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6 steps to generating academic impact: luck, The Guardian, and me.

 

On 27th December 2013, an article was published by The Guardian entitled ‘Apathetic and disaffected: the generation who may never vote’. To someone who studies the political participation of young people, the article would have been interesting anyway – but this one was particularly exciting (at least to me), because I, and my research, was quoted in it.

Getting our research discussed in the national press is a great thing to aim for. For a start, it is a clear example of ‘impact’, an increasingly important objective for any social researcher who wants funding or a job in academia.  Second, it allows for our work to be read by a far larger – and more diverse – audience than we could ever hope to reach through the more usual channels of academic communication. In particular, it exposes our work to people outside the ivory tower of academia, who might be able to make use of it; what’s the point of social research if it’s of no use to society?

The process that led to me getting quoted in The Guardian – or, more accurately, the series of coincidences and lucky breaks that gave me a chance at getting myself quoted in The Guardian – began with my supervisor, who generously passed an enquiry about young people’s voting behaviour from one of his contacts at a polling company onto me. The pollster was looking for some academics familiar with young people’s political behaviour to meet with an MP and discuss what, if anything, could be done to learn more about why they seem so unwilling to go to the polling station these days. After meeting with my supervisor’s contact at a conference, a few months later saw me sitting in the House of Commons discussing how we could learn more about young people’s relationship (or lack of) with British politics.

A few weeks later, I was contacted by Rowena Mason from The Guardian, who asked if we could discuss the work I’d been doing on young people and their political behaviour in Britain for an article she was writing. She’d spoken to the MP I had met with about her work in the area, who had recommended that Rowena speak to me. A few hours later I was interviewed over the phone, and on 27th December was showing it to very tolerant and patient colleagues and relatives.

The purpose of this blog post is not to brag about the fact that I got a mention in The Guardian (not entirely, at any rate), but to highlight the lessons I’ve learned about getting our research noticed by journalists and/or practitioners. This is not an easy task – it’s pretty clear that the most important factor that led to my experience was luck, followed closely by the generosity of my supervisor, his contact at the polling company, and the MP I met with. It’s also clear that this was not a linear or straight-forward process; it took a series of coincidences and recommendations between colleagues just to get my name on the list of people that Rowena Mason might have chosen to contact to research her article. In short, there is no simple, straight-forward way of getting noticed by journalists or politicians – it takes a lot of luck, and a lot of patience.

That being said, there are things that I think we can do to at least maximise the chances of our work being noticed, and particularly of making a good impression on the right people when the chance comes our way. This is still no guarantee of success, but is definitely a pre-requisite. So here’s my 6 lessons learned to maximise our chances of being lucky, and taking advantage when we are:

  1. Be nice to your colleagues and supervisor – you never know when they might be in a position to do you a big favour.
  2. Don’t break mirrors, walk under ladders and stay away from black cats – we need all the luck we can get.
  3. Never pass up an opportunity to find an opportunity; if someone wants to talk about your research, meet them, no matter how busy you are. You don’t have to agree to work with them this time around, but you never know what they’ll be doing in the future, or who they might speak to, which could present another opportunity down the line.
  4. Make yourself and your work as accessible as possible. Maintain an up to date web page with accurate contact information, make sure you have links to all the published work you can (e.g. conference papers, blog posts), and use every possible avenue to communicate your work (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, blog posts). Do anything you can to increase the chances of someone coming across you and your research – and of them quickly being able to determine if you’re the one they want to talk to – if they go looking for information in your field.
  5. Always make sure you can tell someone about your research, why it’s important, and why they should listen to you in under a minute, and in a straight-forward and clear way. If they can’t work out what you’re doing, why it matters or why it might be useful to them (or their readers) within a minute of encountering you – and without the need for a crash course in political theory or quantitative data analysis – chances are they’re not going to.
  6. If and when you have the chance to meet with someone to discuss your work, prepare, prepare and prepare. Make sure you familiarise yourself with whatever material you think is relevant (such as a pertinent news story, a policy relating to your research area, and particularly the articles or posts of yours they are likely to have read) so that you can easily and confidently answer their questions. The more impressed they are with you in that meeting, the more likely they are to remember you in future, and put their reputation on the line by recommending you to their own contacts.

Stuart Fox

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