Five reasons why early-stage PhD candidates should bother disseminating their research

A lecturer in front of a crowd

By Mari Lund Eide

Being an early-stage PhD Candidate is overwhelming – you are being socialized into a new workplace and culture, navigating emerging relationships with colleagues, supervisors, fellow PhD candidates, and trying to figure out how to balance the myriad of tasks coming your way. You are probably reading up on theory, working on your project design, and generally finding direction. Spending time on dissemination is perhaps your lowest priority at the moment – you have no findings, scarce expertise, and a few vague ideas (and lots of questions that you do not hold the answers to). But there are many reasons why new researchers could benefit from disseminating their research in the early stages of their project – here are five of them.

1. Stand on the shoulders of giants

In short, welcoming experts to comment on your project design in its early stages is scary but useful. As a newbie in the field, you might feel overwhelmed by the expertise and insights you’re presented with when attending seminars, conference presentations, or department talks. And that’s fine. It also makes perfect sense that senior researchers know more than you – they’ve spent years researching a topic that you’re just getting into. As opposed to you, they’ve had lots of time (perhaps decades) to dwell on past and relevant research, figure out eloquent formulations, and navigate the field and its players.

Avoid comparing yourself to other (more senior) researchers when attending a dissemination event and instead of focusing on everything you don’t know – spend your energy on focusing on what you can gain from putting yourself out there. Presenting your project design and inviting other researchers to comment on it in its early stages is frightening, but it is also an excellent chance to get relevant feedback and relevant input in a stage of your project where you’re trying to sort out a lot of confusing thoughts: It can lead you to interesting scholars and their publications, new concepts, interesting questions for your interview guide, or variables to include for your survey. If this is done in an interdisciplinary forum it may also challenge established paradigms and research traditions within your field that actually could benefit from some critical scrutiny.

However, I’m not saying you should incorporate every piece of advice presented to you – actually, reflecting upon and deciding to disregard advice can be useful too, as it allows you to become more certain of the choices you’ve already made and thus further strengthen your design. And remember – it’s your project – it shouldn’t and doesn’t have to incorporate all great ideas – just because someone more senior than you suggested them. Your interests and questions should decide its direction.

2. Sharing is learning – come up for air

Conducting research is an endless process of choice-making and revising. And although being an academic is a highly individual occupation we are dependent on the feedback of others throughout – both when it comes to writing and publishing, but also our professional growth. That human interactions serve as a starting point for learning is definitely not a new idea, and it’s not very contested either, but it may be easy to forget it when we’re digging ourselves deep into our own project. But burying your head in the sand, only spending time on reading up on theory and methodology without connecting to the outside world every now and again is counter-productive in the early stages of your project.

You sure learn by reading. But you also learn from preparing presentations, lectures, and talking about your project to different audiences. It allows you to dwell on your theoretical framework, central concepts, methodology, relevance for society – and so many other things. These cognitive processes have value in themselves as they allow you to synthesize and digest information in a very different way than when consuming literature.

You should also consider the fact that sharing your research with different target groups will open up to a variety of questions – some of which may be new to you and can lead you down interesting paths that you hadn’t considered previously – and never would have if you hadn’t actively sought out different audiences.

Lastly, I want to emphasize that dissemination doesn’t equal ‘sharing findings or conclusions’. Talks, lectures, or vlogs can also address theory or methodology alone – such as problematizing central theoretical concepts or methodological approaches. It can also be a way to scrutinize the questions that you are concerned with, why you want to do research on a particular field, or what exactly you’re trying to find out. If anything, it gives you some breathing room to ask important and defining questions about your own project.

Seeing dissemination as something else than ‘just informing the public about the conclusions we’ve arrived at’ can expand our understanding of ‘what dissemination is’. If we think about it as a reciprocal cycle of information and knowledge flow where research communities and the public participate, its potential for learning is infinite.

3. Go to whatever-town

This point is less about why you should disseminate, but rather how you could battle some of the barriers you may encounter when considering whether to disseminate as an early-stage PhD candidate. Choosing to disseminate obviously includes the risk of receiving criticism, which may damage the self-confidence of any fragile and insecure PhD candidate (or person, regardless of occupation).

Unfortunately, you can’t control other people’s reaction patterns, but while it may matter less what someone you’ve just met at a random seminar thinks, receiving harsh criticism from colleagues at your department or home institution can be rough. While some senior researchers are more aware of the fact that their position and knowledge may feel threatening to fresh PhD candidates, others are not – and it is while being blatantly judged (either by looks, comments, or body language) during dissemination events that the imposter syndrome kicks in.

However, it is also in these moments that early-stage researchers should remind themselves that there is a reason why they have been accepted to a PhD program: you do know something worth knowing although you didn’t excel in a particular moment. And remember: if senior researchers’ respond condescendingly to your ideas, unfinished arguments, and/or project design, that essentially puts them in a worse light than you – because you’re the one out there exposing your insecurities – and that takes some serious humbleness (that they obviously lack). So, dissemination in the early stages of your project is also about exposing yourself, your project’s weaknesses, and all the things you haven’t thought about – and that is ok. Your research, by default, is imperfect at this stage anyway, striving for perfection is therefore not an option. In other words, accept that your project, as a work in progress, has some kind of value in itself, regardless of the stage it’s currently in. Rude people will be rude. Rather focus on and seek out those who do provide you with constructive feedback!

4. A face to remember you (and your project) by

Disseminating research in relevant academic fora such as conferences, seminars, roundtables, or talks can be a great way to meet other researchers in your field – both from your own institution and from other institutions. And although it’s pretty scary to enter a room where you don’t know anyone or start mingling with a bunch of people you ‘know of’ but don’t really know, academic mingling is a crucial skill to cultivate over time. Introducing yourself to the pool of ‘researchers who do research on this specific issue’ is wise – and will also enable researchers from the same pool to remember you and your project for future occasions. Becoming a ‘well-known face’ will probably increase your chances of receiving invitations to present at other relevant events. Having a business card with your email address printed on it doesn’t hurt either. If you think the idea of ‘marketing yourself’ in this manner sounds revolting, at least consider asking researchers you meet at dissemination events for their email addresses, so that you can stay in touch digitally.

5. What suits me?

There are many ways to disseminate research: writing op-eds, blogging, running a Twitter account, teaching, conference presentations, talking to journalists – the options are countless. However, you don’t have to disseminate everywhere and through all available channels. If you start disseminating early and try out different modes of communication and interaction, you’re more likely to find your preferred platforms. Personally, I prefer popular scientific events or tweeting, which both give me a break from academic jargon. I like discussing and reflecting upon my project in an everyday language. I also like to incorporate aspects of my own project and ideas into lectures, which allows me to invite students to engage with my research.

So, consider the arenas available and choose platforms that suit you – or that you can benefit from somehow. Perhaps you need to practice your academic vocabulary or need theoretical input, then you might want to seek out the (potentially) harsh feedback from other, more senior academics in ‘full-fletched academic fora’ where other researchers comprise your main audience.

But if you’re more interested in connecting with the target groups for your research (for me that’d be teachers of English in Norway), perhaps a better option is to lecture for this particular group and invite them to share their perspectives, experiences, and reactions, all of which could be relevant for your project.

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