagement activity that you think others could learn from. We are so much more if we pool our experiences and work together.
Involvement and engagement work can be resource-heavy, but you do not have to be an island – perhaps it would be possible to group together with other ECRs on a shared project. I have previously been part of a number of ECR teams delivering involvement and engagement activities. This teamwork has taken many guises from co-hosting Twittercasts and running the Institute of Mental Health blog (https://imhblog.wordpress.com/), to co-founding a network focused on engagement work (Early Career Researcher Youth And Public engagement on Self-harm (https://yapsecr.wordpress.com/) and hosting the first network symposium (#ECRYAPS16). Indeed many of the ideas discussed in this article originate from shared discussions with colleagues. Working with others gives you the chance to air and develop ideas, to maximise impact, and in many instances represents the only feasible means to achieving your aims and running your activity.
Tip 5: Dream big, find mentors
Your current involvement and engagement work may be an end unto itself. However, you might have a larger project in mind which you are working towards in incremental steps (e.g., acquiring the knowledge and experience you will need to submit a grant to support the larger project; piloting an idea to demonstrate the feasibility of a novel format for engagement before scaling up the event). Personally, I have found that (i) it is often helpful to have a goal to work towards, and (ii) it is often easier to develop a plan under the guidance of a well-selected mentor. There are some great involvement and engagement projects already underway, run by impressive and passionate people (who could be future collaborators). Reach out to those that inspire you – send them an e-mail or plan to catch up with them at a conference – and make use of this inspiration and expertise. By asking questions you might find that there are people in close proximity who are already doing a great job. Perhaps there will be a chance to hear about their work, or get involved in something they are working on. They may also be able to give you pointers about potential opportunities (e.g. grants). Never underestimate the value of great mentors.
Thank you to Sarah Joyce and Professor Ellen Townsend for feedback on this article. Thanks also to the presenters and attendees at #ECRYAPS16 for the discussions which prompted the writing of this piece.
 “Involvement in research refers to active involvement between people who use services, carers and researchers, rather than the use of people as participants in research (or as research ‘subjects’). Many people describe involvement as doing research with or by people who use services rather than to, about or for them.” (http://www.invo.org.uk/resource-centre/jargon-buster/page/2/?letter=I)
 Where information and knowledge about research is provided and disseminated, for example science festivals, open days, media coverage. (http://www.invo.org.uk/resource-centre/jargon-buster/?letter=E)
INVOLVE (2017). Jargon Buster, National Institute for Health Research. Retrieved from http://www.invo.org.uk/resource-centre/jargon-buster/ (accessed 22/2/2017).