Robert Richardson reflects on the process and value of entering [X]ceptional, an opportunity for students in College of Social Sciences to present their own original research on any element of climate change.
In the third year of my PhD I have found that I am often so focussed within the small and familiar world of my research that my thinking can become detached from the broader academic and social context to my work. Initiatives like [X]ceptional: The COP26 Challenge are a valuable way to press the ‘reset’ button, and entering the competition has been an opportunity to think more strategically about the broader social and policy relevance of my research.
The idea for my entry – a recorded presentation on how more sustainable places can be delivered through the planning system – developed from a talk I had previously given to an audience of social science doctoral researchers working across Scotland. The main challenge for me was how to adapt my material to a different audience; this time, a non-specialist audience from across the University of Glasgow. I knew I needed to explain key concepts clearly, and to refine my focus on the most important messages to communicate in fifteen minutes. Neither was straightforward given how easy it is to slip into academic jargon, and to feel the need to cram every possible idea into too short a time.
The relevance of the competition to a major current event, COP26, encouraged me to identify the wider impact my research could have. As responding to climate change is one aspect of my work, but is not necessarily the main focus, I was able to try material and ideas that are unlikely to form a major part of my PhD thesis. It was therefore useful to think about how I can ensure my work stays relevant to current affairs, and ultimately how it might form policymaking in the future.
As I am undertaking a collaborative PhD with a partner organisation – West Dunbartonshire Council – I have tried make sure my research reflects interests which appeal to both academic and practice communities. To strike this balance, I have previously co-authored a practice-oriented piece with a colleague at West Dunbartonshire Council, for the professional magazine of the Royal Town Planning Institute in Scotland. This was written to accompany an academic journal article published in Planning Theory and Practice. I also plan to produce a practice-oriented report of key findings alongside my PhD thesis in the coming months.
Given the different audiences for these professional and academic outputs, I was eager to enter [X]ceptional to practise designing outputs and to hone my communication skills. Although I knew I was entering an academic competition, I felt it was a safe environment in which to try things out. It can feel daunting to open your work to the scrutiny of others, which is a barrier to submitting conference papers or journal articles, for instance. But ‘[X]ceptional’ was a chance to trial different ideas and approaches, within a supportive academic environment.
The experience has certainly helped to grow my confidence in communicating my research. Over the last couple of years I’ve learnt that carrying out my PhD research and talking about my PhD research are different tasks requiring quite different skillsets. My involvement with [X]ceptional means I’ll be more confident in seeking out and taking further opportunities to engage others in my research, particularly through communicating with a wider audience.
[X]ceptional: The COP26 Challenge
The [X]ceptional: The COP26 Challenge initiative enabled students in students in the College of Social Sciences to engage in COP26, the global climate change conference held in Glasgow in November 2021.
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